Calls for more intensive early childhood education programs often accompany studies revealing that American students lag behind their international peers. A new report from the Goldwater Institute, however, questions the benefits of universal state-funded preschool and full-day kindergarten.
While many American educators point to European models of preschool as ideal, the decentralized American system seems to be performing well. American fourth-graders outperform their international peers in literacy, mathematics, and science. By eighth grade, American students fall in the middle. By twelfth grade, American students outrank only three countries out of 21 tested: Lithuania, Cyprus, and South Africa.
There is no evidence that government-run preschool and kindergarten would prepare students any better than the current system. Moreover, the Goldwater Institute warns, a mandatory, centralized early education program shifts childcare from parents to government.
“Fundamentally, the preschool and kindergarten debate is not about the effectiveness or expense of the programs,” the report reads. “At the heart is the question of in whose hands the responsibility for young children should rest.”
The motivation for widespread early education is the notion that American children are unprepared to enter school. However, according to the institute, American children enter school with the necessary skills. A federal initiative, Goals 2000, determined school readiness using two factors: preschool participation and reading in a child’s home. Today, far more children attend preschool than in the past, and more young children are being read to and taught letters and numbers in an informal setting.
When a child enters a formal preschool or full-day kindergarten setting, he will leave that program with only a slight advantage over his peers who did not. Moreover, this difference disappears by the end of third grade. While the gain is transient, the harm done by formal preschool education affects a child’s total educational experience. “Formal early education can be detrimental to mainstream children,” according to the report. Early formal education “can permanently damage a child’s self-esteem, reduce a child’s natural eagerness to learn, and block a child’s natural gifts.”
Current state-supported preschool programs do not benefit poor children in a significant way. While there is no evidence that these programs may harm the underprivileged—as is possible among the middle class—there is evidence that suggests the benefits are short-lived. Head Start, a government-run preschool program for poor children, serves around a half-million children. Its purpose was to “prevent delinquency, poverty, and welfare use,” according to the Goldwater Institute. Now, however, as the report indicates, “In the long run, cognitive and socioemotional test scores of former Head Start students do not remain superior to those of disadvantaged children who did not attend Head Start.”
American early education is doing its job—the failures come in later years. “Unless or until the elementary and secondary school system is improved, it is unlikely that preschool or kindergarten will lead to a measurable improvement in school achievement,” the report observes.
Many legislators view preschool as a necessary foundation for a child’s education and have pushed comprehensive early education programs. Former Senator Zell Miller has expressed his belief that a preschool foundation is more important than 12th grade, and DC councilman Kevin Chavous has proposed mandatory preschool in the District. The Goldwater Institute’s report comes in response to a proposal from the Arizona governor to adopt “more government and preschool programs.”
Larry Scholer is a staff writer at Accuracy in Academia.