Should Every Kid Go to Preschool?

Deborah Stipek is a Professor of Education at Stanford, former Dean of the Graduate School of Education, and by all accounts very smart. She is one of the leading voices on early childhood education in America; she's been quoted in the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and she's published a handful of books. She was a guest speaker in the Policy, Organization, and Leadership Studies (POLS) Seminar class today. She gave a fascinating presentation on some challenges associated with early childhood education and pre-kindergarten.

My cohort is in the middle of working on our "POLS Challenge;" we were divided into groups of 3-4 (each person with personal experience in K-12, higher ed, non-profits, or ed. policy) and each group is tasked with solving the same problem: how do we extend preschool to a defined population of students in Santa Clara County? That's why Professor Stipek was our guest today. In the challenge, there is a competitive hypothetical grant funding opportunity between $5-20 million, but the program has to be self-sustaining by year six. There are a lot of questions to answer: who are you going to serve and why? Universal pre-k or targeted to specific demographic or geographic groups? How much will it cost? Who will pay for it and for how long? How much will you pay teachers and administrators? Will it be administered by the state, county, or districts? Will it be delivered by public, non-profit, or private entities?

That's just the beginning. I'm fascinated by it even though I have very little background in early childhood education (but I did take Child Services in high school and helped teach pre-school kids in the Tiny Timberwolves program -- one of my favorite classes).

We just started the challenge and I am far from an expert on the subject, but we've learned some fascinating information so far that I'm trying to digest and reconcile and put in perspective.

The thing that I'm trying to wrap my head around is the idea of "preschool fade-out," which is basically the phenomenon that preschool has a pretty significant and immediate impact on a child's achievement in the very short term (like when they finish pre-school or the next year) but the gains a student in pre-school has made relative to a child who did not attend pre-school disappear relatively quickly (around 3rd grade). Of course, this is not inevitable, and some really high-quality and well-designed programs have had demonstrable and lasting positive effects over a larger span of a child's development.

But this "fade-out" challenge is pretty widespread and well-documented, and it's often used as a knock against pre-k as a policy solution for addressing the achievement gap, which we know starts to happen before kids start school. Why would a policymaker want to pay for something that only demonstrates positive impacts for a year, if the positive impacts fade away and the kid is no better off in the long run?

Of course, this begs a lot of questions. 

Professor David Brazer, the Director of the POLS Program, interjected after the fade-out point had been made. "Why would we expect anything other than Pre-K fade-out?" he said. 

I didn't understand what he meant at first. Pre-K fade-out didn't make any sense to me -- how could academic gains disappear over time? But then it became pretty obvious. Professor Stipek has penned a really helpful article explaining it, and walked us through the reasons why pre-K fade-out happens. Think about: let's take a child, we'll call him Joe. Joe gets a great pre-K education with a great teacher, great program, and great curriculum. He shows significant gains. But when he gets to kindergarten, the curriculum isn't aligned, so his learning isn't building on the stuff he learned in pre-K. The kindergarten teacher has a massive range of student abilities in that classroom -- does she teach to the lowest common denominator? To the average? It's also possible that Joe is receiving just a generally low quality of instruction. There's also the question of how much academic content can reasonably be expected to be retained if the student's living conditions are challenging. What if he doesn't have regular access to food, or a regular place to sleep, or if he suffers from abuse or neglect, or he doesn't have access to health care? Do we really expect academic achievement to exist independent of all that? 

However, even if we accepted fade-out on its face as evidence that preschool gains are temporary, there's another fascinating set of data that proves preschool is a fantastic strategic investment that will yield mind-blowing economic gains, regardless of academic gains.

Here's an amazing excerpt from an article last month about a preschool program called Child-Parent Education Centers, a program in Chicago: "CPC has one of the highest economic returns of any public or private financial investment. Cost-benefit analyses have shown that for every dollar invested, more than $10 is returned in cost savings in the areas of remedial education and criminal justice, coupled with an increase in economic well-being and tax revenues. That is an inflation-adjusted annual return of 18 percent over a child's lifetime, a cumulative return of 900 percent.”

There have been other studies that have yielded similar results, including the Perry Preschool Project.

It makes a lot of sense.

What doesn't make sense is how slow we have been to adopt universal pre-K. I asked Professor Stipek in class about whether this fade-out phenomenon was seen regardless of socioeconomic status and geography. As in, do gains in wealthier, whiter students remain over time? My thinking was, if the gains remain constant in those students compared to their peers, then it would be clear that pre-school isn't the problem -- it's the transition to kindergarten, curriculum alignment, elementary instruction, and all sorts of non-academic factors that are to blame.

Her answer was fascinating and depressing. She said she couldn't think of any studies that have explored it -- she thought it would be nearly impossible to conduct because you wouldn't be able to find a control group. What does that mean? Anymore, almost every family with means is sending their students to pre-school -- so there's no way to compare those students to other students' who come from affluent families that didn't go to preschool. They all go to preschool.

That, to me, is argument enough for universal pre-k. This is about equity and fairness. Education should never be a system of haves and have-nots -- but that's what the early education landscape in America is today, and we should do something about it.