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Which Children Benefit Most from Publicly-Funded Preschool?

A new study finds that boys benefit more, but all kids need subsidized access.

Key points

  • A new study finds that subsidized preschool benefits all children equally, whether at-risk or middle-class.
  • Children who attend preschool have better behavioral and social outcomes, even if their academic performance is not improved.
  • Long-term, these findings suggest, there is a significant return on investment from subsidies for early childhood education.

As the Biden administration considers the possibility of providing a national preschool program for 3- and 4-year-olds, it is worth pondering whether there is much to be gained, given the enormous cost. I’ll admit I have been skeptical of a universal program. My clinical experience tells me that the subsidies for such programs tend to disproportionately benefit those with enough financial means to pay for extra schooling on their own. After all, a large portion of the funding will go to families who already have the financial means to start their children in school earlier. I’m rethinking that opinion now, based on some emerging evidence. In this case, it seems that the phrase “a high tide raises all boats” might be just as true for children receiving subsidized early childhood education as it is for fishers at the wharf.

A recent study by Gray-Lobe and his colleagues at MIT made use of data from children who literally “won the lottery” and were chosen to attend Boston’s pre-kindergarten programs from 1997-2003. The results are fascinating, with those children provided free access to preschool being more likely to attend and complete college when compared with children who were randomly denied access to the pre-kindergarten subsidy. This same positive pattern holds for rates of suspension from school and incarceration during adolescence.

The results sound promising, and they are, though proponents of accessible early education will be disappointed to see that the extra schooling did little to improve test scores or academic performance overall. What did change were social adjustment and behavior, building blocks of good character which are in turn the bedrock of child development. In other words, that time in preschool seems to have taken children away from their television sets and placed them into a social environment where adults taught them how to behave and how to solve problems, lifelong skills many children struggle to learn.

The other bit of news from the study was that boys accounted for far more of the positive outcomes than girls, meaning that it’s our boys who are likely to benefit most from early childhood education. Results like these make it difficult to not think in stereotypes. Rambunctious little boys and docile little girls are the stuff of 1950s films, and yet the evidence that boys need the calming, focused attention of early schooling seems to have merit.

While that result may be a bit off-putting to some, there was surprisingly good news when it came to social class and race. Perhaps it was just a function of this being a study in Boston, or maybe an artifact of the study's design, but there were no significant differences in outcomes over time for children from poor versus rich families and no discernible differences for children of different racial backgrounds. This is where I was most skeptical of the results, as I had expected there to be a differential impact of preschool on children’s development outcomes, with those children who were most at risk growing up benefiting the most from the opportunity to start their education earlier. The results, though, are solid.

If all children who received the preschool benefited equally, then it is clear that all children need preschool. This pushes me reluctantly toward a universal program as it avoids the messy means testing and barriers to participation that many vulnerable families experience when they try to access programs designed to help them. It also destigmatizes subsidized preschool, as all children benefit from the experience. If a subsidy to wealthier families feels wrong, the solution is simple: Make the subsidy taxable, but make sure even middle-class families are incentivized to take advantage of preschool when it is available.

All of this leads to a reasonably clear conclusion. When we look at the high rates of incarceration and social problems in the U.S., and the cost of housing, policing, and supervising all those individuals who are marginalized by unequal opportunities, then the return on investment from pre-kindergarten education could be just what politicians and educators need to dramatically change social outcomes.

The challenge now will be whether the public will listen and see it in their best interest to pay for a service that not everyone will use. If social harmony is one of the measured outcomes, then it would seem the answer is obvious: Fund early childhood education. Even though academic performance doesn’t improve when children attend preschool, their behavior and their attendance at college does.

References

Gray-Lobe, G., Pathak, P., & Walters, C. (May, 2021). The long-term effects of universal preschool in Boston. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.

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