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Back to November Ed Reporter
Education Reporter
NUMBER 202 THE NEWSPAPER OF EDUCATION RIGHTS NOVEMBER 2002

Can Science Justify Preschool?
By Verne Bacharach, Ph.D. About 20 states have initiated or are in the process of initiating free pre-K programs for children in low-income families. These programs are enormously expensive. In my home state of North Carolina, the Smart Start program will cost over $300 million a year when fully implemented. The state of Alabama is trying to start a program called Kidstuff, essentially a replication of Smart Start, and it too is projected to cost about $300 million when fully funded. These are government estimates, so we know that the actual cost will be considerably higher.

What is the scientific justification for these programs and is there any reason to support them? The primary rationale is educational. People talk about "school readiness." The argument is that children who go through these programs will be better prepared for school. The theory is that they will be intellectually more advanced and their behavioral development will be improved. In reality, these programs are simply free babysitting.

Most states offer additional rationales, including that the programs teach better parenting skills. But I can tell you that these programs do not improve the parenting skills of parents who need it most. There is also a health component, but evidence indicates that children in pre-K programs are actually less healthy than children raised at home. All pre-K programs have plans for creating public awareness, but if you read the promotional brochures, you'll notice that they are little more than political indoctrination.

Scientific Evidence?  
Is there any scientific evidence to suggest that pre-K care programs affect the school readiness of children?

The only research method that can definitively determine if there is a relationship between pre-K care and the intellectual and behavioral development of children is the randomized trial longitudinal method. This method has two important components. The first is that children be divided into two groups prior to the pre-K care experience: one group that is exposed to pre-kindergarten care (the pre-K group), and one that is not (the control group). This is an important step because all research subjects must be theoretically the same in intellectual functioning and behavioral development, etc. The second component is to assess the children over a period of time (longitudinal). This is important because an effect of pre-K care at one point in time might disappear later on.

Only five studies during the past 30 years have used this research methodology. Four of the studies have been published in scientific publications, one has only been presented in a private publication. Data from these studies will be used by states to justify tax-funded pre-K center care programs.

The Abecedarian Project is the single most important pre-K care study ever conducted. The University of North Carolina did the study and it is the only one ever published in scientific literature suggesting that pre-K care can improve the intellectual functioning of children.

There were about 100 children involved, primarily from low income, African-American families. This study is a very long longitudinal study, begun in the early 1980s, and researchers are continuing to follow those individuals in adulthood. It is unquestionably the most extensive study ever done in this area and is the principal study on which the others are based.

According to the authors, at three years of age the children in the pre-K group had significantly higher levels of intellectual functioning than the children in the control group. They also found that the children in the pre-K group had significantly more behavioral problems than the children in the control group. At 21 years of age, the adults who had been in the pre-K group still had higher IQs compared to the adults who had been in the control group. But there are some serious problems with this study.

All the children had their IQs measured before they were sorted into the two study groups. The average IQ difference between the children placed in the pre-K group compared to those in the control group was six points. At age 21, the IQ difference was still six points. During the first few years of the study, the pre-K children's IQs began increasing relative to the children in the control group, but by the time they were about six years old, the differences had begun to decrease.

We find in many cases that the intellectual functioning of children will increase for a time when they are exposed to pre-K care, but by the time they enter first grade, that difference dissipates. The other problem is that, contrary to expectations, the children in the pre-K group were more likely to need special education than the children in the control group.

Although the Abecedarian study is ballyhooed as showing unequivocally that pre-K care programs have a positive effect on children's intellectual development, it probably doesn't really show that.

Project Care & IHDP 
There are two other studies that used exactly the same procedures as the Abecedarian Project, called Project Care and the Infant Health and Development Project (IHDP). Project Care was done by the same researchers at the same location as the Abecedarian Project, using children from the same population in the Chapel Hill area of North Carolina. Both Project Care and the IHDP failed to find any effect on the intellectual development of the children, and researchers didn't measure the behavioral differences.

Perhaps the most sophisticated of these studies was the IHDP, which was done using low-birth weight, pre-term children. These children tend to be more at risk for poor cognitive development than normal birth weight children. The authors of this study sorted the children into two groups - again a pre-K group and a control group - and followed them over a fairly long period of time.

In the early 1990s, they reported data on these children at three years of age in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). The published report claimed that the children in the pre-K group had significantly higher IQs than the children in the control group. A colleague and I managed to obtain the raw data this report was based on. After re-analyzing the data, we began writing a paper to show that the authors' conclusions were probably premature, that there was very little evidence that the effects they were reporting had anything to do with pre-K care.

While we were writing our paper, the authors of the study published an article reporting data gathered on the children at five years of age. Suddenly, the difference in intellectual development between the pre-K group and the control group was very small, but the authors insisted it was still statistically significant. When researchers start relying heavily on statistical significance, your ears should perk up, because it probably means there is no practical significance at all. In fact, the difference in IQs between these two groups at that point was meaningless in a practical sense.

Peculiarly, at the bottom of one of the pages of the article was a footnote indicating that the researchers had placed other research data pertaining to the study into an archive at the University of Michigan. We wrote the university and got the data.

Incredibly, the archived data indicated that there was no statistically significant difference in the IQs between the two groups of children! These researchers had published the data that showed there was a statistically significant difference between the groups and archived the data that showed there was no significant difference. We included the archived data in our article and had it published.

The authors of the IHDP study wrote another report based on the children at eight years of age, concluding that "although it is hypothesized that the effects of early intervention (pre-K care) is most evident in the prevention of school failure, no differences were found in the children who repeated a grade or needed special education."

Thus, two attempts to replicate the Abecedarian study - one by the same people who conducted it - failed to do so, although in science it is very important that such effects can be replicated. Although the IHDP was a state-of-the-art project involving 900 children, you won't hear much about it. The first article on IHDP published in the JAMA received a lot of mainstream press, but when the second report appeared stating that pre-K care has no effect on children, we heard nothing about it.

The Perry Preschool Project  
There is another study that you will hear a lot about: the Perry Preschool Project. According to the researchers, not only did this pre-K program increase the intellectual functioning of the children, the increase was dramatic. In addition, they claimed it dramatically decreased the number of individuals who later had trouble with the law. In contrast, the Abecedarian Project found no effect at all on criminal behavior.

Based on the Perry findings, researchers have done cost-benefit analyses purporting to show that pre-K programs reduce crime and its cost to society. Of course, these analyses are often outrageous. Nevertheless, states buy into them, and the justification for the Kidstuff program in Alabama is based almost entirely on the findings of the Perry Preschool Project. If you read the documents promoting Kidstuff, they are filled with the results of this project.

Yet the Perry Preschool Project findings have never been reported in any scientific journal or any scientific outlet of any kind. The only reason we know about it is because the researchers started their own publication company, published their own technical reports and their own books. Then they commercialized their project, selling it to states and school districts. Their book, in my opinion, is nothing but an infomercial for their commercial operation. The fact that the study has never been published in any scientific outlet tells me that it is not science.

Taken together, what do all these studies tell us? The first thing is that pre-K care programs have no effect on the intellectual development of children. There is no convincing evidence that you can raise children's IQs by having them attend these programs. There is no evidence that pre-K programs improve school readiness or that they lead to increased academic achievement. At best, pre-K care programs don't appear to have any effect on children's behavioral development, although there is some evidence that these programs may increase the risk of behavior problems.

The Bottom Line  
Why the rush by politicians, scientists, government bureaucrats, and others to promote these programs? Why not give parents vouchers for free babysitting?

One answer is that politicians are looking for votes. Some of them may actually believe pre-K care programs work and are trying to help their constituents. Some are probably cynics and want to advance their political careers on the backs of children. Others may be ideologues who believe the state is a better parent than parents. Some may even believe these programs represent an opportunity to politically indoctrinate young children.

As for the scientists, I know they know better. When they promote these programs, they are either trying to further their professional careers - because there's a lot of money involved - or they may have an ideological agenda. In most cases, I think their motivation is power and money.

There is a very important political movement afoot in the United States to fund pre-K center care, to get the federal government to fund these programs and, among some people, to make them mandatory. A lot of well-meaning parents, when told that pre-K care will help their children, vote for the politicians who support it. Then there are the welfare recipients who support the programs because they will gain financially from them.

Pre-K care programs are filled with fund allocations that have nothing to do with helping young children, but they are important because they buy votes, and votes buy power, and votes buy money. Included in the allocations for Kidstuff in Alabama are the following: $377,000 for a state board, $225,000 for an audit team, $120,000 to create a form, $200,000 to set up a website, $2 million for an inspection service, $175,000 to create a rating system and, for some reason, $200,000 to prevent teen pregnancy. You know what that means; $200,000 will buy a lot of condoms. Then they'll spend at least $900,000 on their public awareness campaign and $1.2 million for a so-called parent training kit.

Pre-K center care programs do not help children. They harm children in a general way because, if the limited state and federal funds available for children's programs are squandered on programs that do not help children, then these funds will not be available for programs that do help children.

Pre-K center care programs help politicians, parents looking for free babysitting and unscrupulous educators and psychologists, but not children.

Dr. Bacharach is a professor and researcher in the Dept. of Psychology at Appalachian State University in North Carolina.


 
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