Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The False Choice: Preschool is Not Enough

The False Choice: Preschool is Not Enough
By Don Siegel

By now, most people probably agree that universal preschool is a good thing despite continuing debate about how we should fund it. As an investment, economist James Heckman, estimates that preschoolers attending high quality programs can expect their future earnings as adults to increase by 17%. Others have also shown that preschool attendance is positively associated with subsequent 8th grade achievement scores and future employability. When outcomes are monetized, economists project that for every dollar invested in preschool programs; eight are returned.

Interwoven in this narrative is the belief that remediation later on is not cost effective, as the vast array of programs for adolescents and young adults have failed to alter trajectories started before a child arrives at kindergarten.  Given such data, crafting and funding a national initiative for high quality universal preschool certainly makes sense. But as parents, and professionals who have worked with underserved adolescents, most of whom have not been to preschool, and many of whom attend struggling schools, we have another take on what kids need, and when they need it. 

Yes, it's great to plant a seed in enriched soil, provide it with ample moisture and sunlight, and get it to sprout. But, as any gardener knows, a sprout rarely reaches maturity if it isn't nurtured.  While we fully support universal high quality preschool, we also feel uneasy about ending the discussion there, and simply expecting the oft-reported short and longer-term academic, social and economic benefits to materialize years latter through some mysterious process. 

In contrast to those who seem certain that remediation latter is not cost effective, we respectfully disagree.  Over the years we have worked with many troubled adolescents who learned how to thrive by becoming part of a caring community and engaging in an array of activities that were meaningful to them. As a by-product of such experiences they acquired resilience skills, while being nudged by caring adults, on a daily basis, to stay focused and committed to pursing positive personal goals. New research is corroborating our anecdotal observations. A recent report from the National Bureau of Economic Research examined the impact of a fairly modest lifeskills and tutoring program on the lives of underserved 9th and 10th grade boys attending a Chicago school. Results show that the program increased expected high school graduation rates by 14%, reduced the achievement gap in math by 60%, reduced overall course failures by 66%, and increased GPA by about half a letter grade. This was all achieved for about $4,400 per student, which compares favorably with the costs associated with the Perry Preschool Program, from which many of the early childhood policy initiatives are derived. Researchers projected that for every $100 spent in this program, between $3,600 to $34,000 was returned.

Given these new data, it seems that we may have been a bit premature in concluding that interventions that attempt to alter the life trajectories of underserved youth as late as the early teenage years are not effective. These new data also lead us to the inevitable question about when in a child’s development is the optimal time to provide enhanced support to produce current and future academic viability, good citizenship, and enhanced life prospects. Some contend that early interventions are best because preschoolers are believed to have greater neuroplasticity. Alternatively, the Chicago group argues that later interventions may have a greater impact since they occur closer to when important outcomes, such as high school graduation, or avoidance of serious antisocial activities take place.

While we are sure that there will be many who engage in a lively and provocative debate on whether it is more advantageous and cost effective to intervene early or late, we do not see this as a Hobson’s choice. Early intervention does not preclude later interventions and vice versa. Like sowing a seed and making certain that it thrives, youth need support early and continuously throughout their lives.

While policy wonks and politicians discuss how best to enhance the well-being and future trajectories of underserved kids, many of us have grown weary of the back and forth debates about such things as vouchers, charter schools, themed schools, smaller schools, standardized tests, and teacher evaluations. Today’s kids need support today in all aspects of their lives, not just early in their lives, later on, or within just a narrow subset of academic capacities.