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Straight Talk on Preschool as Job Training

A lot of early ed folks have been tweeting and recommending this recent NPR story that calls preschool "the best job training program," provoking a lot of eye-rolling on my part. Look—I support high-quality pre-k as much as anyone. There's strong evidence that the "soft skills" James Heckman talks about matter tremendously for labor market and life outcomes (and I wish we talked about them more in K-12, too!), and that high-quality pre-k improves children's educational and life outcomes—particularly for low-income kids. All well and good.

But, even stipulating all that, calling preschool "the best job training program," or implying it's a response to today's economic woes, is just a non sequitur. Last I heard, child labor was still illegal in the U.S., and even Tea Party ideologues haven't made the case to change that. So we're looking at a decade, minimum, before today's preschoolers are even allowed to take part-time jobs a Dairy Queen, and hopefully several more years than that before they complete their educations and enter the job market in earnest. And, when that happens, their labor market outcomes will be determined not just by their own human capital and skills, but also by what happens in terms of economic and job growth now, and over the next 15+ years. In other words, by the actual job strategies policymakers use to help spur growth and create jobs today.

There are real reasons to be concerned that the United States is not doing a good enough job of developing its human capital, and that we are falling behind other nations in this regard. And pre-k should be a key part of any strategy for fixing that. But that doesn't change the fact that pre-k is a long-term investment, that takes years--even decades--to generate its full returns.* Depending on how it's done, investing in pre-k would have some multiplier effects that would help the currently unemployed (as would any public spending), but it's in no way a direct response to the current job challenge, and pre-k advocates do everyone a disservice by pretending it is. The evidence for the benefits pre-k actually does create is strong enough--we don't need to also pretend it's also a magical office productivity solution, a beautiful landscape, a dalmatian, and a tasty breakfast drink!

*In fairness, cost-benefit analyses do suggest that about 75% of the cost of pre-k get recouped during children's K-12 schooling through reduced grade retention and special education expenditures.

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