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Preschool in the Hot Seat

When any educational program is evaluated, it's imperative to first ask what its original goals were. I cannot emphasize this point enough. Preschool is an example. Lost in the debate is that Head Start, which is the most well known of these programs, was never intended to be primarily academic. Instead, it was designed to help prepare disadvantaged children for school. Since President Obama in his State of the Union address called for high-quality preschool for all 4-year-olds, I think it's an opportune time to look more deeply into the issue.

The usual argument against Head Start is that its benefits fade by the third grade. At least that's what the Department of Health and Human Services found in its study of 5,000 3-and 4-year-olds in 84 local Head Start programs. But the study focused on cognitive gains. I agree that these are vital outcomes to assess, but at the same time I don't think these are the only results that need to be evaluated. Doesn't social and emotional development also count? Let's not forget we're talking about very young children. In high school, we commit a similar error in overlooking affective outcomes. Yet we know that long after knowledge is forgotten, attitudes remain. Wouldn't preschool be the ideal time to address the issue?

The other criticism of Head Start is its uneven quality. There's no question that not all local programs are high quality. The gold standard in this regard is the Perry Elementary School program in Ypsilanti, Mich. that began in 1962. A longitudinal study of 123 preschoolers who were randomly assigned to treatment and control groups found "lifetime effects." These included higher employment and home ownership rates, and lower dropout and arrest rates. A more recent study by the National Institute for Early Education Research concluded that every dollar spent on preschool saves about $7 on spending on remedial education and crime. However, not all states with preschool programs report similar encouraging results, and not all states have the same percentage of children enrolled ("Few States Look to Extend Preschool to All 4-Year-Olds," The New York Times, Feb. 14).

Taxpayers are entitled to know if preschool is worthwhile supporting. Taking into consideration all aspects, I say the answer is yes. The long-term cost to the country if preschool were eliminated is unthinkable. But I urge close monitoring.

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