MDRC in the News

As Universal Pre-K Gathers Steam, What Are the Pros and Cons Experts See?

Deseret News


In an age of partisan contention, federal support for making prekindergarten classes available for all toddlers seems to be gaining steam with broad bipartisan support.

Universal pre-K is an integral part of President Joe Biden’s policy proposals targeting families, too. But critics question whether it’s the best option to close educational gaps between low-income and better-off children, or whether putting limited resources elsewhere would help struggling families and their children more…..

…..Even critics agree universal pre-K would boost women’s workforce participation and reduce gender-based workplace inequality. What’s in question is whether the effort would provide enough long-term benefits to children to justify the cost or if expanding tax credits or offering a child allowance would help families with children more……

…..But even skeptics say studies find kids in pre-K are more ready to attend kindergarten. That means kindergarten teachers needn’t spend so much time getting kids used to being in school and showing them how to behave. Plus, children will have learned basic concepts like letter formation, the alphabet, colors and shapes in preschool.

Critics say those benefits don’t last, a problem when society invests heavily in a program. Eden calls it “fadeout,” where children who didn’t go to preschool catch up with pre-K-educated peers by about second or third grade, depending on the skill.

Others say that criticism is overblown. Of course the advantage of knowing basic skills fade when others learn them, said Meghan McCormick, a research associate at MDRC, a New York-based nonpartisan social and education policy research group. Kids will learn basics like letter shape by the end of preschool if they attend; otherwise, they’ll know it by the end of kindergarten.

But she said kids who go to high-quality pre-K programs do better than others in terms of more complex learning, like vocabulary use, problem-solving or critical thinking. Those skills aren’t as easy to teach as how to recognize the letter N or the color blue, but they also better predict long-term benefits.

“At this point in our economy, more so than ever during this pandemic, it has been made abundantly clear that parents rely on early childhood education to work. And it’s not necessarily a realistic idea that we’re going to go back to a world where parents don’t work and kids are home with their parents,” McCormick said.

Eden and other critics don’t doubt findings from early studies that drive support of universal pre-K, but they say the studies are too old to be relevant today and they focused on a small group of severely disadvantaged kids. One that’s often cited, for instance, took a small group of kids and poured a lot of resources into their preschool experience. He notes universal pre-K is probably not comparable. Some studies are now decades old, as well, while the world has changed.

Proponents including McCormick counter that the biggest change since the older studies were published is how many families have two parents who must work to afford the cost of living. That means the need for high-quality programs for children has really grown…..

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