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Preschool effects greatest for those who need it most

By Camilla Benbow

(Originally printed in The Tennessean on March 27, 2013)

President Barack Obama has proposed expanded preschool for 4-year-olds below 200 percent of the poverty line. In my previous column, I referred to generally supportive research analysis by W. Steve Barnett of Rutgers University and the National Institute for Early Education Research.

Barnett was among several scholars who spoke last week at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College about the effects of early childhood programs like preschool and Head Start. Others were Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution; Jeanne Brooks-Gunn of Teachers College, Columbia University; and Dale Farran of Peabody College and the Peabody Research Institute. Video of the event is available at

Panelists brought unique perspectives to the questions at hand: whether research tells us definitively if early childhood programs benefit children, whether those benefits last, whether the benefits outweigh the costs, and which program features are likely to produce the desired social and educational effects.

Another factor is the policymaking environment in Washington, in which empirical evidence is often ignored. Ron Haskins was clear in his belief that the lack of economic opportunity is the No. 1 public policy problem the U.S. faces and that education is the solution. To its credit, the Obama administration has placed more emphasis on using evidence in program design than have prior administrations. It also has demanded better results from longtime programs such as Head Start.

Other speakers agreed that expanded access to quality early education can yield both cognitive and social benefits for our most disadvantaged children.

While critics of expanded preschool argue that their cognitive effects fade out after the first few years of schooling, they ignore a body of longer-term evidence that indicates impoverished students who experience a high-quality preschool program are less likely to repeat grades, to spend time in special education, to become teen parents or to get arrested. They are more likely to finish high school, attend college, earn a higher income than their comparison group, and be in better physical health.

Critics also have tended to rely for their arguments on studies of Head Start. They correctly point out that these programs by and large have yielded only meager (and disappearing) effects. In response, Jeanne Brooks-Gunn stated that Head Start programs are very heterogeneous, that Head Start teachers receive less training and professional development, and that many programs are only half-day programs. Moreover, relatively few Head Start students attend for even half the days in a year. When it comes to preschool, dosage matters.

Brooks-Gunn also noted that preschool programs make the biggest difference for children from the lowest income levels. Children from families with higher educational attainment are less likely to benefit.

The president’s program, which is hardly universal, is correctly aimed at those children who will benefit the most and who have the most to lose.

Camilla P. Benbow is Patricia and Rodes Hart Dean of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. Her column on education appears every other Thursday in The Tennessean Local section.