State of the Union Statistics Mislead on Preschool Benefits

Karen R. Effrem, MD, Education Liberty Watch

In the State of the Union speech, President Obama put forth the idea that America should spend hundreds of billions of dollars on universal preschool for four year old children and further expand government intervention in the lives of all American families. He justified this grandiose idea by trying to say that there are supposedly positive effects in universal preschool states or because preschool supposedly yields a return on investment.  Read on to find out why his statements don’t hold water and why universal preschool is such a bad idea.

President Obama is clearly ramping up his vision for government involvement in the lives of all American citizens based on the State of the Union speech and this White House Fact Sheet:

“As part of that effort, the President will propose a series of new investments that will establish a continuum of high-quality early learning for a child – beginning at birth and continuing to age 5.  By doing so, the President would invest critical resources where we know the return on our dollar is the highest: in our youngest children.”

It used to be, not all that long ago that statements like this elicited either high levels of mocking scorn or great anger. Sadly, the more and more people seem to be willing to accept government benefits without counting the financial or freedom cost.  Let us analyze what the president had to say in his speech about preschool to show why this idea is no where as good as it sounds:

“But none of it will matter unless we also equip our citizens with the skills and training to fill those jobs.”  

This is not government’s job.  The US Constitution is silent on the issue of education, which means that according to the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the job of education belongs to states and the people, most especially parents.

“And that has to start at the earliest possible age. You know, study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road.”

This is not true either.  According to the 15 pages of research summaries, quotes and charts, compiled on our site under the heading Studies on Effectiveness of Early Childhood Programs, there are eight large-scale studies showing evidence of actual emotional harm for children involved in schooling too early.  These studies were conducted at prestigious institutions like MIT, Standford, and the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development.  Here is one example:

“On average, the report finds that the earlier a child enters a preschool center, the slower his or her pace of social development, while cognitive skills in pre-reading and math are stronger when children first enter a preschool program between the ages of two and three.”

But today, fewer than three in ten 4-year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program.”

Quality is in the eye of the beholderThe government idea of quality is a program that teaches a state required radical curriculum so that three and four year olds will learn about careers, environmentalism, social activism and gender identity.  (See Evidence on Effectiveness of Quality Rating Systems and Dayton DOE Admits Plan to Control Preschool Curriculum via State & Federal Funds     

 ”Most middle-class parents can’t afford a few hundred bucks a week for private preschool.

It is probably good for their children that middle class parents can’t afford preschool, because some of the studies I mentioned above actually show greater harm to children in middle and upper class families. Here is more information about the large Stanford study:

“The biggest eye-opener is that the suppression of social and emotional development, stemming from long hours in preschool, is felt most strongly by children from better-off families,” said UC Berkeley sociologist and co-author Bruce Fuller.”

“And for poor kids who need help the most, this lack of access to preschool education can shadow them for the rest of their lives. So, tonight, I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America.”

It is not the lack of preschool that “shadows” poor children.  It is the lack of two parents.  As we and many others have repeatedly stated, being from single parent families results in almost every bad social outcome that can be named – poor academic performance, crime, drug and alcohol abuse, early sexual activity, and suicide.  We have also repeatedly quoted the failure of preschool programs like Head Start.  More importantly though, we have repeatedly highlighted the research of Dr. William Jeynes of the University of California at Santa Barbara who found:

Using “data from the National Educational Longitudinal Survey to examine the impact of student religious commitment and living in intact families on academic achievement among black and Hispanic 12th graders. Students with intact families and high levels of religiosity scored as well as all white students on most achievement measures and higher than their black and Hispanic counterparts without intact families or high religiosity.”

“Every dollar we invest in high-quality early childhood education can save more than seven dollars later on, by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime.”

Although the rates of these social problems for preschool attenders are portrayed as statistically significantly improved compared to controls by proponents, the practical significance of these programs is highly questionable.  As we stated in our analysis of the highly touted study showing supposed long-term benefits of the Chicago Parent Child Centers:

There were several differences reported as statistically significant between the group that had preschool (CPC) and the non-preschool group, but as reported by Lindsey Tanner of the Associated Press, the overall results for these kids are still “dismal:” Here are some of those differences that really need to be examined as to whether they are practically significant and worth the cost and government expansion of preschool programs (The first number is for the preschool CPC kids and the second number is for the comparison group):

Highest grade completed (12.15 vs. 11.88) – This is less than a third of one year difference or less than a semester.

Attendance in a 4-year college (14.7% vs. 11.2%) – This is only a 3.5% difference.

Average annual income in 2007 dollars ($11,582 vs. $10,796) – As noted in the AP story above, both groups, were earning less than $12,000 per year with the preschool group earning only $786 more.

The study admits, “No differences were detected for degree completion, employment, or a combined measure.”

Any arrest (47.9% vs. 54.3%) – Also pointed out in the AP story above, around half of both groups were arrested, though the preschool group was 6% lower.

The study also admits,“No differences were detected for the number of arrests, arrests for violence, or convictions. School-age and extended intervention were unrelated to justice involvement. For public aid and family outcomes, no meaningful differences were found.”

“In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children – like Georgia or Oklahoma – studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, form more stable families of their own.”

We are not sure what studies the president is using to make these rather grandiose claims about the effects of the universal preschool programs in Georgia and Oklahoma, but here the facts that we documented in our report Preschool Actually Harms Reading Achievement: 


Oklahoma is the state with the highest percentage of children in the nation enrolled in their pre-K program and the highest quality rating scores according to the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER – see page 4 of PDF).The program started in 1980 and went universal in 1988. Oklahoma went from having  NAEP 4th grade reading scores above the national average in 1992 to being below the national average every time the test was taken since then. The 2010 graphs from the NAEP organization showed that 72 percent of Oklahoma fourth graders are reading below their grade level proficiency. The Tulsa World reported that the same NAEP data also showed ”more than four out of five children from low-income families fail to reach the proficiency level in the 4th grade reading.”   


Their preschool program began in 1993 and went universal in 1995. It overall ranking for quality and access is 3rd in the nation according to NIEER (page 4 of PDF) with 58% of their children participating in the government program.Before, during and since this massive and expensive 15 year preschool expansion, Georgia’s 4th grade reading NAEP scores have remained below the national average.  State data  (p. 70 of pdf) through the first grade showed that children involved in a private program or those who were raised at home did the best academically and that students enrolled in the [Georgia] Head Start program “consistently tested below the national norm and significantly behind their peers” by the end of first grade.

This analysis and the president’s speech do not even mention the grand failure of programs like Head Start, the high cost of these programs and our severe deficits and spending problems at both the state and federal levels.

We listed the following conclusions about the Chicago preschool study that could easily be applied to much, if not all, of the early childhood research mentioned by the president and used by advocates of an expansive cradle to grave nanny state:

1)     The differences between the preschool group and the comparison group while considered by Reynolds and Co. as being statistically significant are not really practically significant as far as eradicating poverty or producing graduates that can be self-sustaining without government aid.

2)      The economic yield is questionable at best and strongly negative at worst if one considers small marginal income increases for preschool participants, the still high rates of arrest and incarceration, and the lack of differences at all in many other areas compared to the high costs of the program over and above the already high costs for regular K-12 public education in Chicago.

3)      The very important factor of parental involvement in academic and other success was not really considered in the Reynolds research as to whether it was the preschool program, the parental involvement aspect, some combination, or something else that was responsible for the small improvements that did occur.

4)      The study also fails to adequately discuss the strongly negative effects of being raised in a single parent family and does not really analyze the differences in academics and life course between those in the study that are from single parent families and those who are from intact families.

5)      Even if one believed that the preschool program itself was responsible for the the stated improvements and that they are actually significant, the funding sources from both the state and federal governments are under tremendous pressure due to very high deficits and unsustainable spending patterns.

Our next update will explain the very real cost and dangers to freedom and parental autonomy as well as the financial costs to taxpayers from these programs and how the president means to implement them. Stay tuned.

The Moral Liberal Guest Editor, Dr. Karen R. Effrem, is President of Education Liberty Watch. Dr. Effrem is a pediatrician, researcher, and conference speaker. Her medical degree is from Johns Hopkins University and her pediatric training from the University of Minnesota. She has provided testimony for Congress, as well as in-depth analysis of numerous pieces of major federal education, health, and early childhood legislation for congressional staff, state legislatures, and many organizations. Dr. Effrem serves on the boards of four national organizations: Education Liberty Watch, the Alliance for Human Research Protection, The International Society for Ethical Psychiatry and Psychology, and the National Physicians Center.