As a small child, I vaguely recall having attended a Montessori preschool in Brooklyn, which was loud, lively and colorful. One day, a classmate made a reference to his “parents,” an English word with which I, an imperfectly bilingual 3-year-old, was unfamiliar, and he explained that he was referring to his mother and father, words that I did understand. And so my vocabulary grew, in fits and starts. Pretty soon, I started attending kindergarten at a public elementary school, where I talked my way out of chores like putting away my things in my cubbyhole by protesting with a convincingly exasperated “but I’m only 4 years old.” Though that doesn’t sound like much of an excuse to my wizened old ears three decades later, it seems to have worked at the time.

But for all I may or may not have learned about the importance of cubbyhole management, the main virtue of early childhood education, from my family’s perspective, is that it allowed both of my parents to work. For most of my childhood, my mother and father worked two jobs while fulfilling other obligations (taking classes to complete a graduate degree in my mother’s case, studying for a licensing exam in my father’s), leaving my two older, but not that much older, sisters to pick me up from school and help me with my homework, among many other things. I find it difficult to believe that my life will ever be as sweet as it was in those years, when nothing was more exciting than tagging along as my father ferried my mother to her Saturday job in Staten Island. Change the equation even slightly — say I had only one older sister instead of two, and she wasn’t as capable as my real-world siblings, or if one of my parents had become seriously ill — and it is easy to imagine our harried but happy little world unraveling.

Which leads me to the debate over universal early education. Bill de Blasio, the new mayor of New York City, has pledged to provide full-day pre-K for all 4-year-olds in the five boroughs, and in last year’s State of the Union address, President Obama backed a similarly ambitious “Preschool for All” initiative. The problem with these efforts is that they promise too much about what preschool can do for children’s skills while glossing over what it can do for the earning potential of parents.

It is easy to see why the mayor and the president, among many others, find the idea of universal early education so appealing. A number of scholars, led by the University of Chicago economist James Heckman, have emphasized the crucial importance of building skills in small children, as “skills beget skills.” That is, if children acquire important social, emotional and cognitive skills early in life, they’re in a much better position to acquire new skills as they age. It is the social and emotional skills, like persistence and a willingness to cooperate with others, that might be the most important of all. Most children acquire these skills in the home, from parents and other close relatives. But some children, particularly those raised in single-parent and otherwise chaotic households, tend to have a much harder time, particularly boys. The promise of early childhood education is that it can mitigate this inequality between children raised in healthy and supportive environments and those who are not.

Yet as David J. Armor and Sonia Sousa argue in “The Dubious Promise of Universal Preschool,” the evidence drawn from almost five decades of the federal Head Start program suggests that this hope is largely misplaced. The Head Start program was designed to help low-income children catch up with their middle-income counterparts, yet a series of evaluations have found that while the program offers modest short-term gains, long-term gains are rare. Faced with these discouraging findings, advocates of early childhood education have maintained that Head Start is not a “high-quality” preschool program, as it doesn’t make use of a rigorous curriculum and well-trained personnel. Armor and Sousa counter that Head Start actually fares well on quality measures when compared to programs that have reputations for high quality, like the Abbot program in New Jersey and preschool programs in Boston, Mass. and Tulsa, Okla., which received more favorable evaluations. Moreover, they suggest that the real difference between lackluster evaluations of Head Start and strongly positive evaluations of preschool programs in New Jersey, Boston and Tulsa is that the former studies were well-designed while the latter studies were not.

Older programs that have attracted favorable attention — the 1960s-era HighScope Perry Preschool program from Ypsilanti, Michigan, and the Chicago Child-Parent Center (CPC) program — combine preschool with labor-intensive family interventions, thus making them far more expensive than Head Start and the kind of programs backed by de Blasio and Obama. There are no guarantees that the positive long-term effects of these programs — which included higher employment rates, higher earnings and lower rates of arrest among former students — would be true among graduates of Head Start.

Rather than push ahead with a universal preschool initiative, Armor and Sousa recommend that the federal government launch a revenue-neutral national demonstration project, in which Head Start funds would be shifted to a series of new preschool programs in select school districts, which would then be rigorously evaluated. Given the fiscal constraints facing the federal government, this seems like a sensible way forward.

But one wonders if Armor and Sousa are missing the real promise of early education just as much as de Blasio and Obama. Instead of emphasizing the benefits of early education for children, perhaps we should focus on its benefits for parents, and specifically for working mothers, who bear a disproportionate share of the child care burden. And if we accept that early education is fundamentally about freeing working parents from child care duties, we might be able to craft a lower-cost, and more taxpayer-friendly, approach.

Conor P. Williams, a researcher at the New America Foundation, recently highlighted the impact of Quebec’s subsidized child care program in The Daily Beast. Between 1997, when the program was launched, and 2007, Williams observes that labor force participation among mothers of young children sharply increased while public assistance sharply decreased, reducing public expenditures and raising revenues by enough to cover 40 to 50 percent of the day care program’s costs. Williams also acknowledges that Quebec’s overall mix of welfare state policies is quite different from what you’ll find in the United States, and that the province was experiencing robust economic growth.

Nevertheless, the apparent success of the Quebec program shows us that even if preschool doesn’t give a huge boost to children’s skills, it could help their parents build a firmer economic foundation for their families — and give them the self-esteem and independence they need to serve as good role models. That is a cause that all voters who care about the dignity of work can get behind.

Featured Publications