preschool has a whoppingly huge impact on disadvantaged children

[UPDATE: I think I was not skeptical enough in this post, and relied on too few sources (see comments for some useful caveats).  I hope to do some follow up posts eventually and delve into both Tough’s work and other work on early childhood interventions and educational interventions some more.]

Planet Money recently had a story on the radical effectiveness of preschool at changing the lives of poor and at-risk kids, lasting long past preschool.  A few examples of how kids’ lives improved if they’d attended preschool vs. if they hadn’t:

  • teen pregnancy rates were far lower
  • arrest rates were far lower in kids
  • employment rates and income were substantially higher
  • the story also implied that homelessness rates were lower.
The show transcript isn’t up yet, so I don’t have the exact numbers, but the changes were really impressive — I think that there was as much as a 50% decrease in the rates of bad things happening later in life for kids who attended preschool.
This American Life expanded on this theme in another recent show.  They talked to Paul Tough, author of the book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.  Tough explained that preschool teaches children “soft skills” — “qualities like tenacity, resilience, impulse control”, which then allow them to do better in all sorts of aspects of life.  You can also teach people these skills later in life, but starting early means they’re less likely to fall behind in school or get in trouble.

An economic analysis cited by Planet Money indicated that making sure kids go to preschool (or presumably otherwise learn “soft skills” early on) is one of the most effective ways you can improve a child’s life, on many surprising dimensions.  It also seems to be one of the best ways to have broader impacts on society as well, given the large effects on the above issues.  As a billionaire investor said, investing in preschools is a good way to treat some of the causes of issues rather than just the symptoms.

Has anyone read Paul Tough’s book?  I’m interested, but not sure whether or not there’s substantially more to it beyond the coverage I’ve already heard.

1 Comment

  1. morganya Said,

    October 21, 2012 @ 11:33 pm

    I’ve read another book by Paul Tough, _Whatever it Takes._ He describes a program in Harlem that starts retraining parents even before their child’s birth to nurture creativity and academic skills, in the way that a fair amount of the American middle class takes for granted but is rarer in areas with high poverty. It’s an incredibly intensive program, but one with some early results that are really positive. From Amazon’s description, it sounds like this is a follow-up and generalization of that. I’d like to (and probably should) read it, but haven’t yet.

    On the preschool question, I have mixed feelings. There are 50 years of educational studies on the impact of preschools, with mixed results. For instance, Head Start programs (which have been around since 1965!) initially showed promise, then were rolled out nationwide. However, the measurable advantages the program provides largely dissipate by the time kids are in their teens, or even late elementary school. Some researchers have attributed this to a regression to the mean; others think that good preschool can’t make up for bad school; others have suggested that pilot programs, with their careful implementation and close scrutiny, have too much of an advantage over larger roll-outs, which almost never have the funds needed for an equal amount of oversight. In any case, the picture is not nearly as rosy as this article makes it sound — preschool is no magic bullet.