Education

Jon Stewart Thinks Katherine Mangu-Ward Is Wrong About Universal Preschool

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Last night, The Daily Show did a segment about opponents of universal preschool, including a quick hit from yours truly at the 5:45 mark:

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
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I was part of a montage of people referencing the federal government's own assessment of the efficacy of Head Start (and this earlier version of the same study) the closest thing we have to a pilot program for universal preschool. The findings of the study are pretty freaking bleak:

In summary, there were initial positive impacts from having access to Head Start, but by the end of 3rd grade there were very few impacts found for either cohort in any of the four domains of cognitive, social-emotional, health and parenting practices. The few impacts that were found did not show a clear pattern of favorable or unfavorable impacts for children. 

Jon Stewart, who loves The Children, theorizes that we skeptics are looking at things backwards: The study demonstrates how much preschool rocks, he says—it's just that the rest of the public education system sucks so hard that it erases all traces of preschool gains. While that's not really what the (well-designed, well-respected) study shows, let's imagine for a second that he's right.

Which do you think is more likely?:

(a) We make preschool universal and that starts a cascade of awesomeness into the general public school system, or

(b) we graft a universal preschool entitlement onto the existing universal K-12 entitlement, and preschool starts to suck just as much as the rest of the system?

Call me a cynic, but I'm going with (b).

Jon Stewart also plays the "read the rest of the study" card, quoting passages about longer term gains from preschool. Actually, the government study doesn't actually offer insight on long term effects, since the kids in the cohort are only in third grade.

But it does have a quickie literature review embedded in it, which points to other, less robust studies. Those studies offer weaker evidence for possible "sleeper effects," in which gains disappear, but then reappear later in life in the form of higher rates of school completion, and other social and health benefits. That section boldly concludes that "research suggests that positive outcomes later in life are possible." 

Call me a kid-hating curmudgeon, but I'm not sure "possible" is a good enough foundation for hugely expensive universal entitlement.

Jon Stewart, I love you man. You are so funny, and—in this case anyway—so wrong.

Bonus: There's a hilarious interview with uber-physicist and man-about-town Neil DeGrasse Tyson at the end of the show. Come for the anti-preschool invective, stay for the Russian meteor jokes!