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Is The Call For Universal Pre-Kindergarten Warranted?


Providing free preschool education to children across America is a priority for President Obama's second term in office.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Every dollar we invest in high quality early childhood education can save more than seven dollars later on.

WERTHEIMER: The president made that case in last week's State of the Union message.


OBAMA: 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 know this works.

WERTHEIMER: We decided to take a closer look at the scientific evidence for Universal Pre-K programs. We called in NPR science correspondent Shankar Vedantam, who regularly joins us to discuss social science research.

Shankar, welcome.


WERTHEIMER: Now, President Obama says that spending money in preschool gives us a return that is seven times the investment. Where does that number come from?

VEDANTAM: Those numbers come from a couple of studies and called the Perry Preschool program and the Abecedarian program, Linda, that targeted very high quality and fairly expensive interventions at very disadvantaged children. And what those programs found - they followed these children out, not just for years, but for decades - is that the programs didn't have just cognitive benefits - in other words, improvements in performance in academic scores - but they had life benefits. They had reduced the teen pregnancy rate. They reduce the crime rate. They had huge benefits later on.

So the president is on very solid footing when he talks about the return investment when it comes to those narrowly targeted programs.

But what he rhetorically links those programs with larger programs, such as the experience in states, such as Oklahoma and in Georgia, in some ways he's venturing off the ledge of science. There have been studies looking at the experience of those states. And I have not seen any data that suggests the return on investment in those states is anywhere close to seven times our investment.

WERTHEIMER: If some programs can do it, why can't that be translated to the larger programs in the states?

VEDANTAM: Well, I want to emphasize that the studies in the states have found that the programs do have benefits. They just don't have benefits of the same magnitude as the highly-targeted programs.

I spoke with Bill Gormley. He's a researcher at Georgetown University. He said there were very clearly cognitive benefits among children in Tulsa, Oklahoma, whom he studied in one of his studies.

Remember that the programs that targeted the highly disadvantaged children were highly focused. They focused on the most - the children who were most in need and they gave him the very best resources. When you ramp up a program and you make it universal, and you make it statewide, what happens is some of the children who end up using the program are children who don't really need a program that much. They would have turned out fine anyway.

And the second thing that happens, unless your budget expands astronomically, is that the quality of the programs tends to go down.

WERTHEIMER: Well, what about Head Start?

VEDANTAM: I think Head Start has done wonderful things. But in terms of the return on investment and how effective it is at boosting scores over the long-term, there are significant questions that have been raised. There has been a congressionally-mandated study that just came out a couple months ago, that found that, even though the programs in general were pretty good, by the time children reached third grade there was really no difference between the children who had been through the Head Start program and those who had not.

In some ways, I think that the issue of Head Start raises the larger question, which there is a tension here, Linda, between what's politically popular - which is parents love these programs. They love subsidized child care. They love preschools and lots of people want to sign up for them.

Scientifically though, what seems to have the biggest benefit is when you target your limited dollars at the people most in need. So how you square that, how you square the popularity of a program that reaches all families versus the benefits of the program that are more narrowly-targeted, you know, I don't know how you square that politically. And there's a reason that scientists to run for election.


WERTHEIMER: Thank you very much, Shankar.

VEDANTAM: Thank you, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: That's Shankar Vedantam who regularly joins us to talk about interesting social science research. You can follow him on Twitter @hiddenbrain. And while you're at it, you can follow this program @morningedition.


WERTHEIMER: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's senior national correspondent, Linda Wertheimer travels the country and the globe for NPR News, bringing her unique insights and wealth of experience to bear on the day's top news stories.
Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.