A recent article by Melinda Wenner Moyer at Slate got my attention with the following provocative statement:
“Research suggests that preschool only benefits children from… disadvantaged families.”
The article was in the contest of suggesting that affluent New York City parents shouldn’t over-obsess with getting their kids admitted to the “right” preschool. This is probably good advice, but Ms. Moyer overstates her case in her attempt to make her point.
As I have outlined before, there is some good evidence that preschool works for more advantaged children. This includes my work with Bill Gormley and Shirley Adelstein at Georgetown. This research estimates that universal pre-K in Tulsa has similar positive test score effects for middle-class children who are ineligible for lunch subsidies, versus low-income children who are eligible for a free or reduced price lunch. The test score effects would predict similar dollar effects on these children’s adult earnings prospects, for children from both low-income and middle-class families.
I’ve also previously reviewed other research supporting positive effects of preschool for children from middle-class families.
As I’ve outlined previously, it makes good sense that preschool would provide benefits for children from middle-class families. Much of the long-run benefits of preschool are believed to arise due to preschool’s effects in boosting “soft skills”: the social skills of getting along with peers and teachers. A good initial development of these skills builds a child’s self-confidence, and ability to acquire more of these skills later on in K-12.
In the labor market, “soft skills” are at least as important as “hard skills” (whatever reading and math tests measure) in determining success in the labor market. Most of employer complaints about worker skills are complaints about soft skills.
Upper-class parents shouldn’t obsess about the most prestigious preschool as the route to their child going to Harvard. But an argument against obsessing over preschool prestige should not be over-generalized into a case against benefits of early childhood education for a broad range of children from many income groups.