While some experts are lauding President Obama's decision to push universal preschool (starting with children living at double the poverty line or less), others question his assertion that there will be a $7 savings for every $1 spent.
It is true that studies on the subject aren't as conclusive as they first appear. Some of the problems come from the long-term tracking a study like this requires. One study tracked preschool participants until they were 40 years old! There is also the question of what is causing the savings these studies show. It is impossible to completely control for all other factors when dealing with people living in the real world.
Finally, some of the trials were not completely randomized. There may have been many reasons for this. Many preschool programs funded by the state require extensive parental involvement - this would lead specific types of parents to enroll their children in the program. This creates the question of why the children show greater success later in life. Was it the preschool, their involved parents, a combination of both, or something else all together?
At this point it cannot be stated with 100% confidence that preschool programs show a 700% return on the investment. Does this mean we should hold off on universal preschool until we do have the data to prove that they will get this large return? I don't know about you, but that seems pretty ridiculous to me. Even if the preschool programs only produce a $2 savings for every $1 spent - that is a good return on our money. Not to mention the higher quality of life it would bring to both the children in the preschool and the members of the surrounding communities.
What I found most interesting about the Wall Street Journal article on the subject (Economists Study Early Education by The Numbers Guy) was that the program with the highest annual rate of return (of the four programs included in the article) was not actually a preschool program. The only program that yielded an annual rate of return of over 20% was one that involved a nurse making home visits to children and their parents from birth to either two or three years old.
This fact illustrates a few things that I strongly believe. First, parents need help. Especially parents who didn't have strong role models growing up. I believe that I did have strong role models, but parenting is still one of the most difficult and frustrating things I have ever done. There are times I just want to scream at my kids. Or lock them out of my room and just stay in bed all day. I do not do these things because I know how harmful they can be. If I had a parent who treated me this way as a child, would I do the same things to my children?
Programs involving home visits with trained nurses are able to break this cycle (in many cases) because they empower parents to make better decisions regarding their children. I believe that every parent desperately wants their own children to be happy and successful, but she (or he) may just not know how to do this. Having help from a professional bridges this gap.
I also believe that there is no one answer to breaking the costly cycle of poverty. The example of the home visits from the nurses shows that children and parents, especially low income children and parents, need support throughout children. Relatively inexpensive programs should be run both before and after preschool.
As a teacher I realize how important I am to my students' futures. While they are in school I am happy to serve as part of a support system. I realize that my job is much bigger than teaching them scientific principles. However, the school day is only 6.5 hours long. I only see my students for a little over an hour a day.
This is just not enough time to give them the support that they need. A strong after school program with passionate adults would fill an important gap for many of the students at my school and my others across the nation. I don't think it matters if a program is academic, athletic, or centered around the arts because the most important skills kids learn from these programs are life skills like discipline, working with others, and respect for both others and themselves.
I often fantasize about opening up a center where newly pregnant mothers can come and learn about prenatal nutrition and how their babies are developing. Families would return when their babies are born and learn how to engage their babies for maximum developmental benefits. Preschool and other classes would be held for older children. Tutors, coaches, and other experts would hold lessons in the center. Eventually kids would get help choosing and applying to their first jobs and college. For their entire life cycle as a parent, individuals could come to the center whenever they needed support. Fully screened volunteers would be available to hold the baby with colic so the mother or father could get a few minutes of much needed relief. Parents could talk to each other about their struggles and realize that they aren't alone.
The problem with this center is that it would never generate any money... but think of the adults it would create.