For early education advocates, the benefits of working toward universal preschool have been unimpeachable. A meticulously researched study, however, is throwing the conventional wisdom into question.
For over a decade, researchers at Vanderbilt have been studying the benefits of a voluntary pre-K program in Tennessee offered to low-income children. The state-funded program operates on a lottery system, and the researchers followed children who got in as well as a control group of their peers who did not.
For many proponents of early childhood education, the results were stunning. After the expected initial benefit in the first year, the study shows that by third grade, the control group of peers not only had caught up with those who had pre-K, but were surpassing them. By sixth grade, the students who had gone through pre-K were underperforming in math, science, and reading compared to the control group. The differences in outcomes were not only academic, but also behavioral, with the pre-K group consistently more likely to need special ed or require disciplinary actions for minor and major violations.
In 2015, when early results were already trending poorly, NPR ran a piece featuring Vanderbilt researcher and early childhood education proponent Dale Farran. Farran expressed some concern over the results of her study but stopped short of questioning her priors. The proper response to the overwhelmingly negative findings for Farran was not to question whether four-year-olds should be in school but rather to invest even more in their being in school.
Tennessee’s governor at the time, Bill Haslam, came to a similar conclusion: “We’ll take this as data to evaluate [the program’s] effectiveness versus other things that we might do—increasing technology, paying teachers more, other investments that we want to make in K-12 education.”
Now, seven years later, more results are in, further confirming the cross-metric failure of Tennessee’s $86-million-per-year pre-K program. In a new NPR piece, Farran seems more circumspect about the findings. “It really has required a lot of soul-searching, a lot of reading of the literature to try to think of what were plausible reasons that might account for this.”
Still the answer, Farran believes, is just one of quality. Buttressing her point are other calls to expand the program. Maybe there needs to be more playtime at preschool, fewer lectures, rethinking of worksheets, higher pay, quality control, Farran speculates.
Every question is on the table, it would seem, except the existential one: might four-year-olds just need their mothers far more than a classroom? After all, in the family, you best can guarantee that the caretaker will be eminently more invested in the flourishing of the child than anyone for hire. This is quality control at its finest.
The time, money, careers, and energy devoted to the good of a social program can lead us to overlook what is most obvious. Social engineers are often unable to account for what is unmeasurable. We’ve seen mountains of data to show how much a child suffers without his father. Vast and varied goods are also lost in extended, regular separation of a young child from his mother, and those goods are hard to make up for by rejiggering a worksheet. There are innumerable small moments throughout each day in which a mother might communicate to her child simply that she delights in his existence. It can be small as a kiss as she zips a jacket or a wordless and attentive gaze as the child tells her a story. Her face conveys to her child that he is known, loved, unrepeatable. The bond of affection that flows ever naturally from one to another is threaded throughout the days and forms a tapestry of love that is difficult to work into a behavior-predicting metric.
Indeed, her time, investment, and consistency are invaluable, beyond what any pile of statistics can demonstrate—and these can be discounted, and too often are, if we have succumbed to a reductive technocratic vision of the person.
A mother need not be with her child at every waking moment, and not all mothers have the ability or desire to stay home. One might object by saying we cannot formulate policy that perpetuates as normative a reality that is not within the reach or desire of some.
But as the saying goes, you get more of what you subsidize. Do we want the norm to be children beginning school at three to four years of age? Policies that restructure the ways we think about family life tend to have a host of disruptive reverberations beyond what social engineers might anticipate. Additionally, preschool is not the only alternative should a mother need help. Fathers and extended family have long provided extensive care for young children in response to life’s circumstances.
Besides the reasons to question its efficacy, another consequence of moving toward that old progressive dream of universal preschool is that mothers will begin to feel an added layer of external pressure to head back to work sooner than they might have otherwise. And there is good reason to think far more women would prefer to find a way to be home with their children than what the decades-long drumbeat of feminist propaganda might indicate. For example, as early as 2012, studies showed that 69% of working mothers already felt much pressure to secure their babies with someone else and get back into the professional world.
Certainly, there will be exceptions, special needs, extenuating circumstances. We can strive to meet those needs with a more targeted approach, and one that considers the desire for, and benefit of, mothering. But the pre-K social experiments rehearsing us for a new norm of younger and younger universal schooling should be laid to rest. The policy conversation has long fixated on spreading the supposed ideal of preschool to those who cannot afford it to mitigate the privilege of those who can.
But perhaps the most privileged of all are those who—at any income bracket—get to have this fleeting, but uniquely enduring, human experience: to mother and to be mothered. In his letter to families, Pope Saint John Paul II wrote, “The history of mankind, the history of salvation, passes by way of the family…” and that mothers are key to building a “civilization of love.” We should stop shaping policy as though what is essential is easily replaceable. Civilization depends on it.