Response to (Scott Alexander): Preschool: Much More Than You Wanted to Know
I see Scott’s analysis of preschool as burying the lead.
I see his analysis as assuming there exists a black box called ‘preschool’ one can choose whether to send children to. Then, we have to decide whether or not this thing has value. Since studies are the way one figures out if things are true, we look at a wide variety of studies, slog through their problems and often seemingly contradictory results, and see if anything good emerges.
The result of that analysis, to me, was that it was possible preschool had positive long term effects on things like high school graduation rates. It was also possible that it did not have such an effect if you properly controlled for things, or that the active ingredient was effectively mostly ‘give poor families time and money’ via a place to park their kids, rather than any benefits from preschool itself. Scott puts it at 60% that preschool has a small positive effect, whether or not it is worth it and whether or not it’s mainly giving families money, and 40% it is useless even though it is giving them money. Which would kind of be an epic fail.
There was one clear consistent result, however: Preschool gives an academic boost, then that academic boost fades away within a few years. Everyone agrees this occurs.
Let us think about what this means.
This means that preschool is (presumably) spending substantial resources teaching children ‘academics,’ and even as measured by future achievement in those same academics, this has zero long term effect. Zippo. Zilch. Not a thing.
Maybe you should stop doing that, then?
This seems to be saying something important – that when you force four year olds to learn to read or add, that you don’t achieve any permanent benefits to their math or reading ability, which strongly implies you’re not helping them in other ways either. That’s not a result about preschool. That’s a result about developing brains and how they learn, and suggesting we should focus on other skills and letting them be kids. Spending early time you will never get back on ‘academic’ skills is a waste, presumably because it’s so horribly inefficient and we’ll end up re-teaching the same stuff anyway.
This seems unlikely to be something that stops happening on a birthday. If there is actual zero effect at four years old, what does that imply about doing it at five years old? What about six? How much of our early child educational system is doing it all wrong?
Going back to preschool, we do not have a black box. We have adults in a room with children. They can do a variety of things, and different locations indeed do choose different buckets of activity. One would hope that learning one of your main categories of activity isn’t accomplishing anything, would at least shift advocates to support different types of activity. It seems kind of crazy to instead find different outcomes and then advocate for doing the same thing anyway. If time was spent learning in non-academic ways, and gaining experience socializing in various ways, that would at least be a non-falsified theory of something that might help.