Response to (Scott Alexander): Preschool: Much More Than You Wanted to Know

Previously (Here): The Case Against EducationThe Case Against Education: FoundationsThe Case Against Education: Splitting the Education Premium Pie and Considering IQ

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.


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It seems so obvious to me that the benefits of preschool would wear off after a short number of years that I feel like I must be missing something. How could it be otherwise, given the current system? This is all completely setting aside the developmental limitations of small children.

Let's take two kids, Jamie and Alex. Pretend that there are no developmental limitations on children's brains and that they can be taught to read equally well at ages 3, 4, 5, and 6.

Alex starts preschool at age 3 and they can read at a 1st grade level by the time they enter Kindergarten.

Jamie does not do any preschool and cannot read at all when they enter Kindergarten.

By the end of Kindergarten, Alex can read slightly better than 1st grade level, but not a lot better, since the curriculum hasn't been challenging. It's basically been a rehash of what they already can do. Jamie can read at the expected grade level by the end of Kindergarten.

By the end of first grade, no accommodations have been made for the fact that Alex is a slightly advanced reader. Both kids are given essentially the same pool of books to read. Alex has not skipped a grade or put in an some secret fast-track program for kids who went to preschool, because this does not exist. So by the end of first grade, they can read about equally well. Maybe Alex reads slightly better, but since no real pressure is being put on this advantage that would cause it to compound rather than diminish, it naturally diminishes until both students are at the same level.

Acting as though anything else would happen doesn't make sense to me. It's not like each year a child spends in school exerts some kind of Education Force on their brain which accrues generalized scholastic ability. Kindergartners are taught kindergarten level math and reading skills; kids entering kindergarten who already possess these skills only benefit until the other kids catch up.

So IMO the problem isn't the preschool "doesn't do anything". The problem is that the system as it stands doesn't actually utilize the potential advantage of preschool. We are pretty far away from a system that would do so; such a system would need to be one that tailors the specific educational content to the specific child.

My four year old can read pretty well and can write well enough that you can puzzle out what he's trying to communicate. But there is no expectation that he's going to skip kindergarten because of this. So in what sense could this ever be a long-term academic advantage?

My four year old can read pretty well and can write well enough that you can puzzle out what he’s trying to communicate. But there is no expectation that he’s going to skip kindergarten because of this. So in what sense could this ever be a long-term academic advantage?

Long-term academic advantage accrues if selected pressure or events allow the child to "benefit" from the capabilities they have. An example of this are school systems that allow for varying levels of streaming. Examples abound, such as the "Gifted and Talented" program in New York City, or advanced vs. general streams in other K-12 programs around the world.

Generally, children participating in streams decided at an arbitrary moment in time (e.g. age 5 entering kindergarten) seem to result in better academic outcomes. To your own point above, if the system is designed in such a way where children of varying abilities are taught the same materials, it seems an almost foregone conclusion that most advanced children will regress without additional external support, encouragement or [parental] pressure.

Thus, social signalling aside, some parents will try, to the best of their ability, to drill reading, writing and arithmetic into their children at a young(er) age on the off-chance that they qualify for better academic programs. I propose that this preference still holds, albeit in a weaker sense, even in the absence of K-5/K-12 school streaming.

When my daughter was 1 year old, I tried to teach her how to put big Lego-ish bricks on each other properly. She randomly rotated the brick in her hand, and tried to put it on the other brick. When the brick in hand had the hole at the bottom, sometimes the bricks connected successfully; when the brick in hand was rotated differently, she tried to push them together, and then threw the brick away in frustration. I tried to explain, by talking and showing repeatedly, how the brick in the hand needs to be held with the hole facing down... and then I just gave up, because there was no progress. I decided to simply ignore the Lego.

A week or two later, my daughter found the Lego bricks again, and this time she was putting them together correctly.

There were a few experiences like this, when I concluded that sometimes the right thing to do is to wait. Things that are difficult now may become simple later. If instead I stubbornly tried to teach her the Lego bricks every day, likely making us both frustrated, one day she would learn to do it properly, and I would congratulate myself for my patience. But I would be wrong, because simply not doing anything would have achieved exactly the same outcome.


When my daughter was 2 years old, I taught her a few words in English, and also how to draw. People were impressed by both outcomes. Later I didn't have time and patience to practice the English regularly, so she gradually forgot most of what she knew. But drawing remained her favorite activity, and she kept drawing almost every day. People continue being impressed with her drawing skills.

This suggests that when you teach a specific skill (after you have waited enough to make teaching it possible), the important thing is to keep going. If you keep going, the Matthew effect will bless you; if you stop, you will start reverting to the mean. This may not be immediately visible when you are at the age when "the mean" also means progress, only much slower than it could have been otherwise.


So, I think that both Zvi's or moridinamael's conclusions may be correct, depending on the situation. Sometimes the problem is trying to teach a skill too soon. Sometimes the problem is teaching the skill and then letting it revert.

Also, the right timing for the skill may depend on child's IQ. Some children are ready to start reading at 3, others are ready at 6. The kindergarten trying to teach reading at 4 or 5 may fail to achieve long-term improvement with different kids for different reasons.


You don't know that doing nothing would have achieved the same outcome with the Lego bricks. Perhaps what she needed was to have someone show her what to do and then have some time elapse.

(That's not an argument for trying to teach her every day, of course. But if you did and she eventually figured it out, you wouldn't necessarily be wrong to give your teaching some of the credit. Explaining once and waiting might be just as effective, but that doesn't mean that explaining not at all and just waiting would have been.)

Yeah, the correct conclusion is probably to give me partial credit. First, to account for the fact that my intervention was only a part of a larger causal chain (some credit rightfully goes for buying the bricks, right?), some parts of which I don't even know about (this becomes prominent now in kindergarten, where I have no idea about all the little things they do). Second, because that's how one deals with probabilities (if you assume 20% chance you caused something, take 20% of the credit, it will work on average).

But I try to be humble, because I believe that people overestimate their impact. First, because they forget about many other influences (including the genes, and the child's own work); second, because they assume 100% probability whenever there is a plausible story (and there usually is one). So, whenever I see an opportunity to impart some knowledge painlessly, I go for it, but in far mode I believe I deserve much less credit than it feels I do. (Not "less credit" as in "less than other parents", but as in "parents in general deserve less credit than they feel they do".)

Related: Bryan Caplan's Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids.

I'd read Viliam as agreeing with your comment.

I’d expect at least some long-term effect from kids who would otherwise fall so far behind that they’d only advance via social promotion.


I would have as well. This suggests that their problems run deeper slash the difficulty lies elsewhere. Alternatively, they are helped, but others are actively hurt.

Alex has not skipped a grade or put in an some secret fast-track program for kids who went to preschool, because this does not exist.

Even more confounding: my kids have been skipping kindergarten in part because they didn't go to preschool. My wife works from home, and has spent a lot of time teaching them things and double-checking things they teach themselves.

Preschools don't do tracking any more than grade schools, so even if in theory they might provide better instruction than the average overworked parent(s), the output will be 100% totally-ready-for-kindergarten (who will be stuck as you describe), which in the long term won't look as good as a mix of 95% not-quite-as-ready-for-kindergarten (who will catch up as you describe) and 5% ready-for-first-grade (who will permanently be a year ahead).

Kind of disagree. My kid learned to read at home and it helps me broaden his horizons from just road repair to also include mushrooms, culinary, season-themed stories and (sometimes) other stuff. It does mean that I buy him lots of books and some of them go unopened, but at least he has some interests that we can pursue when he's sick and has to stay indoors. I certainly wouldn't be able to count on school to teach him to enjoy reading.

Your example isn't one of preschool being effective but one of parents teaching their children being effective. It's plausible that you get less of that kind of parent/child interaction when children spend a lot of time in preschool.

I was answering the "it is not about preschool, it is about developmental milestones" part; and I meant that whether preschool fails at doing something it should (have the kids learn to read), and then later kids do read anyway, it doesn't mean there aren't benefits from having them learn earlier. Parents should not hope that preschool gives their kids some advantage in further "academic achievments", parents should be interested in the real stuff. Find their own parameters and evaluate them. People already do it, they just don't want to own up to it.

BTW, having the kid in preschool did lessen our interaction, which made it easier to interact.

And preschool might suck as a hammer, but it sucks much less as a measuring stick.

Mostly agreed. But I think the obvious counter point is that you're arguing for a slightly different standard. Like, if the question is 'does pre-school basically make sense' then you're right, it doesn't, and the black box approach is weird. But if the question is 'should you send your children to pre-school' then the black box approach seems solid. Even if you could come up with something better in five minutes, you can't implement it, so the standard for it being worthwhile might be really low.

If I try to imagine myself going through this analysis and coming to the conclusion that I'm 'pro-preschool', I imagine myself subtly assuming two things:

  • The relevant thing when I'm talking through my views on this, is what I'm signalling politically about what idea we should coordinate around
  • The people who are paying attention to what ideas we should politically coordinate around are unable to coordinate around new and slightly complex ideas.

Then I can fairly straightforwardly imagine myself saying

I see that the substance of pre-schools has zero positive effect, but that the overall scheme is helpful for families, so... I guess my main message if anyone asks will have to remain that I'm pro-preschool."

And of course two more things: That taking the better short-term of the two sides is the best way to interact with such a supremely broken system, despite the fact that it strengthens the system and makes it that much less likely to improve, and that you prefer a hugely inefficient transfer (that likely leads over time to even less efficient similar things) to doing nothing - transfers are most certainly not free even in the best of cases, and this is not that.