There was a buzz over a new study showing that pre-K is not necessarily good for children. It’s amazing how experts can be completely surprised by the results of a major study on an issue like pre-K education.* Noah Smith summarized the literature and thought through some policy implications. Emily Oster also just summarized the paper and points out that it provides almost no help for parents making decisions. **
I’ll offer some “amateur astronomer” observations about preschool and childcare.
What to call the daycare I patronize, since it offers all of the pre-K functions? I’ll call it Day-K. My kid comes home from Day-K with worksheets difficult enough for a kindergartener, but it was handed to a 3-year-old and the kid just scrawled a few lines of crayon across it. Most little kids aren’t going to retain material that is beyond their developmental level. Why bother printing these nice worksheets at all instead of just letting them color a bear?
Something that surprised me was how early kids can learn the alphabet and yet how disconnected that is from anything useful such as being able to read words. If a 2-year-old can do it (e.g. recognize “A”) then a 4-year-old can probably pick it up easily anyway.
Good private daycares in desirable urban areas are expensive but have unbelievable waitlists. Donald Shoup advocates that cities should charge more for parking. He reasoned that every city block should have an open parking space. Instead of spending valuable time circling like a vulture, you should just pay a lot of convenient parking or else know you will have to go somewhere else. Would the same logic apply to the good daycares? Should they not charge so much that there is always an open slot for the next parent who can pay? One issue with this from the daycare owner’s perspective is that they don’t want new kids cycling through constantly. A brand-new kid who does not trust the staff and has not learned the routine is a temporary disaster. I believe that the waitlists work because the owners want a predictable flow of great committed customers. By keeping fees low enough to have a long waitlist, they get good families to stay and they can easily fill any holes left by departures or dismissals.
If the program was free, I suspect that would change the dynamic inside compared to high-fee Day-K. Daycare kids are on a regimented schedule. Everyone thrives on the routine. The staff are happy when the kids know the rules. If people were coming and going unpredictably, that might make it harder for kids to learn.
Even under optimal conditions, there are scuffles at daycare. Being pushed down on the playground is often the only thing a kid will remember from a full day of “instruction”. How could pre-K actually negatively affect some kids, as the new study shows? One way I can think of is that the experience a good teacher tries to provide could be ruined by one kid who is loud or violent. If half of the classes are functioning as day care and having no impact at all on future outcomes and half of the classes have a kid hitting, then the average effect for all pre-K classes could be negative. The social environment of pre-K is probably highly variable. Sometimes you could get a great social atmosphere in which kids learn to share and sing. Sometimes the chaos level could make things difficult, I imagine. This is speculative. But I think it’s ok to speculate in the brainstorming period that should follow a surprising result.
Daycare centers have a fantastic physical environment. When I think of the returns to scale, the low table and chairs that fits the 3-year-olds perfectly comes to mind. A preschool classroom has a perfect bathroom with low toilets and sturdy step stools at the sinks. There is no heirloom China or nice upholstery in the room to worry about. There are dozens of age-appropriate toys and craft supplies can be bought in bulk. This physical environment allows kids to be creative and have fun. Adults don’t have to hover over them, afraid that they’ll hurt themselves or break something at any moment. By contrast, having a 2-year-old child roam my house was terrible. I kick myself for not making more up-front investments in kid-proofing and creating safe play areas. But it’s expensive and difficult for a parent to outfit their own home perfectly for each stage of development. The great thing about a daycare classroom for 3-year-olds is that it is perfectly fitted for 3-year-olds, because 3-year-olds will be cycling through it for the next decade. The physical scale factor makes me a daycare optimist for urban areas. However, as I wrote earlier, things could be trickier for low-density population areas.
The study has given us a lot to think about. I hope the research community can be helpful in continuing to figure out the puzzle.
One thing we can conclude, as Noah says in his blog, is that a compulsory university pre-K would be bad. Forcing families to send 4-year-olds to an institutional program (the way 5-16 kids are regulated) would be an expensive “own goal” policy. I don’t know of anyone seriously considering that, which hopefully means that nobody is.
* As a lab experimentalist, I’m used to being surprised by data. Check out this podcast just recorded with John List. He talks about surprising findings from field experiments. You never know until you run the experiment. Hence, my post in September about a rant about behavioral economics.
** Yesterday, Emily Oster announced that she is leaving Twitter because it had become a toxic place for her. You can still find her at substack, instagram, and other traditional publishing outlets (e.g. her books).