Guest column: Michigan’s Great Start preschool program helps children learn

By Lawrence J. Schweinhart/HighScope Educational Research Foundation

Dear Michigan Legislator:

In recent testimony before committees of the Michigan House of Representatives, Michael Van Beek of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy challenged the evidence supporting expansion and improvement of Michigan’s Great Start Readiness Program.

As director of the Great Start Readiness Program Evaluation and the Perry Preschool Study, I find his criticisms misleading and want to set the record straight.

The Perry Preschool Study began as a local study in a typical Michigan school district; it could not have been meant to represent all the preschool programs that would come after it. It shows how much a well-implemented preschool program can contribute to the development of young children living in low-income families.

It did not cost $12,500 per child per year -- as Van Beek claims -- but rather $11,100 per child per year in current dollars, about the same as the expenditure per student per year in U.S. K-12 schools today (www.nces.ed.gov).

Van Beek claims that the Perry Preschool program was “nothing like” the Great Start Readiness Program so that the Perry results have “no relevance” to it. He makes this claim despite the obvious fact that both programs were designed to provide early childhood education to young children living in low-income families in Michigan.

Perry teachers were certified teachers, as are most Great Start teachers. The Perry program operated three hours a day, as do most Great Start programs.

The Perry program had a few features that Great Start programs do not now uniformly have – weekly home visits, a well-implemented interactive curriculum, and regular feedback from assessment of program implementation and children’s development. But these additional features are well within the reach of Great Start programs, particularly if legislators give administrators and teachers the resources and flexibility to implement them.

Van Beek discounts the Great Start evaluation because it did not randomly assign children to receive the program or not. But it did identify a comparison group in the obvious way of selecting low-income classmates of the Great Start participants. In fact, compared to these classmates, the Great Start participants were more disadvantaged because they had additional risk factors; nevertheless, they did better in school. An independent evaluation by the National Institute for Early Education Research also found strong program effects on literacy and math skills.

Well-designed studies in Oklahoma and Tennessee have also found strong effects of state preschool programs.

The Great Start Readiness Program has been shown to help low-income children become more ready for school, do better on achievement tests, repeat fewer grades and help students to graduate from high school on time. It has more evidence of its effectiveness than any grade from kindergarten through 12th grade. With some modest improvements, it could become even more like the Perry Preschool Program and deliver additional long-term effects and return on investment to the state’s taxpayers.

We owe it to our children and ourselves to give our children this opportunity.

Lawrence J. Schweinhart is president of the HighScope Educational Research Foundation in Ypsilanti.

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Comments

EB
Thu, 03/07/2013 - 1:00pm
The trouble with anything coming out of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy is that only right-wingers believe them. Whatever they say is gospel to our right-wing legislature. If the legislature was interested in unbiased information, they wouldn't have sought testimony from the Mackinac Center in the first place. If the intent is to influence our legislature, Mr. Schweinhart's rebuttal is probably a wasted effort.
Jon Blakey
Sun, 03/10/2013 - 10:28am
Regardless, I was glad to see the rebuttal. If anyone knows anything about effective preschool programs, it is Larry Schweinhart and the Perry Preschool Project. It seems that so-called "think tanks" like the Mackinaw Center can throw out half-truths (at best) and call them facts all the time now. Especially if they can discredit public educational programs. We must attempt to rebuff them with actual facts whenever possible. Thank you Mr. Schweinhart.
Mon, 03/25/2013 - 12:56pm
I wanted to thank Mr. Schweinhart for offering this response. The importance of the Perry Preschool Study, especially on the long-term effects of a single early intervention, cannot be understated. The High/Scope program has long been a leader in shaping and advocating for effective early childhood education. When the House Education and appropriations (sub)committees met to hear testimony on this subject, no other outside experts were invited to speak except for Mr. Van Beek of the Mackinac Center. This does all the efforts at early childhood education a disservice. When our nation has one of the highest childhood poverty rates of any developed industrial country, how can we not commit our efforts to providing a strong beginning for all our children?