Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Does pre-K work? Ask old people

By John D. Sutter, CNN
March 1, 2013 -- Updated 1719 GMT (0119 HKT)
Parents in the IFC show
Parents in the IFC show "Portlandia" explain the value of preschool to their son.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • John Sutter: Research proves the effectiveness of preschool
  • President Barack Obama recently said all Americans should have access
  • Sutter: Preschool could be a great equalizer for rich and poor
  • He says studies show its effects last into a person's 40s and 50s

Editor's note: John D. Sutter is a human rights and social justice columnist for CNN Opinion. E-mail him at CTL@CNN.com or follow him on Twitter (@jdsutter), Facebook or Google+.

(CNN) -- There's a hilarious episode of the sketch comedy show "Portlandia" where two hipster parents give their preschool age kid a presentation about his future.

The kid, Grover, half-watches as mom and dad pull up two stock market-style charts: One shows his fortunes going up and up if he attends Shooting Star preschool; the other shows what happens if he fails to get in: a plunge into violence, shoplifting and poverty.

"The last thing I want is you out there, you know, shooting squirrels and birds for dinner," says the mom. "If we don't get you into that Shooting Star private preschool, you're gonna end up at a public school with a bunch of riffraff."

John D. Sutter
John D. Sutter

She adds: "We're gonna get you into preschool. We're gonna get you into college. We're going to get you some money. And we're gonna get you whatever you want!"

The skit is great because it's based in truth.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Yes, elite preschool admissions are perfectly absurd, but the benefits of preschool are seriously significant. Researchers in North Carolina and Michigan have spent decades following kids who attend preschool and comparing them with control groups of kids who didn't. While preschool, of course, does not single-handedly determine whether a kid will be successful and happy or end up shoplifting with the riffraff, on the whole the studies suggest the early schooling can reroute lives for the better.

The "Portlandia" charts are kind of real.

My View: Not all preschools are created equal

That's why every one of us should hope that Congress comes up with a way to pay for President Barack Obama's proposal that all American kids get access to preschool -- starting with those who are less likely to be able to pay for it themselves.

Fareed's Take: More preschool funding

The kind of outlay that would require might sound ridiculous at a moment when the country is headed toward Fiscal Cliff Part Deux, or "the sequester." But talk to the researchers who have been following kids from preschool and into their 20s, 30s and 40s, and you begin to see how transformative early education can and should be. Ultimately, it's a cost-effective investment in a future when poor kids have the same chance at success as the obsessed-over Grovers of the world.

"Unequivocally, yes, I think it works," said Frances Campbell, a senior scientist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "I don't think there's any question about that."

In 1972, Campbell's university began a project to track the success of a group of preschoolers and a similar control group of kids who were not given access to preschool. The 1970s start date "tells you I am ancient, which I am," Campbell said. She's 80 now, and the research subjects are turning 40. The ongoing study is like the science-y version of the "7-Up" documentary series -- with researchers checking in on the lives of the subjects at several-year intervals.

The differences between those who had preschool and those who didn't "aren't huge," she said, but they are significant. "What matters to me," she said on the phone, "is that when they were 21 years old if they had had that preschool experience they were more likely to be in college and when they were 30 they were more likely to have graduated from college."

In Michigan, Larry Schweinhart is an early childhood program researcher at the nonprofit education research organization HighScope. His group also found positive, long-term results. Kids who went to preschool in the mid-'60s were less likely to have been arrested several times by age 40, were more likely to have graduated from high school and were likely to earn more than non-pre-K kids studied.

Some have criticized those studies, saying the preschools were too well-funded and fussed over for their successes to be replicated elsewhere. In North Carolina, Campbell said, kids also got help that extended before and after the typical preschool years of age 3 and 4. Others say the study sample sizes -- about 100 kids in each case -- may be too small to support sweeping conclusions.

The effectiveness of public early education programs also have been called into question. A 2012 report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found students in the Head Start program made early educational strides -- but that they faded by the time the students reached third grade.

Schweinhart said that expanding preschool programs across the nation won't automatically improve lives. But if the programs are funded and managed well, he said, they will have real impact. That seems like a reasonable assessment, and it's one that's more or less shared by professor David Kirp of the University of California, Berkeley.

"Whether universal prekindergarten really makes a difference in children's lives or turns out to be a false hope," Kirp wrote recently for a CNN blog, "depends entirely on the quality of what's being offered."

Perhaps the real impact of preschool is most visible in the lives of real people who attended decades ago and now are adults. I asked the researchers in North Carolina and Michigan if I could talk to some of the people who are the subjects of their studies. They declined, saying that since the studies are ongoing the people must have anonymity so as not to skew results. So I went to the next best thing -- two women who attended a HighScope preschool in Michigan but weren't part of the studies the group ran.

I wanted to know if they actually, really, truly thought that their lives today had been changed by the fact that they went to some classes decades ago. I figured they wouldn't remember much. But, to my surprise, both Simone Strong, 39, and Katie Jones, 33, told me their experiences around age 3 still mattered past 30.

Jones is in a wheelchair and she said the school gave her the confidence she would need to confront people who might see her as different. Strong said the school was "empowering" and is part of the reason she has had the confidence to serve on the boards of socially minded organizations in her community.

Both of their children now go to the same preschool -- in part because their older, wiser mothers realize what a big impact preschool had on their adult lives.

It seems like all kids should have those opportunities.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John D. Sutter.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT