Scott Gibson: The challenge and promise of preschool


For years, controversy has raged over the effectiveness of preschool.

Advocates for early childhood education insisted children receiving professional instruction would do better in grade school and thereafter. But studies proved mixed and occasionally even negative. The confounding results led to years of dispute between advocates and doubters.

Guest Writer

Scott Gibson has been practicing medicine in his hometown of McMinnville for 30 years. He served on the McMinnville School Board from 2011 to 2017, when he and wife Melody moved to their bed and breakfast in Amity. He thanks Kourtney Ferrua and Stephanie Legard of the McMinnville School District for their valuable input on this article.

Researchers were animated to find the truth in this conundrum. Were there important benefits to preschool that had been missed by earlier studies? Were those early studies flawed? We now have sufficient data to make some compelling — and in some cases, surprising — conclusions.

In 2017, a group of the nation’s top early childhood education researchers gathered in Washington, D.C., to review decades of research and draw appropriate conclusions. Their findings can help guide a discussion about the role of preschool in our educational system.

Their first finding is important but not surprising — kids from disadvantaged homes benefit from preschool far more than kids from more privilege homes, where socialization and learning are likely built into the family structure. Accordingly, government for years has focused its money on children considered “at-risk.”

The second conclusion, also unsurprising, is that preschool quality varies widely. The researchers advise states to focus on assuring evidence-based techniques are used, that classrooms are structured to be positive, engaging and “orderly but active,” and that teachers receive ongoing instruction, coaching and feedback.

Critically, the researchers concluded the benefits of pre-K education depend on how follow-up education is handled in the primary grades. The evidence points to grades K through 3 as “charging stations,” capable of helping maintain and advance gains made in preschool.

This point deserves further explanation.

Some studies have found children in preschool make profound advancement in learning, only to see those gains diluted as they enter grade school. A preschool number-learning study, for example, showed kids receiving supplemental training advanced 0.63 standard deviations. But by the end of kindergarten, this had dropped to 0.28, and by the end of second grade, to an insignificant 0.03.

This “fadeout” effect is thought to be due to the same material being retaught and same tools provided in early grade school.

The recommendation calls for greater “individualization” of teaching strategies so each student can move forward. That sounds good, but for teachers, it can prove a Sisyphean hill to climb.

When a class of 20 children arrives at kindergarten on the first day of school, reading skills can range from never having held a book to being able to read Green Eggs and Ham by themselves. With such disparities, it’s nearly impossible for teachers to advance all kids equally.

If every at-risk child attended preschool, the difference between the least- and most-prepared would be narrowed, and teachers would be able to “individualize and differentiate” far more successfully.

Finally, the researchers concluded there is good evidence that, in spite of some “fadeout,” preschool continues to pay academic benefits, and to a lesser degree socialization and self-control benefits, in elementary school. Solid evidence for improved academic performance continuing through high school was lacking.

But that is not the end of the story. 

Recently published long-term results from the Perry Preschool Study, conducted from 1962 to 1967 in Ypsilanti, Michigan, showed significant benefits. And those benefits accrued not only to the study participants, but also to their children.

The kids randomly chosen for the study were all poor, black and judged to be low-IQ. They and a control group of like children have now been followed for more than 50 years. 

Critically important in the study design is that the program included not only preschool for the students, but regular home visits by their teachers.

The project failed in its primary goal of increasing students’ IQ scores. But on a wide variety of non-academic measures, it was a resounding success. Men who attended Perry Preschool displayed lower crime rates, higher incomes and more stable marriages. 

The most remarkable of the new findings involve the children of the children who attended Perry Preschool. They were three times more likely to have been raised in a married, two-parent home than their peers. And boys whose fathers were Perry alumni were a staggering 15 times more likely to have been raised by married parents than boys from the control group. 

These children of Perry students benefited in life outcomes on a wide spectrum of measures. Compared to the control group, they were 1.5 to 2 times more likely to be employed full time, hold a high school diploma, have completed high school without a suspension and to never have been suspended, addicted or arrested. This happened in spite of the fact that this generation of children were no more likely to have attended preschool than their control group counterparts.

These findings are supported by a limited number of similar high-quality studies. Participants in the Abecedarian and Chicago Child-Parent Center programs also showed significant life outcome gains.

All these programs included home visits and frequent, intensive contact with parents, which appear to have distinguished them from less successful programs.

The evidence supporting preschool, especially for at-risk children, is increasingly solid. The Perry study and other similar studies demonstrate the value of intensive programs that incorporate home visits.

Analysis of the Perry study suggests savings of $9.20 in future costs, for welfare, incarceration and so forth, for every dollar spent on pre-K education.

The results I find most compelling are that Perry-like preschools lead to better incomes, more stable marriages and stronger families, and that the advantages are generational.

The importance of these benefits can hardly be exaggerated.

The best preschool is the home. If families and marriages are made stronger, children gain. And the advantage will continue for their children and grandchildren.

For decades, politicians have decried the disintegration of the family as a factor in crime, drug abuse and generational poverty. And they are right.

Strong marriages and strong families ease these social ills. The problem has always been how to find ways to heal America’s families. 

In well-run preschools, we now have a demonstrated, tested means to do that. They are not a panacea, but they do promise to make families and communities stronger and happier.

Preschools are proven tools. We should use them.



Can someone please tell me the N-R policy on guest writers? Is there a limit to the number of articles a guest writer can submit?


There is no limit. We encourage submissions from all interested members of the community and evaluate them on merit.
We have developed a stable of repeat contributors because they take the time and trouble to probe significant issues in a meaningful way, and to make the resulting work available for wider dissemination.
If you'd like to try your hand at it, please fee free. I have a set of guidelines I'm willing to share with anyone pitching a potential submission.
Steve Bagwell, Editorial Page Editor

Web Design and Web Development by Buildable