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
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 2129 GMT (0529 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
April 13, 2014 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1906 GMT (0306 HKT)
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1649 GMT (0049 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1416 GMT (2216 HKT)
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
April 12, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1731 GMT (0131 HKT)
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 2128 GMT (0528 HKT)
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1640 GMT (0040 HKT)
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1839 GMT (0239 HKT)
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1143 GMT (1943 HKT)
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 2057 GMT (0457 HKT)
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1926 GMT (0326 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT