Education Opinion

Pre-K Research: Disappointing =/= Devastating

By Sara Mead — November 21, 2013 4 min read
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I’d agree with Russ Whitehurst that the latest findings from the independent evaluation of Tennessee’s VPK program are hardly good news for universal pre-k advocates. Where I’d disagree is Russ’ assertion that this single study represents some kind of devastating blow to the case for pre-k. For at least the past decade, the case for pre-k has been based not on a single study but on a growing body of evidence--from states as diverse as New Jersey and Texas, as well as internationally--that quality early childhood programs have positive results for kids. While it’s indeed troubling that the strong results of VPK observed at the end of preschool don’t appear to extend into first grade, this does not discount the remaining evidence that exists here.

A few additional points:

First, I’m really frustrated with Dr. Whitehurst’s continual insistence on conflating pre-k, Head Start, and subsidized child care--three very different programs. Whitehurst writes, “Ignored, or explained away, are the results from the National Head Start Impact Study (a large randomized trial), which found no differences in elementary school outcomes between children who had vs. had not attended Head Start as four-year-olds. [Early childhood advocates] also ignore research showing negative impactson children who receive child care supported through the federal child development block grant program.” Many pre-k advocates are very aware of the concerns about sustained impacts of Head Start programs--that’s why some of them have advocated for steps, like widespread implementation of CLASS and the designation renewal system--that are designed to improve quality and outcomes in Head Start. Those of us who support universal pre-k are also painfully aware of the research Whitehurst cites on childcare subsidies. We are deeply aware that there is a lot of really crummy childcare out there that is getting a lot of money in public subsidies because quality standards are low and subsidies are inadequate to enable low-income working moms to access care of even minimally acceptable qulaity. We know that these policies are harming children. We’ve visited some of these programs and it’s made us sick and angry. That’s part of the reason we support high-quality pre-k--and other strategies that focus public early childhood resources on quality programs--as a way to get more children out of these abysmal environments and into places that actually support their learning. Whitehurst’s proposed policy of early childhood vouchers with no quality controls would if anything exacerbate the problems of low-quality subsidized care.

Second, I do think there’s a reason to question the logic model for comparing elementary school results for comparable children who were and weren’t randomly selected into pre-k programs. Measures of elementary learning aren’t measuring an innate quality of children; they’re evaluating what children know and can do because they’ve learned it. And what children learn in kindergarten and first grade depends on what and how well they are taught in those grades. If preschool children are being taught in the same classrooms in kindergarten and first grade, exposed to the same curriculum and lessons taught by the same teachers, how exactly do we expect the pre-k graduates to gain the additional learning that enables them to continue to stay ahead of their peers? The Matthew effect? Effective teacher differentiation? To be clear, I’m not trying to argue that we shouldn’t demand pre-k programs produce sustained gains for pre-k students. Long-term improvement in school and life outcomes is the whole goal here, and there is evidence that, at least in some well-designed programs, we do see sustained gains. I’m just noting that studies like this one are not actually testing the theory of action for universal pre-k. The case for universal pre-k is based on the expectation that, by enabling all children to enter school ready to succeed, quality early learning experiences will enable kindergarten and elementary teachers to calibrate instruction and curriculum to build on that readiness, yielding greater gains for kids. That’s different from the argument that we should see sustained gains for individual pre-k graduates in the early elementary grades even if they’re receiving the same curriculum and instruction as their comparable non-pre-k peers. Unfortunately, there are few practical examples from which to test for the former case--and none in a way that meets Dr. Whitehurst’s methodological objections.

Finally, I’d just note that all research about pre-k should be considered in light of what I’ve been saying for a long time: Quality pre-k is not just a just-add-water matter of providing access and setting input standards. What matters is what pre-k programs actually do and what kids experience on a day-to-day basis. Just as some K-12 schools are great and some are lousy, so the same will be true of pre-k unless we build strong systems to ensure quality. If public policies do not ensure that children are getting quality early learning experiences with rich language and content as a core element, we shouldn’t be surprised if results fail to live up to our expectations.

The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.