Are the Effects of State Pre-K Overrated?

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Getting children on a path where they start school healthy and ready to learn is a goal everyone can agree on. But two new reports—an analysis of state preschool programs and standardized test scores, and a detailed followup to a 2015 study of Tennessee’s pre-K program—offer cautions about embracing state-run prekindergarten.

Both say that the effects of prekindergarten don’t appear to be long-lasting, and that advocates should invest time and effort in other methods that might achieve the goal of school readiness.

Other consensus papers have said as much. For example, a 2017 consensus report from 10 early-childhood researchers stated among its conclusions that “convincing evidence on the longer-term impacts of contemporary scaled-up pre-K programs on academic outcomes and school progress is sparse, precluding broad conclusions.”

In the political sphere, however, enthusiasm for pre-K is widespread. Early education is part of the policy debate underway in the gubernatorial races in Colorado, Ohio, and Wisconsin, for example.

That may be too narrow an approach, said Dale Farran, a co-author of the Tennessee prekindergarten research report and its followup.

“We should remember our goal is to do something good for children, not to run pre-K,” said Farran, a professor of teaching and learning at Vanderbilt University. “What is it that we should be doing, that we could be doing, that could be of benefit to these children?”

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The analysis of prekindergarten and standardized test scores was released this month by Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, a senior fellow in the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution. He was also the first director of the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education.

In his paper, Whitehurst attempted to see if there were any connections between a state’s prekindergarten enrollment and the scores of its 4th graders on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the Nation’s Report Card.

States with large pre-K enrollments have 4th graders who perform better in reading and math—but the effects are tiny, Whitehurst said.

To use an example given in his report, increasing a state’s pre-K enrollment by 10 percent would yield a less than 1 percent bump on that state’s NAEP reading score five years later. In comparison, the achievement gap between white and black students is 26 points.

Investing in what Whitehurst sees as simply another year of school may divert resources from other promising approaches, he said.

For example, policymakers might instead investigate giving parents the financial resources to allow them to shop for the programs that work best for their families, he said.

“What parents desperately need if they’re working, especially if they are lower income, is to have child care when they need it, rather than being assigned another year of school,” Whitehurst said.

He added, “We need to be open to a different way of doing things that is empirically grounded going forward, and that has real humility about what we know.”

Tennessee Followup

The second report is a peer-reviewed and detailed followup analysis of a study that sent shock waves through the early-education field when it was released as a working paper in 2015.

That paper compared the outcomes of children enrolled in Tennessee’s state-run pre-K program with similar children who were not enrolled in the program because it didn’t have enough enrollment slots.

The study found that the positive academic benefits among the prekindergarten students reversed in later grades. In addition, the children enrolled in prekindergarten had more disciplinary infractions and special education placements by the time they reached 3rd grade than children who were not in the program. The prekindergarten program did not have any effects on retention or attendance.

The results in the 2015 working paper led to such vigorous pushback that the authors­—Farran, Mark Lipsey, a research professor at Vanderbilt, and Kelley Durkin, a research associate at Vanderbilt—had a hard time finding a journal to publish their findings, Farran said.

After extensive peer review, the final paper was published online in April by Early Childhood Research Quarterly. It will appear in the August print edition of the journal.

The time lag allowed the researchers to gather more information on student outcomes, including on state tests, discipline, and special education placements.

On state tests administered in 3rd grade, the prekindergarten children scored lower than their peers in the study in reading, science, and math; the differences were statistically significant for science and for math.

The students enrolled in prekindergarten had higher special education rates than their peers throughout the later grades, but the researchers noted that participating in prekindergarten meant that some children might have been identified with disabilities earlier than they otherwise might have. Those early designations tended to persist.

There was one group of prekindergarten students who demonstrated longer-lasting benefits: black boys. They tended to score higher than their peers on teacher ratings of self-control, peer interaction, and feelings about school, and they had higher attendance than their peers.

But why did the children enrolled in the program perform so poorly?

One critique is that Tennessee might have had an unusually poor prekindergarten program. But researchers said that quality scores derived by classroom observers did not uncover a distinctively bad program.

Another hypothesis was that grade-school teachers were not able to build on the gains offered by children’s pre-K experience.

The Vanderbilt researchers are continuing to follow the children in this study, Farran said.

In the meantime, she’d like to see more research into what early skills can really benefit children in the long run. Currently, prekindergarten programs are focused on concrete skills, such as letter and number recognition, that are easily picked up in kindergarten, Farran said.

But she also raised the question of how to focus on traits that might be longer-lasting, such as curiosity.

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“We need a blue-ribbon panel to say what are the kinds of skills that really would profit kids in the long run,” said Farran.

Steve Barnett, the senior co-director and founder of the National Institute for Early Education Research, based at Rutgers University, said he doesn't believe that the results of research outside Tennessee can be generalized beyond that state. And Whitehurst, he said, did not control for other variables that could have affected his results, such as the quality of the state's prekindergarten program. (Whitehurst acknowledged as much, saying that he wanted his analysis to be accessible to a general audience and that he did not require precise estimates to draw his conclusions.)

However, one area where Barnett agreed with the conclusions is that prekindergarten cannot be seen as the primary solution to boosting children's academic achievement.

"We shouldn't be pinning all our hopes on one year of pre-K in any case," Barnett said. "It's certainly a caution that you can't just do pre-K [alone] and expect it to have great results."

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