Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K (VPK) program produced no long-term academic or behavioral gains, according to a Vanderbilt study. Controls were children whose parents applied for pre-K but didn’t get a space.
Tennessee’s pre-K program is as high quality as other state pre-K programs, write researchers Dale C. Farran and Mark W. Lipsey. If uneven quality explains the disappointing results, it’s an issue for all state pre-K programs.
VPK children scored higher on achievement tests at the start of kindergarten and teachers said they had better behaviors than the controls. However, by the spring, both groups were doing equally well on academics and kindergarten teachers said the non-VPK students were better behaved.
First grade teachers rated the VPK children “as less well prepared for school, having poorer work skills in the classrooms, and feeling more negative about school,” write Farran and Lipsey.
In second and third grades, the VPK group did worse on academic measures than the controls. Teachers saw no difference in children’s behavior or attitudes.
Tennessee designed the program with care, the researchers write. VPK meets more of the National Institute for Early Education Research quality benchmarks than programs in Florida, Texas, Massachusetts, Louisiana and New Mexico.
Fade out is a common pattern, Farran and Lipsey write. But why did kids do worse? They suspect burnout from “too much repetition of the same content and instructional format.”
Rather than building enthusiasm for learning, confidence in their abilities and a foundational understanding of literacy and math, the programs may only be teaching children how to behave in school, an enthusiasm that fades with repeated exposure.
“I suspect it’s not a coincidence that programs derided as “low quality” tend to be very large,” writes Megan McArdle on Bloomberg View. “The benefits of small intensive programs designed by top-flight researchers” tend to vanish “when you kick a vast government bureaucracy into gear.”
In the 1990s, Quebec started a low-cost universal child care program, notes McArdle. It’s produced few cognitive benefits and children are doing worse on non-cognitive measures, a new study finds.