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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Pre-K’s benefits are ‘overblown’

Universal, free (government-funded) pre-kindergarten is a popular cause, writes Russ Whitehurst, a senior fellow in Brookings’ Center on Children and Families. However, there’s no evidence that pre-K, which is very expensive, improves academic achievement.

Tennessee’s state-funded pre-K program boosted kindergarten readiness, but all benefits were lost by third grade.

Only one large, randomized study has followed pre-K participants and controls through elementary school, he writes. The Tennessee Voluntary Pre-K Program (TVPK) appeared to boost achievement in the early years, but those gains faded quickly. Third graders in the control group had higher achievement in math and science, while former TVPK participants had more disciplinary infractions and special education placements.

Whitehurst analyzed national data on “pre-K enrollment at the state level and state NAEP scores five years later for five separate cohorts of four-year-olds.” Adjusting the data for student demographics created a small, positive effect for reading, he found.

Under the most favorable scenario for state pre-K that can be constructed from these data, increasing pre-K enrollment by 10 percent would raise a state’s adjusted NAEP scores by a little less than one point five years later and have no influence on the unadjusted NAEP scores.

It’s possible that “some state pre-K programs have positive long-term impacts on the achievement of some children,” he writes. Maybe, “differently designed and delivered state pre-K programs or better alignment between state pre-K programs and the public schools could lead to substantive impacts.”

However, it makes little sense to invest billions in state pre-K for four-year-olds with so little evidence it will make a meaningful difference, Whitehurst argues. There may be far more effective ways to spend that money.

Straight Talk on Evidence analyzes the Tennessee’s study’s findings in detail, and includes comments by its authors, Dale Farran and Mark Lipsey.

Our initial results supported the immediate effectiveness of pre-k; children in the program performed better at the end of pre-k than control children, most of whom had stayed home.  The press, the public, and our colleagues relished these findings.  But . . .  third grade results told a different story.  Not only was there fade out, but the pre-k children scored below the controls on the state achievement tests.  Moreover, they had more disciplinary offenses and none of the positive effects on retention and special education that were anticipated.

Those findings were greeted with “vitriol,” say Farran and Lipsey.

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