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More Evidence that Universal Preschool Doesn't Offer Lasting Benefits

By second grade the benefits of one of the nation's 'best' universal pre-K programs are gone

Lisa Snell
August 22, 2008

This summer, governors across the country have continued to expand universal preschool programs and state-run preschool. This week, Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-LA) signed into law a universal preschool program that will fund preschool for every four year old in Louisiana by 2013. Earlier, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) signed Massachusetts' universal preschool program into law, and Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D-MI) signed legislation that will boost funding for Michigan's pre-K program by $10 million.

In the United States current state spending on state-run preschool programs is close to $4 billion a year. In the 2008 report "Leadership Matters: Governors' Pre-K Proposals Fiscal Year 2009," the universal preschool advocacy group "Pre-K Now" triumphantly reports that "for fiscal year 2009, 16 governors and the Mayor of the District of Columbia acted boldly to protect and grow high-quality, voluntary pre-kindergarten programs. Their proposals total $261 million in increased funding for pre-K and would make early childhood programs available to 60,000 more children." And presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) is proposing a $10 billion federal investment in early education.

The Pre-K Now report praises Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen (D), calling him "among the nation's leaders in high quality pre-K innovation and funding." They note that Gov. Bredesen's pre-K investments have increased by more than 200 percent since fiscal year 2006 and he's recommended another 31 percent funding increase for fiscal year 2009.

The Tennessee program is considered a gold-standard. It meets 9 out of 10 criteria for a high-quality program set by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER)--such as preschool teachers with teaching credentials, small class-size, and comprehensive early-learning standards.

Yet, despite this extremely high quality program, an interim study on the program's progress done for the Tennessee Comptroller's Office finds no lasting academic value for Tennessee students who participated in the public pre-kindergarten program.

Two groups of students participated in the study. The first consisted of pre-K students who were identified in assessment records and then individually matched to the second group - other students with the same demographics who did not attend preschool. As the study's authors note "this rigorous precision matching technique was employed to construct a random sample of non-pre-K students that matched the pre-K group as closely as possible in all possible respects given the data available for the analysis."

The report conducted by Ohio-based Strategic Research Group finds that the advantages of participating in Tennessee's public pre-kindergarten program disappear by the time students reach the second grade.

The study shows that children who attended pre-K performed better in reading, language and math in kindergarten and in the first grade than students who did not attend pre-school. However, by the second grade, there was no statistically significant difference between those who went to pre-K and those who did not.

The report measured student achievement using the results of standardized tests given in three academic years between 2004 and 2007. As the study authors conclude, "…although Pre-K students initially demonstrated an advantage on these assessments over peers who did not participate in pre-k, by the second grade there was no statistically significant difference in these groups."

In addition, the students who participated in pre-K did not outscore their peers in the third through fifth grade either. In every case, in every subject, there was no statistical difference between the children who attended preschool and those who did not. There was no advantage for low-income children or middle-income children.

This study adds to the growing evidence that students who participate in early education programs do not have lasting academic gains.

In Oklahoma and Georgia, which both have decade-long universal preschool programs with high quality standards, students score below the national average on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), the nation's benchmark for student achievement. For example, Oklahoma, where state-funded pre-kindergarten has been in place for 18 years - and offered universally for nearly a decade, has slipped below the national average on math and reading scores for both the fourth and eighth grades since it began expanding government preschool.

Oklahoma scores fell from one point above the national average in fourth grade math in 1992 to two points behind in 2007. They also slipped behind in eighth grade math, from one point ahead before the pre-K program to five points behind the national average after pre-K was implemented. In reading eighth grade scores slipped from four points ahead in 1998 to one point behind. And Oklahoma's fourth grade reading scores plummeted during the 1990's at the very same time the state was aggressively expanding preschool access, increasing attendance, and building a system that the NIEER rates as a 9 out of 10 on quality.

If preschool advocates are selling large investments in state-run preschool programs as the silver bullet to raise student achievement in public schools and lower the dropout rate, mounting evidence finds little support for these optimistic claims. The failures of the nation's K-12 public schools erase any benefits that pre-kindergarten might offer. Soon after they leave kindergarten, students who attend state-run preschool programs are performing no better than those students who did not enroll. Universal preschool is an over-hyped solution to the difficult, important work of reforming the K-12 education system. By diverting scarce resources away from actually fixing the K-12 public school system, universal preschool isn't part of the solution to our education problems.


Lisa Snell is Director of Education


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