Is Universal Pre-K Worth the Price?

The results of a multiyear study raise red flags about the benefits of preschool for all four-year-olds.

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Oct 17, 2015· 3 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

It’s been hailed as a no-brainer for closing the achievement gap between poor minority kids and their affluent white counterparts. Academics, parents, and even politicians have embraced universal pre-kindergarten programs as a way to set underserved children on a course for academic success.

However, a recent long-term study from Vanderbilt University has added fuel to the debate over universal pre-K, as it’s known, and whether its high price tag is worth it for kids who might not otherwise have access to early education programs. While supporters say the study is another piece of information on how to improve the programs—and that preschool for all isn’t intended to be a panacea for issues such as poverty—critics argue the results prove early childhood education delivers no bang for a whole lot of bucks.

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Vanderbilt’s researchers found that although available high-quality pre-kindergarten programs do a great job preparing youngsters with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in kindergarten—kids learn everything from the ABCs and how to count to 100 to how to hold a pencil and cut with scissors—the benefits fade quickly, as early as the second semester of kindergarten.

The five-year study, which was a collaboration between Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education and the Tennessee Department of Education, examined the Volunteer State’s government-funded pre-K programs, focusing on the state’s $85 million program for 18,000 underserved minority kids, including those whose primary language wasn’t English.

After tracking them and a control group from pre-K through third grade, the researchers found that, on average, when the pre-K children reached kindergarten, they were more prepared for instruction, performed better in class, and had a better attitude toward school than the children who hadn’t gone to preschool. But by the time they reached first grade, Vanderbilt’s researchers found, scores in all three metrics decreased, though not drastically, and students who hadn’t attended preschool had “caught up” to the group that had.

By second grade, “the groups began to diverge,” with the pre-K children “scoring lower than the control children on most of the measures,” wrote the study’s authors. “The differences were significant” and clearly showed the benefits of universal pre-kindergarten had been lost. By third grade, some of the pre-kindergarten students were actually scoring worse than their non-preschool peers on standardized assessment tests.

Now the findings are being used to challenge the expansion of universal pre-K in other parts of the country.

Katharine B. Stevens, a scholar at the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute, cited the study in an editorial in the Los Angeles Times last week in which she encouraged California Gov. Jerry Brown to veto a bill to expand access to preschool to all low-income four-year-olds in the state. “Maintaining high quality in large-scale, state pre-K programs is very hard to do, and pre-K is already too little, too late for many children,” wrote Stevens.

“If we really want to help kids, we have to improve the quality of home environments and child care, not just increase the number of four-year-olds attending public school,” she continued.

Brown vetoed the bill, writing that state preschool “should be considered in the budget process, as it is every year.” It’s estimated that expanding pre-K to approximately 34,000 low-income, mostly black and Latino kids tacks on up to $240 million to the California budget.

The Vanderbilt researchers point out, however, that the study is a snapshot and not a road map. They also note that the Tennessee pre-K programs that went under their microscope didn’t provide long-term support to sustain the gains of the children.

“This is not just pre-K works or doesn’t work, but this is a pre-K through third grade story,” Mark Lipsey, a researcher on the study and the director of Vanderbilt’s Peabody Research Institute, told the Nashville Tennessean in an interview last week. “There is a lot we don’t know yet."

Part of the problem might be the study’s emphasis on third-grade standardized test scores, according to James Heckman, a Nobel Laureate and economics professor at the University of Chicago.

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“Disadvantaged children who receive quality early childhood development have much better education, employment, social, and health outcomes as adults, the vast majority of research shows,” Heckman wrote on Friday in an op-ed for The Hechinger Report. “Unfortunately, this good news is getting lost in the current obsession over third-grade test scores.”

Evaluating pre-K programs “based on third-grade test scores dismisses the full range of skills and capacities developed through early childhood education that strongly contribute to future achievement and life outcomes,” Heckman continued.

Universal pre-K is in place in more than 40 states—red ones as well as blue—and the District of Columbia. In his 2014 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama proposed a $75 billion preschool-for-all proposal, but it has struggled to gain traction in Congress.

Indeed, while the results of the Vanderbilt study were disappointing to many early childhood education advocates, there shouldn’t be a rush to judgment, according to the report. Though there’s broad support for preschool for all in Tennessee, and nearly every county in the state has a program, researchers note, they aren’t identical and vary in quality. At the same time, the study’s results might also indicate the pre-K students need more support as they progress through school.