The benefits of creating a new pre-kindergarten program have been greatly oversold by progressive advocates — according to a new study by the Brookings Institution.
The study examines the voluntary pre-K (TNVPK) program created by Tennessee in 1996 — and expanded by Tennessee legislators in 2005 — at a cost of $85 million to the state’s taxpayers.
Many pre-K advocates claim pre-K programs will lead to improvements in long-lasting learning improvements, but the numbers do not back this claim up.
From the study:
As is evident, pre-K and control children started the pre-K year at virtually identical levels. The TNVPK children were substantially ahead of the control group children at the end of the pre-K year (age 5 in the graph). By the end of kindergarten (age 6 in the graph), the control children had caught up to the TNVPK children, and there were no longer significant differences between them on any achievement measures. The same result was obtained at the end of first grade using two composite achievement measures (the second created with the addition of two more WJIII subtests appropriate for the later grades). In second grade, however, the groups began to diverge with the TNVPK children scoring lower than the control children on most of the measures. The differences were significant on both achievement composite measures and on the math subtests. Differences favoring the control persisted through the end of third grade.
In terms of behavioral effects, in the spring the first grade teachers reversed the fall kindergarten teacher ratings. First grade teachers rated the TNVPK children as less well prepared for school, having poorer work skills in the classrooms, and feeling more negative about school. It is notable that these ratings preceded the downward achievement trend we found for VPK children in second and third grades. The second and third grade teachers rated the behaviors and feelings of children in the two groups as the same; there was a small positive finding for peer relations favoring the TNVPK children by third grade teachers, which did not meet traditional levels of statistical significance.
According to this study, pre-K students in Tennessee were, educationally, “substantially ahead” of students who weren’t in a pre-K program before entering kindergarten.
However, that gap between the two groups of students quickly closed after their kindergarten years. After that, “there are no longer significant differences between them on any achievement measures.”
Spending more tax dollars on Pre-K is an idea being pushed by the progressive Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families. They say “early childhood education can have large and lasting impacts.” Well, if you define “large and lasting impacts” as achievement score increases that vanish after kindergarten, that’s true.
They also say “pre-K saves K-12 public schools money.” Yes, how could anyone believe that creating a huge, new pre-K program with taxpayer dollars — which creates benefits that vanish by the end of kindergarten — could cost taxpayers any money?
In short: as this Brookings study shows, pre-K isn’t the silver bullet that many pre-K advocates are making it out to be. Unfortunately, the evidence is mounting that it’s a bullet that misses the target.