| March 6, 2013

Is Oklahoma’s Preschool Program ‘High-Quality’?

During his State of the Union address last month, President Barack Obama proposed making “high-quality preschool available to every single child in America.”

“In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children—like Georgia or Oklahoma—studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, and form more stable families of their own,” the president averred.

Given that Oklahoma’s universal preschool program began in 1998, meaning the program’s first participants are still teenagers, Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler wondered: “How does the president know such state programs mean these children will be able to hold a job or have stable marriages?”

“He doesn’t,” Kessler concluded, awarding the president “two Pinocchios” for his assertion.

‘Thin Empirical Gruel’

Many scholars are not persuaded that universal preschool is a wise use of scarce public resources.

Preschool expert Russ Whitehurst is the former director of the Institute of Education Sciences within the U.S. Department of Education. Just a few weeks prior to President Obama’s address, Dr. Whitehurst, now a senior fellow at the liberal Brookings Institution, explored the question of whether state-funded pre-K programs for four-year-olds are good public investments (“Can We Be Hard-Headed about Preschool? A Look at Universal and Targeted Pre-K”).

Advocates of universal pre-K point to research conducted in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to support their claim that middle-class children as well as children from low-income at-risk backgrounds can benefit from a pre-K program delivered by the state. The research design involved comparing children who had just missed the birth date cutoff for entry into pre-K with those that just made the cut. The finding was that at the end of the year of participation in state pre-K the slightly older group scored higher on cognitive tests than the slightly younger group, which had not yet had access to the state pre-K program. There were differences favoring the state pre-K group for children from middle class as well as low-income backgrounds, but the effects were larger for low-income children.

Unfortunately the research design of the Tulsa study is critically flawed when used to draw conclusions about the impact of a state pre-K program in that it requires the implausible assumption that any differences in tested outcomes for the two groups of children after the slightly older group finished pre-K were due to pre-K participation by the older group vs. lack of access to such participation by the slightly younger group of children. …

The Tulsa study and other studies that use a design that compares children who just meet or just miss the age cut-off for pre-K can’t estimate the impact of state pre-K because they are comparing children that may differ in many experiences in addition to their participation in state pre-K.


Studies such as these offer only “thin empirical gruel,” Dr. Whitehurst says, and “fall far short of providing a convincing case for investment in universal pre-K.”

Dr. Whitehurst is not alone. In their book Disrupting Class, Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen and his co-authors concluded that universal pre-K is “an ineffective mechanism for addressing the challenge of better preparing children for school.”

Cato Institute scholar Andrew J. Coulson says “the empirical case for universal government pre-K collapses under mild scrutiny.”

Oklahoma Reading Scores Have Declined

“As the Obama Administration attempts to move toward universal, taxpayer-funded preschool,” writes Heritage Foundation research fellow Lindsey Burke, “policymakers should examine the experiences of states that have offered such programs for more than a decade. Both Georgia and Oklahoma have done so, but there is little evidence that taxpayers and children are benefiting.”

Since 1998, Oklahoma has offered all four-year-old children the opportunity to attend state-funded preschool. During the 2011–2012 school year, more than 38,000 children enrolled in either full-day or half-day state-run preschool programs; more than 70 percent of four-year-olds in Oklahoma are enrolled in state-funded public preschool. Oklahoma spent more than $133 million on early education in 2011, and per-pupil preschool spending is nearly $7,700 per child.

Given the importance of reading as a foundation for learning in later years, fourth-grade reading test scores are a leading indicator for academic achievement. In order to get an idea of the reading achievement of fourth graders in Georgia and Oklahoma, one can turn to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), often referred to as the nation’s “report card.” While NAEP outcomes are influenced by many factors, if universal preschool yielded the kinds of meaningful, long-term benefits promised by supporters, it would likely be evident in NAEP fourth-grade reading scores.

More than a decade after offering students universal preschool, neither Oklahoma nor Georgia has shown impressive progress in students’ academic achievement, as measured by the NAEP. In fact, in Oklahoma, fourth-grade reading test scores have declined since 1998, when the state first implemented universal preschool. Moreover, in Georgia, an evaluation conducted by Georgia State University found that “by the end of first grade, children who did not attend preschool had skills similar to those of Georgia’s preschoolers.”

Expensive Babysitting

“At best, universal pre-K is a babysitting service,” writes best-selling career-management author Penelope Trunk. “Middle-class parents can’t afford good child care, which Obama says in his speech, and he says that preschool is a childcare solution more than an education solution.”

But it’s not a good solution, says Trunk, the co-founder of Brazen Careerist, a career-management tool for next-generation professionals. Calling universal pre-K “a throwback to pre-1970s feminism,” she says it “does very little for working women,” takes away “the very idea of choice that women have been fighting for,” and is “out of sync with what families need.

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