| December 9, 2013

New study ‘devastating’ for universal preschool advocates

In his State of the Union address this year, President Barack Obama praised Oklahoma for making it “a priority to educate our youngest children.” The president’s comments were not surprising: Oklahoma has a reputation for leading the nation in early-childhood education. One prominent Oklahoman, a key Obama fundraiser, has actually visited the White House at least 16 times to discuss early-childhood education, and has appeared on a platform with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius to promote the cause.

But as I said at the time (“President Obama’s enthusiasm for Oklahoma preschool not universally shared”), Mr. Obama’s praise of Oklahoma’s preschool program was not warranted. And now comes more bad news for preschool advocates. As Joy Pullmann, a research fellow of The Heartland Institute, reports (“Another Gold-Standard Study Shows Preschool Ineffective”):

Initial findings from a high-quality study of Tennessee’s government preschool program has found its participants scored lower on cognitive tests than peers who did not attend the program. On social skills, preschool participants were statistically no different from non-preschool peers, and were actually ranked worse on four of seven outcomes including behavior problems and feelings about school. The study, which started in 2009 and will continue, is the first large-scale, randomized research conducted on a present-day government preschool program. Its findings agree with other high-quality research on government preschool, including federal evaluations of Head Start.

Preschool expert Russ Whitehurst, a developmental psychologist and a self-described “advocate of strengthening early childhood programs,” sees these findings as “devastating for advocates of the expansion of state pre-k programs.” Dr. Whitehurst, the former director of the Institute of Education Sciences within the U.S. Department of Education, now serves as a senior fellow at the liberal Brookings Institution. He writes:

Unfortunately, supporters of Preschool for All, including some academics who are way out in front of what the evidence says and know it, have turned a blind eye to the mixed and conflicting nature of research findings on the impact of pre-k for four-year-olds. Instead, they highlight positive long-term outcomes of two boutique programs from 40-50 years ago that served a couple of hundred children. And they appeal to recent research with serious methodological flaws that purports to demonstrate that district preschool programs in places such as Tulsa and the Abbott districts in New Jersey are effective. Ignored, or explained away, are the results from the National Head Start Impact Study (a large randomized trial), which found no differences in elementary school outcomes between children who had vs. had not attended Head Start as four-year-olds. They also ignore research showing negative impacts on children who receive child care supported through the federal child development block grant program, as well as evidence that the universal pre-k programs in Georgia and Oklahoma, which are closest to what the Obama administration has proposed, have had, at best, only small impacts on later academic achievement.

Discussing the newly released study of Tennessee’s government preschool program, Dr. Whitehurst writes:

I see these findings as devastating for advocates of the expansion of state pre-k programs. This is the first large scale randomized trial of a present-day state pre-k program. Its methodology soundly trumps the quasi-experimental approaches that have heretofore been the only source of data on which to infer the impact of these programs. And its results align almost perfectly with those of the Head Start Impact Study, the only other large randomized trial that examines the longitudinal effects of having attended a public pre-k program. Based on what we have learned from these studies, the most defensible conclusion is that these statewide programs are not working to meaningfully increase the academic achievement or social/emotional skills and dispositions of children from low-income families. I wish this weren’t so, but facts are stubborn things.

Couple these facts with the budget realities at 23rd and Lincoln, and again the question arises: Why does Oklahoma still have a universal pre-kindergarten program?

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