The Magical Effects of Pre-K

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is claiming that an early childhood program can not only raise educational outcomes, it can prevent disease later in life, according to new findings. After a rudimentary glance at the study referenced, these extraordinary findings are questionable at best and should not be applied to pre-k programs universally.

Launched in the 1970s, researchers at the University of North Carolina (UNC) Chapel Hill enrolled 111 disadvantaged students in the Carolina Abecedarian Project. The children were assigned to either an intervention or control group. The intervention group — all 56 of them — participated in an early childhood intervention that “involved a full 8-hour day of caregiving, supervised play, and a curriculum focused on language development, emotional regulation, and cognitive skills.” Children were also given two meals and a snack and were offered primary pediatric care with periodic checkups.

Researchers conducted several follow-up studies at various ages throughout the participant’s lives with the most recent study examining their health during their mid-30s. It found that “those who’d participated in the early childhood program — especially males — had significantly fewer risk factors for cardiovascular and metabolic diseases compared to the control group.”

Even though the UNC researchers acknowledged and had a noted economist address their small sample size, assuming that this outcome would occur from any form of pre-k is a stretch.

As a whole, most early education programs found today are not nearly as extensive as the Abecedarian project. In particular, the pediatric care that participants received is not a common service and could have been the determining influence on later health outcomes.

What is worrisome is that outcomes like these touting the magical effects of pre-k programs are often taken out of context.

Grover Whitehurst, an education policy guru at the Brookings Institute and former founding director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences applied top tier federal standards to several pre-k studies to evaluate their internal and external validity. Based on these standards Whitehurst argues that outcomes from the Abecedarian project — and other research on pre-k programs from the 1960s and 1970s — shouldn’t be used to determine whether or not to expand modern pre-k due to the influence of differences in exogenous factors then and now. For example, he notes that when the study began little of today’s safety net for the poor was in place, early education programs were very rare and even kindergarten wasn’t the rule.

Whitehurst explains, “Concluding that findings from these studies demonstrate that current and contemplated state pre-k programs will have similar effects is akin to believing that an expansion of the number of U.S. post offices today will spur economic development because there is some evidence that constructing post offices 50 years ago had that effect.”

Proponents of early childhood education or universal pre-school preach that outcomes gained from such services are overwhelmingly clear — that children who have access to pre-k education are more likely to succeed later in life on many accounts.

However not all research on early childhood education has shown overtly positive outcomes, and not all early childhood education is created equal. The spectrum of quality from both public and private pre-k education is broad. The outcomes of a few participants in studies like the Abecedarian Project or the highly cited Perry Preschool Project hinge on the fact that the pre-k services received were top-notch.

Research on pre-k programs in a larger context, for instance the most recent study on the long-term effects of the federal Head Start program, conclude fairly unremarkable results. The National Head Start Impact Study — one of the strongest evaluations of a social program in the last 50 years — found that under certain circumstances some children who participated in Head Start showed gains, but they faded by first grade.

There is hardly agreement by experts on the outcomes of early childhood education, and results from pre-k research have been pretty contradictory. Regardless, it is important to keep in mind the context of the research. As Whitehurst stresses, “we need public debate that recognizes the mixed nature of the research findings rather than a rush to judgment based on one-sided and misleading appeals to the preponderance of the evidence.”

Almost 90 percent of kids today participate in some kind of early education program. If it were the case that all pre-k programs resulted in the most recent findings from the Abecedarian Project one would assume we have a very healthy future to look forward to.