The Very Short-Lived Benefits of Universal Preschool

Reason’s Lisa Snell’s new column looks at a new study on universal preschool and the lack of lasting academic benefits it finds:

The Pre-K Now report praises Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen (D), calling him “among the nation’s leaders in high quality pre-K innovation and funding.” They note that Gov. Bredesen’s pre-K investments have increased by more than 200 percent since fiscal year 2006 and he’s recommended another 31 percent funding increase for fiscal year 2009. The Tennessee program is considered a gold-standard. It meets 9 out of 10 criteria for a high-quality program set by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER)–such as preschool teachers with teaching credentials, small class-size, and comprehensive early-learning standards. Yet, despite this extremely high quality program, an interim study on the program’s progress done for the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office finds no lasting academic value for Tennessee students who participated in the public pre-kindergarten program. Two groups of students participated in the study. The first consisted of pre-K students who were identified in assessment records and then individually matched to the second group – other students with the same demographics who did not attend preschool. As the study’s authors note “this rigorous precision matching technique was employed to construct a random sample of non-pre-K students that matched the pre-K group as closely as possible in all possible respects given the data available for the analysis.” The report conducted by Ohio-based Strategic Research Group finds that the advantages of participating in Tennessee’s public pre-kindergarten program disappear by the time students reach the second grade. The study shows that children who attended pre-K performed better in reading, language and math in kindergarten and in the first grade than students who did not attend pre-school. However, by the second grade, there was no statistically significant difference between those who went to pre-K and those who did not. The report measured student achievement using the results of standardized tests given in three academic years between 2004 and 2007. As the study authors conclude, “…although Pre-K students initially demonstrated an advantage on these assessments over peers who did not participate in pre-k, by the second grade there was no statistically significant difference in these groups.” In addition, the students who participated in pre-K did not outscore their peers in the third through fifth grade either. In every case, in every subject, there was no statistical difference between the children who attended preschool and those who did not. There was no advantage for low-income children or middle-income children. This study adds to the growing evidence that students who participate in early education programs do not have lasting academic gains.

Full Column Reason Foundation’s Education Research