Vanderbilt Study Casts Doubt on Benefits of State-Run Pre-K Programs

Commentary

Vanderbilt Study Casts Doubt on Benefits of State-Run Pre-K Programs

Last month, Vanderbilt’s Peabody Research Institute and the Tennessee Department of Education released the results of the nation’s first longitudinal study on a large-scale state-run pre-K program. The Tennessee Voluntary Pre-K (TNVPK) study drew on five years of data going back to 2009 to evaluate Tennessee’s pre-k program’s effect on student achievement.

Contrary to expectations of universal preschool advocates such as the National Institute for Early Education Research or the Pew Charitable Trusts, the outcome was not a ringing affirmation of the program’s merits. Rather, Vanderbilt’s study showed that TNVPK’s benefits disappeared compared to control students by the end of Kindergarten. It seems that control students’ achievement had caught up in the intervening year. By the second and third grades, the study showed TNVPK participants actually faring worse in achievement than their control counterparts.

Previous studies showing positive relationships between pre-K programs and future achievement have included various methodological errors overviewed by Brookings Institute that bias their results upwards. By contrast, the Vanderbilt study used a randomized design and compared the participant and control populations over 22 different baseline variables, finding significant differences between the two groups in only 2 of them, still close to expected chance variation.

Some opponents claim the Tennessee study is not representative of programs in other states, but the opposite appears true. The TNVPK program meets 9 of 10 federal benchmarks created by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER). Other states with similar programs, like Florida, Texas, Massachusetts, Louisiana, and Florida, all meet fewer. Far from a lower quality, easily dismissible program, TNVPK meets more of state pre-K advocates’ self-defined measures of quality than most programs available.

More follow-up research with similar methodological rigor is needed, but Vanderbilt’s study supports the underlying objections of school choice supporters to universal pre-K proposals. Even if states could provide cheap and effective programs, no amount of early childhood intervention is going to fix the underlying problems of our state-run school system. Without introducing more parental choice and portable student funding to create positive competitive incentives, kids will only encounter the same structural issues failing them now as they get older.

What’s more, state programs may risk the pressure to essentially axe the “pre” part of pre-K. That’s a dangerous move at a life-stage when play is perhaps the most important way children learn. It’s easy to picture how an overly disciplinarian and curriculum-oriented pre-school environment could be worse for children’s general inquisitiveness and well-being in the long-term.

Preschool is certainly a helpful process for most kids, but Vanderbilt’s new study shows that we should take a serious look at whether providing it through universal state-run programs is really the best use of our resources.

Tyler Koteskey was an education policy analyst at Reason Foundation, a non-profit think tank advancing free minds and free markets.