State-funded pre-kindergarten makes kids dumber by sixth grade, a major study found. As Peter Suderman notes, “Over and over again, the Biden administration has touted the benefits of ‘universal’ preschool and pre-kindergarten (pre-K) education….President Joe Biden’s stalled spending bill plans to devote what the White House calls a “historic $200 billion investment in America’s future” to expanding access to preschool and pre-K schooling.” But a recently published “study of a state-run pre-K program in Tennessee found that not only did the program not produce any long-term educational gains, by sixth grade, the children who attended the state’s pre-K program were actually performing worse on both educational attainment and behavioral metrics relative to their peers. State-run pre-K appears to have entirely negative effects for children enrolled.”
As Suderman observes,
The new study results were based on the findings of a randomized controlled experiment that looked at nearly 3,000 children in Tennessee. Some of these children were randomly selected for the state’s pre-K program; others may have attended alternatives, like Head Start or home-based care. The children in both groups were then followed for years, allowing the researchers to track educational attainment and disciplinary issues over time.
As public policy research goes, this sort of study design—randomized selection into a program plus years of follow-up on the same relatively large group of subjects—is about as high-quality as you’re likely to get. Indeed, this is the first randomized controlled study of state-run pre-K, lending extra weight to its findings. And that makes the results all the more devastating.
Although the program initially produced small gains in educational achievement among students who attended pre-K, relative to their peers who did not, by third grade those gains had been wiped out, and a small decline in student performance began to show.
By sixth grade, the difference was even starker: Students who had attended pre-K performed worse on standardized tests, had more disciplinary issues, and were more likely to be sent to special education services.
Pre-K did not help poor children, whom some might assume would benefit most from being in pre-K rather than with their parents; “for poor children, it turns out that something is not better than nothing,” said Vanderbilt University’s Dale Farran, who was quoted in a report about the study by the progressive education news site the Hechinger Report. Farran discussed the harm that state-run pre-K systems are doing to poor children, supposedly the chief beneficiaries of state-funded pre-K. Farran says the study’s robust design should rule out alternative explanations, such as parental engagement, as explanations for its results.