Time for "Preschool for All"? Not So Fast, Says New Gold-Standard Research

A few weeks ago I pointed you to a growing body of research that cast serious doubts on the glowing claims about what universal preschool can accomplish. That was before Amendment 66 went down in flames, including a proposal to boost funding for at-risk early childhood education.

While shell-shocked tax increase supporters continue to mourn the devastating rejection of 66, it’s still difficult to contemplate what might come next. Yet into the fray comes the most powerful batch of troubling results yet — troubling for backers of expanded early childhood education.

A summary of gold-standard research findings on 1,100 intensively studied youngsters in a Tennessee preschool program was reported yesterday by the Brookings Institution’s Russ Whitehurst:

…the group that experienced the Tennessee Voluntary State Pre-K Program performed somewhat less well on cognitive tasks at the end of first grade than the control group, even though ¾ of the children in the control group had no experience as four-year-olds in a center-based early childhood program.

As to social-emotional factors, the preschool program students came out slightly behind their “control group” peers. TN-VPK participants were a little less likely to be held back in kindergarten, more likely to be enrolled in special education services, and showed no difference in school attendance or discipline records.

Whitehurst put the “devastating” results in context:

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.

These “stubborn” facts need to enter the Colorado debate ASAP. What would a similarly rigorous study show of the Colorado Preschool Program? Local proponents of expanded government funding for early childhood education will have to address the results. They ought to explain why their approach should be adopted when the research for the effectiveness (and affordability) of private school choice is far more compelling.

We should be rallying behind a scholarship tax credit program that helps Colorado Kids Win instead.