Summary of Research on Pre-K

By Aaron Rice
February 14, 2013

Summary: Research on State-Funded Pre-K: Does it work? What does the research really say?

Advocates of government funded Pre-K claim "study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road" and that "five decades of rigorous research have shown that high-quality Pre-K has large and lasting effects."

But is this really true? And does it mean state funded pre-K is a good idea?

In fact, the research on state-funded Pre-K is very limited. Several studies indicate that the benefits from state-funded Pre-K fade out very quickly and are not worth the cost. Thus while some studies might show that certain Pre-K interventions are helpful for a very limited number of high risk kids, there are valid reasons to conclude state-funded Pre-K will be ineffective.

According to Russ Whitehurst of the Brookings Institution, one of the nation's oldest and most respected think tanks:

"We do not have randomized trials on even the short term impacts of state-funded pre-K, much less randomized trials with long term follow-up into adulthood. ... This thin empirical gruel will not satisfy policymakers who want to practice evidence-based education."

Pre-K: Two Major Studies Give Reason for Skepticism

Whitehurst writes that the explosion in public Pre-K programs is underpinned by research findings from two preschool interventions from 30 to 40 years ago whose participants have been followed into adulthood: the Perry Preschool Project and the Abecedarian Project. Yet these were multi-year interventions -- small hothouse programs run by very experienced, committed teams. The studies were also conducted before Head Start was in place. Thus, even without the recent negative findings about Head Start there would be reason to be skeptical that today's typical state preschool programs for four-year-olds are producing the large benefits that accrued to participants in Perry and Abecedarian.

Most important, costs per participant for Perry and Abecedarian were multiples of the levels of investment in present-day state preschool programs, e.g., $90,000 per child for Abecedarian.

Brief Study Summary:

  • The push for state-funded Pre-K is grounded in two studies: Perry and Abecedarian.
  • These two studies are outdated and evaluated children who live in very different circumstances today. They also were conducted before Head Start began.
  • The Pre-K programs used in Perry and Abecedarian are also not replicable on a large scale and would cost about $90,000 per child if done today.

Under ideal circumstances state funded Pre-K might help a very limited number of children -- but only at an extremely high cost to taxpayers. We already know the $180 billion Head Start program is a disappointing failure. Whitehurst, who holds a Ph.D. in child psychology, writes:

"Head Start spends about twice as much per child per year as states ($8K per child per year for Head Start vs. $4K for state Pre-K). And Head Start includes many program components that are advocated by early childhood experts such as health, nutrition, and parental involvement that are much less prevalent in state Pre-K. If a year of Head Start does not improve achievement in elementary school, should we assume that a year of state Pre-K does?"

Whitehurst's assessment is validated by a multi-year study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Hailed as "one of the most ambitious, methodologically rigorous, and expensive federal program evaluations carried out in the last quarter century," the study demonstrates that Head Start is a failure. It concludes:

"By the end of 3rd grade there were very few impacts ... in any of the four domains of cognitive, social-emotional, health and parenting practices. The few impacts that were found did not show a clear pattern of favorable or unfavorable impacts for children."

A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, the largest and one of the most respected economics research organizations in the country, concludes that the short-term learning gains from Pre-K come at a high cost. An NBER paper on Pre-K notes:

"Prekindergarten programs are expanding rapidly, but to date, evidence on their effects is quite limited. ... We find that prekindergarten increases reading and mathematics skills at school entry, but also increases behavioral problems and reduces self-control. Furthermore, the effects of prekindergarten on skills largely dissipate by the spring of first grade, although the behavioral effects do not."

States that have adopted Pre-K are now finding it does not produce the desired gains

Consider Georgia, which has had state-funded universal preschool since 1993. A three-year study by Georgia State University concluded that the state's multimillion dollar investments in Pre-K are not paying off:

"It is important to note that Georgia's preschoolers, including those who had been enrolled in Georgia Pre-K, lost ground against the national norms between the end of kindergarten and the end of first grade on two measures of language skills, although their scores remained well above those achieved at the begin­ning of preschool. ... By the end of first grade, children who did not attend preschool had skills similar to those of Georgia's preschoolers."

A recent study of Tennessee's Pre-K program found similar results. "Overall, Pre-K students didn't score higher than non-Pre-K students on any assessments," notes a 2011 report for the legislature by the Strategic Research Group. Likewise, in grades 3-5, there were "no instances where Pre-K students scored higher than non-Pre-K students. Instead, a number of instances where Pre-K students scored lower."

At best, the research on Pre-K is mixed, with the results becoming more and more questionable for state-funded programs. The irony is that just as other states are finding Pre-K is ineffective, Mississippi lawmakers are rushing to adopt a failed and expensive program. The better option is to study this issue further in order to obtain a clear idea as to what interventions will really help Mississippi's children.


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