Universal pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds sounds great in the high-minded speeches of education advocates, members of Congress and the president himself. But the achievement data that result from pre-K programs? Not so great.
The numbers consistently show there is little if any correlation between pre-K attendance and future academic success. In fact, data across a broad spectrum of factors show that whatever gains were achieved during pre-K ultimately were lost by the end of first grade.
Grover J. Whitehurst addresses these realities in his Nov. 20 report for the Brookings Institution. As Mr. Whitehurst notes in the report, he has spent 30 years designing and evaluating programs to enhance the cognitive development of young children. After reviewing an expansive study of Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K Program (TN-VPK), a full-day program for 3,000 4-year-olds from low-income families, he found the long-term academic benefits were practically nonexistent.
The study, Mr. Whitehurst wrote, examined 1,100 children who were drawn from two groups — one comprised of TN-VPK attendees, and the other a control group of students not enrolled in TN-VPK (25 percent of those in the control group were in other programs such as Head Start or private pre-K). By the end of first grade, the cognitive outcomes of the students in pre-K were lower in seven of the eight categories measured — two in literacy, three in language and three in math — though only one was statistically significant: math quantitative concepts.
Keep in mind, 75 percent of the control group students had no experience as 4-year-olds in a center-based early childhood program such as pre-K or Head Start. Said Mr. Whitehurst: “I see these findings as devastating for advocates of the expansion of state pre-K programs.”
Nevada has no shortage of them. With the support of the Legislature and Gov. Brian Sandoval, the Clark County School District this year expanded pre-K programs at elementary campuses with high English Language Learner enrollment. District officials and many lawmakers would like to have full-day pre-K at many more schools.
But when these programs consistently show no benefit beyond first grade — and in some instances a negative effect — what is the justification for expanding pre-K anywhere in Nevada? Simply adopting mandatory full-day kindergarten at all elementary campuses, let alone adding an entirely new grade to these schools, would require a tremendous outlay of construction funds — there is no classroom space for thousands of new pre-K students within the Clark County School District. The system can’t even properly fund its building maintenance needs. How in the world would it pay for new pre-K teachers?
A debate on the value of pre-K versus its tremendous expense might be worthwhile if there were any evidence to support it. But as the Tennessee case shows — and Mr. Whitehurst noted it was a randomized trial, the gold standard for evaluating program impacts — the outcomes prove the benefits aren’t there. Quoting Mr. Whitehurst: “Poor children deserve effective programs, not just programs that are well-intentioned.” (And expensive, too.)