Government-funded pre-school isn’t as effective as some hope

For decades it has been an article of faith among the authors of government spending bills that pre-school was the key to helping children in poverty succeed in life.

But now a Vanderbilt University researcher who has studied early childhood education for fifty years has published the results of a decade-long study that followed 2,990 low-income children in Tennessee from pre-kindergarten through sixth grade.

Researcher Dale Farran told National Public Radio she has had to do “a lot of soul-searching, a lot of reading of the literature to try to think of what were plausible reasons that might account for this.”

She found that children who attended free, public pre-K had worse outcomes than the children who did not. Her study was designed as close to a randomized controlled trial as possible – the children applied to oversubscribed programs and were admitted or rejected on the basis of a lottery system.

At the end of third grade, the kids who had attended pre-K had lower test scores and more suspensions and other trouble at school. At the end of the sixth grade, Farran said, the pre-K group had lower test scores in math, science and reading, as well as more violations leading to both major and minor suspensions.

The public pre-K program was taught by licensed teachers in public schools, and the study found a measurably negative effect on the children.

“I know that people get upset about this and don’t want it to be true,” Farran said.

She’s certainly right about that. The Biden administration has been pushing for federally funded preschool as part of its “Build Back Better Plan.” In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed more funding for an expansion of “transitional kindergarten.”

But Farran’s research suggests that the old assumptions should be challenged, including the assumption that teacher certification requirements are necessary for high quality. “There have been three very large studies, the latest one in 2018, which are not showing any relationship between quality and licensure,” Farran said.

That’s an inconvenient finding for the public employee unions that have pushed for certification requirements to justify higher wages and benefits for pre-K teachers.

But if government-funded preschool is having a negative effect on children, the government had better learn the lesson quickly.