NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

New Evidence Raises Doubts on Obama's Preschool for All

December 11, 2013

New evidence indicates that universal preschool is ineffective, says Russ Whitehurst, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution.

President Obama announced a plan for Preschool for All in February, and legislation has now been introduced in the Senate and the House to create a federally-funded universal pre-kindergarten for four year olds. But much of the support for Preschool for All ignores the evidence that these types of programs are not effective.

  • A new study by Vanderbilt University researchers took 3,000 four year olds whose parents had applied for the children to join Tennessee's Voluntary Pre-K Program (TN-VPK), a full-day pre-kindergarten program for children of low-income families.
  • The TN-VPK standards are very high, have no more than a 10:1 child to adult ratio, and are in line with the standards proposed by President Obama.

The study compared the children who won the lottery and entered the TN-VPK program with those who did not gain admission. The researchers studied 1,100 children from both groups intensively. Cognitive skills were tested at the beginning and end of their pre-kindergarten, kindergarten and first grade years, as were several non-cognitive skills (such as the ability to work independently, or work well with others). Because pre-K education is justified in large part on its purported long-term benefits, those years following the pre-K program were important.

  • The students in the TN-VPK program actually performed less well on cognitive tasks at the end of first grade than did non-participants.
  • There were no statistically significant differences among TN-VPK participants and non-participants in teacher-rated social and emotional skills.
  • There were mixed results when comparing routinely collected school records, but TN-VPK students were more likely to have gotten school-based special education services than non-participants.

The study is the first large-scale random trial of a state pre-kindergarten program, and its results indicate that these types of programs are not working to meaningfully impact the academic performance or social or emotional skills of children from low-income families.

Source: Grover J. Whitehurst, "New Evidence Raises Doubts on Obama's Preschool for All," Brookings Institution, November 20, 2013.


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