Is President Obama’s Universal Pre-K Vision Effective?

New research on pre-k programs has raised doubts about the effectiveness of President Obama’s Preschool for All, which was announced in the president’s state of the union address in February. Recently, legislation was introduced in the Senate and House to create federally funded universal pre-k for 4-year-olds. The details of the new legislation are largely consistent with Preschool for All, Grover J. Russ Whitehurst writes in Brookings Institution.

According to Whitehurst, supporters of Preschool for All have turned a blind eye to the mixed and conflicting nature of research findings on the impact of pre-k for four-year-olds. They are highlighting positive long term outcomes of two boutique programs from 40-50 years ago that served a couple of hundred children.

Also, proponents appeal to recent research with serious methodological flaws that purports to demonstrate that district preschool programs in places such as Tulsa and the Abbott districts in New Jersey are effective, Whitehurst said, noting that they have ignored the results from the National Head Start Impact Study, which found no differences in elementary school outcomes between children who had vs. had not attended Head Start as four-year-olds.

In addition, proponents ignore research showing negative impacts on children who receive child care supported through the federal child development block grant program, as well as evidence that the universal pre-k programs in Georgia and Oklahoma, which are closest to what the Obama administration has proposed, have had, at best, only small impacts on later academic achievement, according to Whitehurst.

Here I want to draw your attention to a newly released study of Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K Program (TN-VPK). TN‐VPK is a full day pre-k program for four‐year‐olds from low-income families. It has quality standards that are high and in keeping with those proposed by the Obama administration under Preschool for All, including the requirement of a licensed teacher in each classroom, no more than 10 children per adult, and an approved and appropriate curriculum.

The study was conducted by a team of researchers at Vanderbilt. The study, which began in 2009, is a randomized trial involving about 3,000 four-year-olds whose parents had applied for their admission to oversubscribed TN-VPK programs. A lottery was used to select those to whom an offer of admission was made. Those winning the lottery constitute the intervention group. Those losing the lottery constitute the control group.

The researchers found that participants in the TN-VPK were less likely to have been retained in kindergarten than non-participants (4% to 6%). In contrast, children served by TN-VPK were more likely to have received school-based special education services than children in the control group, according to Whitehurst.

There were no statistically significant differences between the two groups on absences from school or disciplinary actions.

The researchers hold out hope that the positive finding on kindergarten retentions means that the TN-VPK had a positive effect on children’s social/emotional development, which will lead to long term positive outcomes like those that were found in the famous Perry Preschool Project, Whitehurst said.

This seems to me to be grasping at straws, given the lack of any differences among participants and non-participants in teacher rated social/emotional outcomes, and given other research showing no association between kindergarten retentions and later school performance, Whitehurst said.