Friday, July 13, 2018

Does state pre-K improve children’s achievement?

(Brookings) - Executive Summary

There is a strong and politically bipartisan push to increase access to government-funded pre-K. This is based on a premise that free and available pre-K is the surest way to provide the opportunity for all children to succeed in school and life, and that it has predictable and cost-effective positive impacts on children’s academic success. 

The evidence to support this predicate is weak. There is only one randomized trial of a scaled-up state pre-K program with follow-up into elementary school. Rather than providing an academic boost to its participants as expected by pre-K advocates, achievement favored the control group by 2nd and 3rd grade. It is, however, only one study of one state program at one point in time.

Do the findings generalize? The present study provides new correlational analyses that are relevant to the possible impact of state pre-K on later academic achievement. Findings include:

  • no association between states’ federally reported scores on the fourth grade National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in various years and differences among states in levels of enrollment in their state’s pre-K program five years earlier than each of those years (when the fourth-graders taking NAEP would have been preschoolers);
  • positive associations (small and typically not statistically significant) between NAEP scores and earlier pre-K enrollment, when the previous analysis is conducted using NAEP scores that are statistically adjusted to account for differences between the states in the demographic characteristics of students taking NAEP; and
  • no association between differences among states in their gains in state pre-K enrollment and their gains in adjusted NAEP scores.

Under the most favorable scenario for state pre-K that can be constructed from these data, increasing pre-K enrollment by 10 percent would raise a state’s adjusted NAEP scores by a little less than one point five years later and have no influence on the unadjusted NAEP scores.

Unabashed enthusiasts for increased investments in state pre-K need to confront the evidence that it does not enhance student achievement meaningfully, if at all. It may, of course, have positive impacts on other outcomes, although these have not yet been demonstrated. It is time for policymakers and advocates to consider and test potentially more powerful forms of investment in better futures for children.

States vary considerably in the percentage of their four-year-olds that enroll in the state’s pre-K program. In the 2011-2012 school year, for example, there were 10 states without a state pre-K program at all whereas the average enrollment among the 10 states with the largest programs was 52 percent. The state that led the list that year, Florida, enrolled 79 percent of its four-year-olds.

With an occasional stutter, state pre-K enrollments have increased over time. From 2002 to 2017, the percentage of four-year-olds enrolled in state pre-K rose from 14 percent to 33 percent.[1] A few states expanded dramatically during this time frame. Florida, the leader in enrollment by 2011-2012, had no state pre-K program in 2003-2004.

Advocates for government-funded pre-K argue that it is the surest way to provide the opportunity for all children to succeed in school and life. The buy-in by politicians is impressive. President Obama articulated this viewpoint in his 2013 state of the union address:

Tonight, I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America. Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on – by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime. In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children, like Georgia or Oklahoma, studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, and form more stable families of their own. So let’s do what works, and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind. Let’s give our kids that chance.[2]

The push for expansion of state pre-K is bipartisan. About a third of U.S. governors who delivered state of the state addresses in 2018 highlighted early learning initiatives. More than half were Republicans.[3]

Leaving aside the positions taken by politicians and pre-K advocates, is there good reason to believe that state pre-K is effective? Or is it another one of the periodic crazes that grip education reform in America, in the absence of or despite available evidence?


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