More troubling pre-K numbers

The Observer editorial board

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam reads to pre-K students in Nashville.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam reads to pre-K students in Nashville. NASHVILLE PUBLIC RADIO

Common sense tells us that universal pre-K programs are good investments for cities and states. They give more children more opportunities to start kindergarten without having to play catch-up, which in theory would help chip away at the achievement gap that plagues so many communities.

But a new Vanderbilt University study casts some doubt on those academic gains. The study found that children who participated in Tennessee’s statewide voluntary pre-K actually performed worse by the end of first grade than students who weren’t in the program.

That study, along with new research in Quebec that showed similar results, echo the findings of a 2010 U.S government study on the impact of its Head Start program. The findings should cause both advocates and skeptics of universal pre-K to take a closer look, but perhaps not the way you’d think.

The issue with pre-K isn’t that children don’t immediately benefit. In most cases, they do. But in Tennessee, Quebec and other places, researchers have regularly found that the gains from universal pre-K tended to fade in the first few years of elementary school.

That hasn’t always been the case, according to earlier research. But those studies mostly involved smaller, higher-quality programs from decades ago, not the larger-scale public programs that are more common today.

All of which might be ammunition for lawmakers and skeptics already reluctant to fund universal pre-K, including North Carolina Republicans who tried for years to squeeze money going to pre-K programs.

But universal pre-K remains valuable, even with the questions about long-term academic gains. Studies have consistently shown that students who participate in the programs gain the social and emotional skills to graduate from high school, commit fewer crimes and live healthier lives. Pre-K programs also provide stability to children and families – the Quebec study highlighted the opportunity pre-K gave mothers to enter the labor force.

Still, universal pre-K advocates should be troubled once again by the academic data from Tennessee and Quebec, and they should continue to explore factors that’ve brought successful outcomes in some places. Most often, researchers call for small class sizes and teachers with four-year degrees and early childhood specialization.

Another clue can be found in some success stories, such as Michigan’s renowned HighScope Perry preschool program, which utilized weekly home visits that integrated parents into their children’s academic lives. As educators know, parental involvement is critical to academic success.

Of course, replicating that in universal pre-K would cost more money, not less. But if we want preschool to have the academic impact we envision for at-risk children, it’s the kind of investment we need to make. As the Tennessee data remind us, we need more than just common sense.