New study: Tennessee pre-K program provides no educational benefit over control group

This is the most thorough study that I have ever seen evaluating the effectiveness of pre-K programs. The study was done by researchers at Vanderbilt University. (H/T Brad Wilcox tweet)

The study was reported on by the well-respected but leftist Brookings Institute.

They write:

State investments in center-based school readiness programs for preschoolers (pre-K), whether targeted for poor children or universally implemented, have expanded more rapidly than evaluations of their effects. Given the current interest and continuing expansion of state funded pre-K, it is especially important to be clear about the nature of the available evidence for the effectiveness of such programs. Despite widespread claims about proven benefits from pre-K, there is actually strikingly little credible research about the effectiveness of public pre-K programs scaled for statewide implementation.

Like many states that became interested in scaling up a state funded pre-K program in the early 2000’s, voluntary pre-K (TNVPK) was introduced in Tennessee in 1996 as a way to provide academic enhancement to economically disadvantaged children. It expanded in 2005 to an $85 million-plus statewide investment serving 18,000 Tennessee income-eligible children in 935 classrooms across all 95 counties.

Launched in 2009, the TNVPK Effectiveness Study, a coordinated effort between Vanderbilt’s Peabody Research Institute and the Tennessee Department of Education, is a five-year evaluation study funded by the US Department of Education, Institute for Education Sciences. It includes the first randomized control trial of a scaled up state funded pre-K program and the first well-controlled comparison group study of the effects of program participation as children progress through elementary school..

Policymakers and proponents often cite some of the famous early studies of pre-K programs that have shown long term benefits extending into adulthood for the participating children. But those were studies of especially complex programs that are unlike scaled-up public pre-K in many ways. The Vanderbilt study is the first rigorous controlled longitudinal study to be conducted on a large-scale state-funded pre-K program.

And here is a summary of the results:

Standard score results from pre-K through 3rd grade on a composite measure that averaged the six achievement subtests are presented from baseline forward in the graph below.

As is evident, pre-K and control children started the pre-K year at virtually identical levels. The TNVPK children were substantially ahead of the control group children at the end of the pre-K year (age 5 in the graph). By the end of kindergarten (age 6 in the graph), the control children had caught up to the TNVPK children, and there were no longer significant differences between them on any achievement measures. The same result was obtained at the end of first grade using two composite achievement measures (the second created with the addition of two more WJIII subtests appropriate for the later grades). In second grade, however, the groups began to diverge with the TNVPK children scoring lower than the control children on most of the measures. The differences were significant on both achievement composite measures and on the math subtests. Differences favoring the control persisted through the end of third grade.

In terms of behavioral effects, in the spring the first grade teachers reversed the fall kindergarten teacher ratings. First grade teachers rated the TNVPK children as less well prepared for school, having poorer work skills in the classrooms, and feeling more negative about school. It is notable that these ratings preceded the downward achievement trend we found for VPK children in second and third grades. The second and third grade teachers rated the behaviors and feelings of children in the two groups as the same; there was a small positive finding for peer relations favoring the TNVPK children by third grade teachers, which did not meet traditional levels of statistical significance.

Results graph:

TNVPK data: pre-K program is in red, baseline is in blue
TNVPK data: pre-K program is in red, baseline is in blue

We are already seeing that cheap daycare in high-tax, big government provinces like Quebec cost a lot, and produce negative results. And of course Hillary Clinton is a longstanding advocate of universal pre-K. As a Senator of New York, she introduced a universal pre-K plan that would cost $10 billion over 5 years. President Barack Obama’s own Preschool for All plan would cost $75 billion over 10 years. This Vanderbilt study should cause us to question whether the policies of the secular left, pushed largely because of emotions and ideology, are worth the tens of billions of dollars they want to take from us. And if you take tens of billions of dollars out of families, then families on the margin will have to give their children to the state to raise. And that includes Christian families, who would no longer be able to afford a stay-at-home mother.

Now, taking children away from parents so that their mothers can work is seen as a worthy goal by those on the secular left. First, communally raising the children is “good” because it removes inequalities between single mothers and traditional working-husband homes. Second, making it easier for women to “go fatherless” is “good” because fathers are not to be trusted to teach their children about morality and religion. That is best left to secular government workers. Third, mothers who choose to marry good providers pay less in taxes if they choose to stay home with their kids and not work. That is “bad” because the government wants more taxes, so they can spend it on vote-buying social programs. Fourth, children who form stable bonds with their parents are less likely to become dependent on the government, meaning their allegiance cannot be bought with government handouts. That is also “bad”. Fifth, it is also “bad” that children who grow up with stay-at-home mothers are more likely to develop empathy and morality, which gives them an independent standard by which to judge the government’s actions.

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