Is Pre-K A-OK?

Is Pre-K A-OK?

Governor Sebelius sells her preschool program to business leaders in Wichita.

“We know that children who start school behind generally stay behind. The achievement gap actually starts with a preparation gap. With nearly half of Kansas children arriving at school without the basic skills needed, our schools are in the position of playing “catch up” rather than helping all children build the skills they need to succeed in today’s high-tech economy.”

Catching up can be a problem. Which schools are best at doing that? Will a preschool program have long-term benefits? The problem with American education is not so much performance in the early grades as much as it is in high school. Will a preschool program help? The governor goes for the social-benefits-of-education argument:

If we’re serious about teaching all children, reducing crime and ensuring Kansans are healthy and prosperous, then we have to start early. We have to make certain all children enter school ready to learn and ready to succeed. There are many studies which show quality early education impacts not only school readiness but also health and success later in life.

She’s planning on going outside political channels for funding and help: We’re building partnerships with allies from many sectors — business, early childhood and philanthropy — and I’m thrilled with the early results. For example, business leaders from around the state, including some of the state’s largest employers, have already signed on.

Again, good in theory. Best if carried out in an atmosphere of choice, competition, and outside the usual bureaucratic straightjacket. Still, are we focusing attention at the wrong end of the age spectrum?

The folks at the Reason Foundation (based in California) have some experience with universal preschool. Here’s their take: In California we are a few weeks away from voting on an issues that has been hot in a number of states lately–universal pre-school. The idea of making pre-school available to any family that wants it has a strong visceral appeal for many people. But you won’t be surprised that the details of how a state expands the school system, and the realities of the benefits and costs of universal preschool get murky fast.

Reason has just released a new study [PDF] showing that preschool enrollment has increased from 16 to 66 percent since 1965. And yet this massive growth in preschool attendance and time spent in the classroom has not resulted in increased student achievement, with U.S. test scores rising only very slightly since 1970 when standardized national testing of fourth, eighth, and twelfth graders began.

One factor behind preschools’ failure to boost educational outcomes is “fade out.” A 2006 UC Santa Barbara study found preschoolers were more prepared for kindergarten than non-preschoolers, but that those advantages faded away by the third grade and thus preschool had “limited use as a long-term strategy for improving the achievement gap.”

As Lisa Snell puts it, “We’re seeing that early schooling may be immaterial to a child’s later school performance, or that the current school system, as it is structured and functioning, is unable to sustain any early gains that preschoolers might get. There is little factual evidence to backup claims that preschool will boost long-term learning. In fact, we are starting to see some evidence that universal preschool can be detrimental to some kids.”

A study of more than 33,000 children who took part in Quebec’s universal preschool program between 1994 and 2002 found: “Several measures we looked at suggest that children were worse off in the years following the introduction of the universal childcare program. We studied a wide range of measures of child well-being from anxiety and hyperactivity to social and motor skills. For almost every measure, we find that the increased use of childcare was associated with a decrease in their well-being relative to other children.” Like Quebec, Georgia and Oklahoma, the first two states to implement universal preschool, have gotten very little return on their heavy investment in early education.

With universal preschool now firmly in place for years, both states scored below the national average in fourth grade reading on National Assessment of Education Progress tests in 2005. In fact, Georgia and Oklahoma ranked in the nation’s bottom 10 when it came to increasing fourth grade reading scores from 1992 to 2005. Expanding our K-12 system to pre-school is not the way to fix the problems we have with our education system. We need to focus on those existing problems instead.

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