TNSC is neither for nor against preschool. Parents must decide based on the needs of their child. However, we do object to the incessant, ongoing campaign of misleading information and outright lies concerning the benefits of preschool. Parents cannot make good decisions when given faulty information. Further, taxpayers deserve to know the efficacy of programs they are asked to fund.
While we understand Head Start is not a mirror image of Tennessee’s preschool program we will begin our discussion of preschool with Head Start since there is exhaustive empirical evidence and other information available.
Head Start was founded in 1965 by President Lyndon Johnson as a pre-school program intended to erase the handicaps poverty imposes on impoverished preschoolers before they enter elementary school by providing care, nutrition, education, and skills. Taxpayers have spent over $166 billion on the program since 1965.
The Department of Health and Human Services—the agency that administers Head Start—conducted an evaluation, the Head Start Impact Study and Follow-up, 2000–2011, which was a nationwide survey of 4,600 preschoolers who were randomly assigned to either Head Start (experimental group) or no program (control group) and were studied on 114 different measures ranging from academic skills to social/emotional development to health status. The study found Head Start has had little to no effect on cognitive, socio-emotional, health, and parenting outcomes of participating children. By the end of the third grade children who attended Head Start are essentially indistinguishable from a control group of students who didn’t. Specifically:
- For the 41 measures of cognitive outcomes for the four-year-old cohort, access to Head Start failed to have an impact on all measures.
- For the 41 measures of cognitive outcomes for the three-year-old cohort, access to Head Start had a harmful effect on teacher-assessed math ability in kindergarten and failed to have an impact on the 40 other measures.
- For the 40 measures of socio-emotional outcomes for the four-year-old cohort, access to Head Start had only one beneficial effect and failed to have an impact on the 39 other measures.
- For the 40 measures of socio-emotional outcomes for the three-year-old cohort, access to Head Start had only two beneficial effects and failed to have an impact on the 38 other measures.
- For the 10 measures of parent-reported health outcomes for the four-year-old cohort, access to Head Start had only one beneficial effect and failed to have an impact on the nine other measures.
- For the 10 measures of parent-reported health outcomes for the three-year-old cohort, access to Head Start had only one beneficial effect and failed to have an impact on the nine other measures.
- For the 21 measures of parenting outcomes for the four-year-old cohort, access to Head Start had no effect on all of the measures.
- For the 21 measures of parent-reported health outcomes for the three-year-old cohort, access to Head Start had only one beneficial effect and failed to have an impact on the 20 other measures.
Overall, this 45-year-old Great Society relic failed to have a positive impact on 110 out of 112 outcomes measured. We won’t even get into the costs of fraud involved in Head Start. Stephen and Abigail Thernstrom also chronicled the failure of Head Start in their book No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning (2003). By 1987 even Head Start’s founder, Yale psychologist Edward F. Zigler, declined to claim educational benefits for the program. Yet, Head Start continues because there are many too many feeding at the trough of this 7-9+/-billion a year program. Any efforts to end this unproductive program are demonized as mean-spirited and as abandoning poor children by those with a vested interest in its continuation.
In May 2011 the Strategic Research Group (SRG) published the findings of their study, Assessing the Impact of Tennessee’s Pre-Kindergarten Program: Final Report which investigated the short- and long-term effects of Tennessee’s state-funded Pre-Kindergarten (Pre-K) participation on academic outcomes in Kindergarten through Fifth Grade through an examination of existing school records. Findings in part include:
“For students in Grades 3-5, analyses have found either no significant effect of Pre-K participation on assessment scores, or, in some cases, have found that students who attended Pre-K, on average, score lower than their non-Pre-K counterparts on some assessments.”
“Four to six years after participating in Pre-K, the differences between Pre-K students and non-Pre-K students are negligible, particularly when examining assessment outcomes for students who experienced economic disadvantage.”
“The overall conclusions to be drawn from this series of reports and the cumulative analyses presented in this final report have been consistent: students who participate in Pre-K reliably show better outcomes on Kindergarten assessments than students who do not participate in the Pre-K program. As students progress through higher grades, however, the initial advantage attenuates over time.”
The reader should note these results are similar to those of Head Start; primarily, any positive effects of Pre-K attendance disappear by grades three to five. However, most ongoing references are made to a study by the Vanderbilt University Peabody Research Institute showing Pre-k students participating in Tennessee’s preschool program “have gains over their peers in all subject areas as well as indicators that affect future school performance such as paying attention, love of learning, and following instructions.” However, what is rarely clearly explained is that this study assessed progress “at the beginning and end of the prekindergarten year.” That is, they studied progress achieved for one year – only. Numerous studies have shown varying short term positive results for numerous preschool programs and participants, however, these results have consistently been shown to disappear by grades three to five.
Also endorsing Tennessee’s preschool program is the 2011 Data Book: The State of Children in Memphis and Shelby County. However, their entire argument for the importance of Pre-k is based on (surprise) the Vanderbilt study discussed above. While we agree it is helpful for a child to arrive at kindergarten ready to learn, we mustn’t forget that kindergarten was established to help children arrive ready to learn for first grade.
Another argument used to justify funding for preschool is that preschool participation has been shown to reduce “substance abuse, felony arrest, and incarceration.” However, the serious flaw (logical fallacy) in this argument is correlation proves causation; meaning there are so many other factors at work and in play in the path leading to substance abuse, felony arrest, and incarceration that it is outrageous (a logical fallacy) to assert that lack of preschool participation was the cause.
We obviously cannot discuss every article and argument concerning Tennessee’s preschool program. Poor children are at a disadvantage; however, if we truly want to help disadvantaged (and all) children, we must know and implement what works. Fighting to ensure EVERY child in Tennessee has access to quality education so they may reach their potential is what we are all about at TNSC. However, we cannot continue programs simply because some are emotionally or financially invested in its continuation. When there are so many programs that have shown tangible, lasting, long term, positive results do we continue spending $83 million +/- a year on a program for which any positive affects disappear by third or fifth grades? Unfortunately, until money begins to grow on trees we have to make choices.