The failure of real-world, large-scale pre-K programs

Check out this interesting posting from Andrew Coulson of the Cato Institute who is actually relating details of a debate on pre-K between Upjohn Institute economist and government Pre-K advocate Tim Bartik and Russ Whitehurst, an early education expert at the Brookings Institution who is critical of the case for universal government Pre-K.

As explained by Coulson, “Bartik is right that there are two early education programs in particular, High Scope/Perry and Abecedarian, that showed substantial long term benefits. But these were tiny programs operated by the people who had designed them and serving only a few dozen or a few score children.”

But, continues Coulson, “Whitehurst and others focus on the results of large scale federal and state programs, because these are relevant to the present policy debate.” And, concludes Coulson:

To sum up, there is at best no favorable consensus among non-experimental studies of large scale government Pre-K programs, but there is a consensus among the more reliable experimental studies: program effects fade out by the elementary school years, sometimes by the end of kindergarten. That is the evidence that matters when discussing proposals for expanding government Pre-K.

One might expect that this information would be relevant to policymakers as they discuss SJR 12 which would tap New Mexico’s permanent fund to pay for a new pre-K program. With less than a week to go, the Amendment was last in Senate Finance. It still has a long way to go before passage, but funny things can happen in the New Mexico Legislature.

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10 Replies to “The failure of real-world, large-scale pre-K programs”

  1. I responded to Coulson’s post at my own blog:

    Without repeating all the points made in my blog post, Coulson’s position rests on over-weighting the evidence from two randomized control trials, for Head Start and in Tennessee, over both other randomized control trials (Perry and Abecedarian) and over many good “natural experiments” that suggest large effects of pre-K.

    1. Mr. Bartik is not quite right. First, there are in fact four RCT studies of large-scale government pre-K programs: Two on Head Start that examine the same group of children, first at the end of 1st grade and then at the end of 3rd grade; One on Early Head Start; and the Tennessee study. These are the only RCTs of large scale government Pre-K programs and they all show no net lasting effects from those programs.

      Bartik conflates the Perry and Abecedarian studies with the above group of studies, but Perry and Abecedarian were actually very small (a few dozen or a few score children) programs operated by the researchers who had developed them. Not only is there no reason to think government can replicate the effects of those tiny programs at scale, there is good evidence from the four RCTs cited above that government has tried and failed for 50 years to replicate their results.

      The great and indefensible leap of universal government Pre-K advocates is to assume, contrary to the available evidence, that government can replicate small successful programs at scale. One would think that the collapse in educational productivity at the K-12 level over the past 40+ years would have imbued them with greater circumspection.

  2. Paul, Hold onto your hat, Sir. I agree with you on this issue! According to the data I have seen the benefits of Pre-K disappear by fifth grade. Ken Whiton

    1. Thanks Ken. I don’t think we’re that far off on a lot of things. Pre-k is most definitely expensive relative to the results that have come about.

  3. One of the reasons for New Mexico’s dismal educational achievement is that many parents are unwilling to send their children to school and keep them there. My concern is that early childhood education will benefit families who would send their kids to pre-school anyway, but would leave the underprivileged kids who don’t show up that much farther behind.

  4. The at-risk kids who go to pre K and kindergarten show no improvement past 3rd grade unless they are heavily tutored and spend many extra hours in school. If this is done through the 5th to 8th grade (the special studies addressed, above), then these kids almost certainly will get a huge boost. But pre-K and kindergarten by themselves are essentially useless except as babysitters, and the cost to really help the kids who need it the worst is about double per student compared to the average per student costs. The Governor’s measly request for extra money for early childhood is just throwing it down a black hole. Were she to put together a targeted program that intensively addresses these kids through the higher grades, something very effective may come of it. But that would cost much more money than she is asking for, and probably much more than the legislature would be willing to provide. But if you really want to raise “all ships,” then this is something that should really be done with extensive study and trials (NM students at-risk around the state tend to have unique requirements).

    1. You raise some very good points. I think some kind of targeted parent-coaching that helps low-income parents improve their skills would be a far more effective and cost-effective use of limited resources. The studies that show pre-K does wonders involve VERY intensive programs as you say.

  5. The Feds provide about 10% of education funding; I do not know if that includes PILT (Payment in lieu of taxes) – I suspect it does. To allow this level of participation to drive education in this country is beyond irresponsible. We have lost, due to the Department of Education’s mandates, the effect of having 50 laboratories for education, reducing the number to one, which has failed, utterly.
    We would be far better served to use the equivalent of those funds to train parents in teaching children, i.e., teaching the parents to read, write, and speak English. And by making rules changes, such as requiring the parent(s) to appear and consult with educators before being approved for transfer payments of any type.

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