Many parents send their kids to pre-K with the hope that it will help them grow into smarter, healthier, and more socially adept kids, and that those benefits will remain years down the line. This view is behind the exciting possibility of universal pre-K included in Biden’s Build Back Better plan, which would make preschool available to all 3- and 4-year-olds. But a new study calls the benefits of pre-K into question. Don’t pull your kid from preschool just yet.
The new study includes 2,990 children from low-income families in Tennessee who applied to the state-supported pre-K program, but didn’t make it in because there weren’t enough spots. Some of the children were then randomly selected to get into a preschool, and the others were kept on the waitlist. This long-term study followed these kids through sixth grade to see how they turned out. The results weren’t what the researchers were expecting.
The kids who attended preschool scored higher on school readiness, but in the long-run, they actually had worse outcomes. These kids had lower state achievement test scores from third to sixth grade and were also more likely to have disciplinary infractions and lower attendance, and they were more likely to receive so-called special education.
At first glances, these results are worrying. But Arthur Reynolds, Ph.D., a child development expert who studies early education interventions at the University of Minnesota, isn’t concerned. “Tennessee is an anomaly,” he says. “It’s just not a high-quality program.”
The quality of the program is what’s key when it comes to making gains in pre-K — and sustaining them up to and throughout middle school. Other studies of preschool programs have found that sustained gains come from programs that include 10 essential elements, according to Reynolds. “All of them had smaller classes. All of them had family engagement and family services. All of them had highly compensated teachers,” he says. “The Tennessee study has none of those things.”
Another one of the 10 aspects that’s important for sustaining gains made in preschool is having continuity between pre-K program, Kindergarten, and elementary school up until third grade. “That six-year window is really important. We know that high-quality preschool programs provide, at least based on the evidence, the biggest bang for your buck. But if you add in strong K-3, you get an even larger gain,” Reynolds says. The Tennessee program showed no evidence of this kind of investment in K-3 education.
The type of activities the kids do in class is another key element. “In the Tennessee study, a lot of the curriculum seems to be heavily teacher-directed activities and not a lot of child-initiated activities that focus on peer relationships, play, and child choice. We’ve known for quite a while that there has to be a balance of those two, and that was not present in Tennessee’s program,” Reynolds says.
That explains why the children in the study made small gains throughout pre-K but lost them by third grade. But why did they do worse on many measures than the kids who didn’t attend preschool?
Reynolds suspects these findings are probably due to flaws in the study design. Randomizing which kids get into pre-K isn’t as scientifically rigorous as matching them, or taking two very similar kids and putting one in preschool and the other on the waitlist. “There were even pre-existing differences in the beginning of kindergarten,” he says. Some kids also dropped out of the study, which can seriously skew results. “I have no confidence that this study is showing something real, other than there’s no sustained effects,” he says.
Dale Farran, Ph.D., an early childhood education expert at Vanderbilt University and one of the authors of the study, told NPR that she thinks the study’s results differ from results of other studies because of the differences between types of pre-K programs. In programs with kids from low-income areas, like those in the Tennessee study, she says has noticed that instruction is more teacher-directed, but kids in programs in high-income areas are given more time for play.
But Reynolds disagrees with this observation. High-quality programs, which include a mix of both teacher-directed activities and child-directed play, exist in both high-income and low-income communities, he says.
The bottom line: If you’re looking to enroll your child in preschool, do your research. “The main idea is to fully investigate programs. Talk to the lead teachers, to principals,” Reynolds says. “These are the key things: The leadership is supportive of parents, parents are welcome in school and expected to participate fully, and smaller classes.”