Progressives Continue to Push Government Preschool Despite Poor Results

November 1, 2018

by Karen R. Effrem, MD


Despite evidence that preschool is at best ineffective and at worst harmful, two more signs have appeared showing that progressives from both parties are not giving up on expanding these worthless, dangerous, and expensive programs. One is an announcement by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos that he is going to fund “a network of new, non-profit, tier-one preschools in low-income communities.” Bezos wants his Day 1 Academies Fund to support Montessori-style preschool programs where “the child will be the customer,” and according to Chalkbeat, these schools “will be free for students and inspired by the Montessori approach, in which children direct their own learning in an environment that is prepared for them to explore.”

The other sign of a continued progressive focus on preschools is a report by Auburn University’s Government and Economics Institute arguing that “high quality” preschool programs should be universally expanded in Alabama. The paper asserts that Alabama’s state program “is among the nation’s most impressive pre- K programs,” and it also promotes the idea that “the next challenge is to expand the program to reach all children whose parents want to enroll them, while continuing to raise quality.”

Bezos is apparently angling to become the Bill Gates of preschool, using his enormous wealth to influence policy for our youngest and most vulnerable children despite the evidence. Auburn wants universal pre-K in Alabama even though universal pre-K has not worked in the other states where it has been tried.

The problem with both of these plans is that they are based on older studies of questionable validity as examined by a large group of education and policy researchers from various points on the philosophical spectrum. (I have compiled these studies here and here.) There is also much excellent similar analysis from Joy Pullman, a Heartland Institute education research fellow; Jane Robbins of the American Principles Project; David Armor from the Cato Institute; and Lindsey Burke and Salim Furth at the Heritage Foundation.

Beyond these analyses, however, it is especially worth highlighting recent statements from the center-left Brookings Institution on this subject, given that they still strongly support pre-K expansion. As I discussed in The Federalist, Dr. Dale Farran is one of the co-authors of the 2015 Vanderbilt University study showing not only government preschool’s oft-seen fadeout of benefits to children and society but also the increasingly frequent academic and emotional harm of these programs. She admitted in a 2016 Brookings Institution white paper that despite 50 years of research, the early childhood research base is still too small to support: 1) “the proposition that expanding pre-K will improve later achievement for children from low-income families”; 2) “the presumption that solid research exists to guide the content and structure of pre-K programs”; or 3) evidence “about which skills and dispositions are most important to effect in pre-K and what instructional practices would affect them.”

A Brookings-led consensus panel of the nation’s most prominent early childhood researchers contained this statement that should be extremely sobering to those proponents of universal pre-K:

Convincing evidence on the longer-term impacts of scaled-up pre-k programs on academic outcomes and school progress is sparse, precluding broad conclusions. The evidence that does exist often shows that pre-k-induced improvements in learning are detectable during elementary school, but studies also reveal null or negative longer-term impacts for some programs.

In addition, Brookings senior fellow Dr. Grover “Russ” Whitehurst made a similar point in responding to a Tennessee follow-up study showing that children randomized to the pre-K program actually did worse on state tests in third grade in reading, math and science than their non-preschooled peers:

There is no longer a methodological escape hatch for people who want to dismiss the results of the [Tennessee] evaluation. It, along with the national Head Start Impact study,[8] are the only two large sample studies in the literature that have applied a random assignment design to modern scaled-up pre-K programs and followed children’s progress through school. Both show sizable positive effects for four-year-olds at the end of the pre-K year, but these effects either have either diminished to zero by the end of kindergarten year and stay there in later grades (Head Start) or actually turn negative (Tennessee). Advocates of greater public investment in state pre-K programs are beginning to incorporate these results into their thinking.[9] It is only very high quality research that can force such a reappraisal. [Emphasis added]

As discussed by Jane Robbins and myself, Whitehurst and Brookings also released a very important study this year that analyzed each state’s level of enrollment in its government pre-K program and correlated that enrollment with scores, five years later, of the state’s fourth-graders on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The conclusion: “[I]ncreased investment in state pre-K . . . does not enhance student achievement meaningfully, if at all.” [Emphasis added]

Mention should also be made about the quality of preschool programs and how that fits into preschool research as that is a hyper-focus of the Auburn paper. Many studies over the last 15 to 20 years have shown that quality is not a significant factor in evidence regarding various pre-K programs:

  • A Minnesota study of the effectiveness of quality rating and improvement systems on improving program quality found, “There are also gaps in our understanding of the dosage or threshold of quality a child needs to experience before improved outcomes can be expected”
  • A 2014 follow-up to the national Head Start child outcomes study found “little evidence that quality matters to impacts of Head Start using the available quality measures from the study across two age cohorts, three quality dimensions, five outcomes, and several years.”
  • Farran said in 2016 that there is too much reliance “on a set of quality measures with no empirical validity.”

This is why voters should be extremely wary of politicians — especially gubernatorial candidates like Andrew Gillum of Florida — that are peddling pre-K as a silver bullet solution to close achievement gaps and help poor students.

What should be done instead? We must turn back to the bedrock societal foundation of strong two-parent families. We should listen to researchers such as Dr. William Jeynes of the University of California-Santa Barbara and Dr. Patrick Fagan of the Catholic University of America who have identified intact families and religious faith as the most important of several factors that significantly close or even eliminate the “achievement gap.” Jeynes’ review of data from more than 20,000 African-American and Hispanic high school students in the National Educational Longitudinal Survey shows the spectacular result that two-parent families and religious observance actually erases the achievement gap. This is something that more than $2 trillion dollars and 50 years of oppressive, unconstitutional federal interference have never come close to achieving.

The evidence is clear: we need parents not programs. Americans should vote accordingly.


Dr. Karen Effrem is trained as a pediatrician and serves as president of Education Liberty Watch and the executive director of the Florida Stop Common Core Coalition.

Archive: Karen R. Effrem, MD

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *