One of Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear’s priorities is to expand availability of preschool programs in the commonwealth. If there was good evidence that preschool really worked, I’d favor that.
The sticky problem: persistent evidence from a huge number of studies on the federal Head Start preschool program that any benefits gained disappear by the third grade, or even earlier (a little Googling will find plenty of them – a few examples are here and here).
Now, there is even more unsettling news. A recent, randomized sample study from Vanderbilt University of Tennessee’s preschool program adds more evidence that the problems with Head Start are no fluke. The Vandy study looks at Tennessee’s preschool program, known as the Tennessee Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten (TN-VPK). And, Vandy found problems.
As summarized by the Fordham Foundation, Vandy researchers found:
“…by the end of the preschool year, participating students made significant cognitive achievement gains when compared to eligible students who applied to TN-VPK but were not accepted (due to space limitations). The new study, however, which sought to evaluate the program’s long-term effects in both cognitive and non-cognitive domains, found that achievement gains made in preschool essentially disappeared when measured at the end of Kindergarten and again at the end of first grade.”
The actual Vanderbilt study is fairly long, and I have only done a quick read of the executive summary. However, it looks like Fordham captured the essence of the findings nicely.
For sure, our state leaders owe it to the taxpayers and children of Kentucky to read the Vanderbilt report. Our leaders need to insure that dollars spent on education are spent where they will do the most good.
Perhaps, before expanding preschool, the first priority should be establishment of a badly-needed, statewide evaluation program for preschool quality.
After all, there are some reports about small preschool programs that showed promise, so uneven quality of preschool programs might explain the disturbing findings coming from Head Start and Tennessee.
Without question, adding more low-quality preschools may do little more than add to the existing evidence of problems from Head Start and the TN-VPK while diverting tax dollars from more effective education efforts.