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How Effective Are Pre-K Programs?

May 13, 2015 by

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By Carole Hornsby Haynes, Ph.D. –

The crisis in early education in America continues in spite of research-based evidence that what the U.S. is doing to its young children is harmful both short and long term. Policymakers continue to ignore the giant discrepancy between what we know about how youngsters learn and the practices in preschool and kindergarten. Short-term studies that show gains in skills such as letter and number recognition are widely touted as justification for didactic and scripted instruction for young children – too often with disastrous effects.

Are There Benefits to Learning Math in Pre-K?

Pre-K advocates contend that full day pre-K is needed so that four-year-olds can be taught math. Play-based kindergartens, and now even preschools, have been replaced largely by drilling literacy and math skills into young children and giving and preparing for tests.

Research shows that daily drilling of literacy and math skills has negatively affected the creativity and curiosity of children, making the teaching of advanced math and science more difficult later. The loss of curiosity and creativity thus has profound implications for education and for the future work force of America.

The Torrance creativity test has been used for more than 50 years in over 50 languages and is a better predictor than IQ for which students will become successful innovators in a host of professions. Kyung Hee Kim at the College of William and Mary analyzed nearly 300,000 Torrance scores of children and adults and found that creativity scores had risen steadily until 1990. After 1990 American creativity scores have continued to fall, with the decline in K-6 scores being the most serious.

Long Term Consequences of Inappropriate Early Education

Research shows that early formal schooling destroys a child’s learning ability and can even be detrimental to the behavioral development of mainstream children. Researchers are studying the increasing rates of extreme and aggressive behavior in pre-K and kindergarten classrooms. In 2005 Walter S. Gilliam, head of the Child Study Center at Yale, found that three- and four-year-old children were being expelled more than three times as often as K-12 students.

While early formal instruction may appear to show good test results at first, in the long term, in follow-up studies, such children have had no advantage. On the contrary, especially in the case of boys, subjection to early formal instruction increases their tendency to distance themselves from the goals of schools, and to drop out of it, either mentally or physically.”

–Lilian G. Katz, Professor Emeritus, University of Illinois

The 1960s HighScope Preschool Curriculum Comparison Study (PCCS) for at-risk three- and four-year-old children from low-income families used three different preschool classes. Children learned either through play or through formal instruction. By age 23, at the conclusion of the study, the formal instruction students showed serious issues in overall development:

  • 47% had needed special education as compared with 6% of the others;

  • 34% had been arrested for a felony offense as compared with 9% of the others;

  • 27% had been suspended from work as compared with 0% of the others;

  • 0% had married and were living with spouses while 31% of the others had; and

  • 11% had done volunteer work as compared with 43% of the others.

What If Child Does Not Attend Pre-K?

Some contend that 85 percent of a child’s brain development occurs in the first five years. They believe that, if children do not attend pre-K, all educational intervention after that is more difficult, more expensive, and less effective.

Reading specialists do not agree and argue that good reading teachers in K-3 can catch these children up. Because early elementary school children are in their major development years, they learn four times as much material during a regular school year as in the preschool years. Pediatricians say the brain continues to develop, remodel and refine until age 25.

Sebastian Suggate of New Zealand’s University of Otago reported that his research found no long-term gains from teaching children to read at age five compared to age seven.

U.S. students rank near the bottom on international tests while Finnish students score at or near the top. Yet Finland does not permit its students to attend formal school until age seven. Many students attend non-compulsory “pre-primary” school at age six. Children under age six attend daycare or remain at home with parents.

Does Pre-K Provide Economic and Social Benefits?

In 2006 Texas A&M University conducted a study for a hypothetical pre-K program. The report claims that for every $1 of taxes invested in universal pre-K, there will be a return of $3.50 to Texas communities through lower welfare and juvenile incarceration costs and higher future wages. The Texas study was patterned after the 2005 RAND study of the Chicago Child-Parent Center, which used a non-randomized experimental method.

Findings: There were several fundamental differences between the two studies and both have been determined to be significantly flawed. Texas Public Policy Foundation concluded that, “Because the CPC study is not comparable to widespread pre-K program in Texas, this study does not support the claim of a ‘positive return’ on taxpayers dollars due to universal pre-K.”

Research Studies on Pre-K Programs

Two different research designs have been used in pre-K studies: 1) the randomized experimental design which is the “gold standard” for evaluation studies in education, and 2) the Regression Discontinuity Design (RDD) that is a flawed non-experimental design.

Historic Experimental Design Programs

Two historic “high-quality” pre-K programs using an experimental design are the Abecedarian (early 1970s with 111 children) and the Perry Preschool (mid-1960s with 123 children). These programs had much intervention and required parent involvement. The Perry study utilized home visits by teachers who each had only 5-6 students. These programs showed significant academic and social benefits, including long-term benefits. However, the study was compromised because the samples were very small — 234 children — and were drawn from single communities 40-50 years ago.

Findings: These programs are not replicable on a large scale. The per-child cost of the interventions on the Perry Preschool and Abecedarian model are prohibitively high.

Contemporary Randomized Experimental Programs

Two contemporary studies using the “gold standard” randomized experimental design are Head Start Impact (2002 with 4,500 children) and the “high quality” Vanderbilt University in Tennessee program (2005 with 18,000+ low-income four-year-olds by 2007). Vanderbilt is the first large scale randomized trial of a present-day state pre-K program. Its results align almost perfectly with those of the Head Start Impact Study, the only other large randomized trial that examines the longitudinal effects of having attended a public pre-K program.

Findings: The modest effects lasted only through kindergarten and showed no effects on reading and math at the end of the first or third grades. Since its inception in the 1960s, the Head Start program has continued to be an exorbitantly expensive failure. The U.S. Department of Health reported, “In the long run, the cognitive and socio-emotional test scores of former Head Start students do not remain superior to those of disadvantaged children who did not attend Head Start.”

Contemporary Non-Experimental RDD Programs

The studies of pre-K programs in Tulsa (1998), Boston (2008-2009), Georgia (2011-2012), and New Jersey Abbott Preschool (1999) show very large effects. However, each of these was evaluated using the flawed regression discontinuity methodology (RDD).

Findings: These programs were not experimental designs and are not valid because the treatment and control groups were not equal. (Page 12)

Copyright ©2015 Carole Hornsby Haynes, Ph.D. All rights reserved / www.drcarolehhaynes.com

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