Is Universal Pre-K a Good Thing?

Girl in Garden

Findings from a recent study out of Vanderbilt University suggest that pre-kindergarten may not be benefiting students as expected. Half of the pre-k applicants in a Tennessee school district were randomly admitted to a full year of pre-k. These students were then assessed at the end of each year up until 2nd grade. Surprisingly, by the end of 2nd grade, the students who attended pre-k performed lower on a series of academic and behavioral assessments compared to those who did not attend pre-k.

These findings come up against earlier research on pre-k education, such as the Perry Preschool Project, and the Abecedarian Project— two high-quality early education programs that were associated with life-long positive outcomes. In fact, the remarkable outcomes from these two programs have served as the basis for implementing pre-kindergarten at a much larger scale.

So, in the Vanderbilt study, why did students who received a year of pre-k education perform worse than those who did not? Here are some of my thoughts…

Are we measuring the right thing?

Most of the assessments used in the Vanderbilt study were standardized tests of academic ability. Some scholars have argued that we need to also be looking at how these early childhood interventions impact more broad aspects of child development. As I have mentioned before, children’s social-emotional competencies are important indicators for predicting long-term outcomes. It may be important to look at how pre-k programs are influencing non-cognitive skills, such as prosocial behaviors, self-management, and social relationships.

Is it too early?

Another thing to consider is that the effects of pre-k education may not appear until later in development. For both the Perry Preschool Project and the Abecedarian project, the critical outcomes (like education attainment, employment, marriage satisfaction) could not be identified until the participants reached adulthood. Therefore, the true impacts of pre-k may not be truly evident for another few years (or even decades!).

Is the quality high enough?

An important aspect of both the Perry Preschool Project and the Abecedarian Project was that they were “high quality” programs. Both programs consisted of an extremely small student to teacher ratios and focused on developing certain skills in young children, such as language development, decision-making, and self-reflection. When we start to implement pre-k at larger scale one of the biggest issues is maintaining that high quality. Unfortunately, universal pre-k may start to look a lot like regular kindergarten and elementary school in general. In other words, pre-k may become highly regimented with a strong focus on discipline and academic standards, and less time for exploration and free play. It’s a scary thought but perhaps the pre-k kids in the Vanderbilt study were simply burnt out by their 3rd year of formal education.

What are kids getting otherwise?

Finally, we need to consider what kids who don’t attend pre-k (i.e., the control group) are getting and why that could be beneficial as well. It is quite possible that some three and four-year-olds may be getting what they need developmentally outside of a formal school setting. They may be taken care of in their home or at a community daycare and provided with books and positive interactions with a variety of caregivers. These non-pre-k students may also be getting more one-on-one time with adults compared to those in larger pre-k classrooms. Instead of seeing pre-k education as a universal need, we may need to scale back and offer the highest quality to those at the most risk while also figuring out what skills are most important to focus on during these early years.

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