Biden: “Overwhelming support for universal pre-K”

But, are we talking education or day care?

The conventional wisdom these days seems to be that government provided universal pre-K is a no-brainer since it fast-starts childhood education and levels the playing field between rich and poor.

Even Joe Machin is on the program.

As Sen. Elizabeth Warren asserts that “the science” is settled on this one:

Study after study has shown that regular access to high-quality child care promotes literacy skills, cognitive development, and healthy behaviors.

These are long-term benefits: quality early education produces better health, educational, and employment outcomes well into adulthood.

Sounds reasonable, right?

But, a recent study throws some cold water on the conventional wisdom.


This  report presents the results of a “longitudinal randomized control study of the effects of a scaled-up, government-supported pre-K program.”

The researchers sampled 2,990 children from low-income families who applied to oversubscribed pre-K programs that randomly assigned offers of admission.

They tracked the students who were accepted to and participated in the pre-K programs … and those who didn’t get accepted and didn’t participate in a pre-K program.

They cataloged standardized test results for all of the students from kindergarten to sixth grade.

The chart below displays the results by grade level, 3 through 6.

The gray bars are the standardized test scores for students who attended pre-K … the black bars are for students who didn’t … the asterisks indicate statistical significance.



The startling conclusion to be drawn from the standardized test results:

Data through sixth grade from state education records showed that the children randomly assigned to attend pre-K had lower achievement test scores in third through sixth grades than control children.


When confronted with “the data” pre-K advocates typically challenge the studies as non-representative outliers or attack the scientific integrity of the studies (or the studiers).

If that doesn’t work, they argue that non-academic outcomes are just as important as academic advances … whether they are immediate or long-run.

The study looked at those effects, too.

And, to make things worse, the researchers found:

In grades 3 through 6, pre-K participants had more disciplinary infractions and lower attendance rates.

Keep in mind that the pre-K students were randomly selected from the same pool of low income families. So, social and familial factors were inconsequential.

Double ouch.


My take

It’s hard to argue against early childhood education … at home or at “school”.

And, one study does not define “the science” and should be treated as a clue, not a conclusion.

But, this study — which casts doubt on the educational value of pre-K —    should give pause to those expecting a universal, coast-to-coast government pre-K program will be a panacea for educational attainment … especially given the less than stellar track record of many urban public school systems.

If the real motivation is “free” public daycare, then universal pre-K may make some sense.

But even then, it’s hardly “free” … and, if provided, reduces the need for refundable tax credits for child care, right?

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