What If Pre-K Isn't The Answer?

by Marie Holmes
pre-k benefits new study

It might just be true: sending our kids to pre-K may be doing more harm than good.

With a title clearly intended to evoke disbelief, a recent New York Magazine piece, “What If Pre-K Actually Hurts Kids?” discusses recent research showing that the benefits of attending pre-K are short-lived, and that they disappear and even begin to reverse as children move up through the grades.

If you’re someone who has rearranged your schedule to accommodate preschool tours, navigated applications and wait lists, and maybe even scraped together everything you could to cover tuition, the news that pre-K might not be the solution to the country’s educational shortcomings and inequities likely comes as a shock.

So here’s what you need to know.

What does recent research on pre-K tell us?

A large-scale study in Tennessee, involving 2,990 children, released its most recent findings in January. Researchers examined the impact of enrollment in free pre-K for low-income families, following students all the way into middle school. Because there were a limited number of pre-K seats offered via lottery, the students not offered a spot created a ready control group for researchers.

The pre-K program students attended was described as “high-quality,” taught by certified educators with Bachelor’s degrees who were paid a salary on par with that of elementary educators. In the first phase of follow-up, the results were promising. Teachers reported that the kids who had attended pre-K were more prepared, both academically and socially, for kindergarten.

Yet these gains didn’t last. Researchers found that the students who had been randomly assigned to pre-K had lower standardized test scores in the third grade than their peers who hadn’t gone to pre-K, and this gap actually widened by the time they were in the sixth grade. In addition, the study showed that kids who attended pre-K had more disciplinary offenses and absences, and were more likely to receive special education services.

What’s at stake

These findings are both disappointing and unexpected, given that earlier studies, going as far back as the 1970’s, have shown long-term positive impacts of pre-K attendance. Pre-K programs are popular and enjoy widespread support, especially from parents in desperate need of childcare.

Former NYC mayor Bill DeBlasio rested his reputation on the implementation of a universal pre-K program for the city, which is currently expanding to include more three-year-olds in another year of early education. Universal pre-K is also part of President Biden’s Build Back Better legislation, currently stalled in Washington. And as New York Magazine writer Eric Levitz argues in his piece, children aren’t the only ones who stand to benefit from pre-K. Educational programs for young children allow their parents to work, potentially improving the family’s economic prospects and reducing stress for kids and adults alike.

The problems with evaluating pre-K

There are a lot of people invested in the good that pre-K can do. But are we asking it to do too much?

Shael Polakow-Suransky, president of Bank Street College of Education and former NYC Schools Senior Deputy Chancellor, suggests that we “widen the lens” when scrutinizing student outcomes. High-quality pre-K, which he says should be play-based (think constructing with blocks and acting out stories rather than reciting letters and numbers), can be a force for good, but it can’t compensate for care of lesser quality that children receive before and after.

“While I understand why politically, many governors and mayors have chosen to add a grade on to the school experience, and add pre-K,” he says, “it’s actually birth to three that are the most pivotal years in terms of early brain development.”

Whether a child spends these years interacting with an attentive adult or strapped into a high-chair in front of a TV makes a big difference, says Polakow-Suransky. He says these early years are “a time where you can do tremendous good or tremendous damage in terms of the kid’s development,” noting that the Build Back Better Act does include funding for childcare that would move the U.S. closer to the levels of spending seen in countries in Asia and Europe.

“I think we need to expand our definition from just that one year and think about what happens for families as they’re supporting their children in those first four years, leading up to the beginning of formal school,” he said.

But Polakow-Suransky isn’t surprised that research found that the positive effects of pre-K wane with time. “Part of the fade out that you see in some of this data is our elementary schools are not organized around the developmental needs of young children,” he says, so a great pre-K followed by less-than-stellar kindergarten and early grades will reap diminishing returns. Polakow-Suransky notes that other studies have found that the amount of time students spend in teacher-directed activities (as opposed to activities that allow students some control) increases dramatically between pre-K and kindergarten, which could account for some increase in student disengagement and misbehavior.

As a society, we tend to debate the worthiness of pre-K, as we so often do with programs for children, as though it’s potentially expendable. “We don’t necessarily evaluate second grade, or fifth grade, and say, Oh, well, maybe we don’t need that grade,” explains Polakow-Suranksy. “We say, Oh, the data’s not looking so good, what were they doing in that program might have led to that data?”

Emily Oster, professor of economics at Brown and parenting data guru, also cautions that we not take the findings of the Tennessee study too far. In a recent newsletter, Oster reminds her readers that one study, although large in scale and well-designed, can’t discount all the earlier research that shows promising long-term benefits of pre-K.

Another similar study of children randomly assigned to pre-K in Boston, following them from 1997-2003, did not find a correlation with higher standardized test scores, but it didn’t find that the pre-K kids had lower test scores than the control group, either. The Boston study also found that the kids who enrolled in pre-K were more likely to graduate high school and attend college, arguably more important achievements than higher test scores.

It could be, Oster says, that some benefits of pre-K don’t show up until after middle school, where the Tennessee study ended. It’s also possible that the kids who weren’t assigned to pre-K ended up in another environment (potentially their home) that was at least as nurturing. Oster writes that the impact of pre-K likely varies from one program to another, based on factors like location and the demographics of the children involved.

Another possibility is that some “high-quality” programs aren’t as high-quality as others, providing less of the play and student-directed activity that Polakow-Suransky and other experts recommend. Could a negative early experience with school sour a kid on the whole enterprise years into the future? What if the teaching isn’t culturally appropriate for the child? What if that first teacher is overtly racist?

What do we value?

As any pre-K teacher, or parent of a young child, knows, many of the most important skills kids learn in pre-K aren’t academic.

Jeannette Corey, director of the Bank Street Family Center, says pre-K students “learn to navigate complicated social situations at a time in their lives when they are just beginning to understand that people have perspectives different from their own.”

“They learn to recognize and talk about their emotions,” she continues, as well as regulate themselves, make friends, and “be members of a learning community.”

Corey also emphasizes how parents are served by high-quality pre-K. “Supporting parents in truly knowing their children as students and then encouraging them to advocate for their child’s learning needs in school will benefit their children long beyond pre-K.”

While pre-K alone isn’t enough to set kids on the path to a promising future, play-based, student-centered pre-K can be a force for good, albeit just one piece of a puzzle that includes subsidized childcare and economic support for families–vital resources that too many parents in our country are lacking.