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The False Promise Of Universal Pre-kindergarten


Oklahomans are proud of their pre-kindergarten program. Universal, voluntary and administered at no direct cost to families, it enrolls 74 percent of Oklahoma’s four-year-olds. Praised by President Barack Obama in this year’s State of the Union, extolled in the Washington Post, given high marks by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) — even with higher expenditures per student than other model programs such as those in Georgia and Florida — pre-kindergarten is Oklahoma’s sacred cow.

The state of education in Oklahoma overall is basically abysmal. Various groups with various methodologies have ranked Oklahoma near the bottom for math and science, K-12 achievement, reading, and standardized testing.  And for big-government types who think it matters, Oklahoma also ranks 49th in state expenditures per student and continues to cut per-student costs.

There seems to be a disconnect here.

Pre-kindergarten, the argument goes, will ameliorate Oklahoma’s discouraging statistics. After all, as President Obama himself explained:

Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on – by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime.  In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children, like Georgia or Oklahoma, studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, and form more stable families of their own.

Not so fast. The bolded parts are in reference to very specific preschool programs such as the Perry Preschool Project and the Abcerdarian Experiment. Hardly large scale universal pre-kindergarten programs like Oklahoma’s. In fact, no universal pre-kindergarten program has been able to prove that students are more likely to graduate high school, hold a job, or form more stable families. The programs are too young to even measure high school graduation rates.

The Perry Preschool Project was for 123 highly disadvantaged African-American children from one elementary school.  What kind of instruction did they receive?

From October through May each program year, program teachers conducted daily 2.5-hour classes for children on weekday mornings and made weekly 1.5-hour home visits to each mother and child on weekday afternoons. The program’s 4 teachers served 20 to 25 children each school year, a ratio set to accommodate the weekly home visits. The High/Scope preschool education model used in the classroom and home visits was an open framework of educational ideas and practices based on the natural development of young children.

Those children “had higher earnings, were more likely to hold a job, had committed fewer crimes, and were more likely to have graduated from high school than adults who did not have preschool.”  The Abcedarian Experiment, similar but with four cohorts, gave each child “an individualized prescription of educational activities.” Intensive. Targeted.

The third-grade slump

President Obama suggests that in states with universal pre-kindergarten such as Georgia and Oklahoma, there are studies that these also lead to important, long-lasting benefits. Far from it. With a quality preschool or pre-kindergarten program, one can see modest short term gains.  However, in almost all of those examples, the gains disappear by the third grade.

This third grade slump is seen across numerous examples. Redshirting kindergarteners (holding a child back one more year and entering school at, say, the age of six), also arguably leads to some short term gains.  However, even this practice does not create a lasting, positive effect. The benefits gap closes at about third grade.

Head Start, too, sees this third grade slump.  According to the Head Start impact study, a randomized experiment funded by the federal government, there were indeed some short-term impacts for 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds, specifically with pre-reading, pre-writing, and vocabulary. However, there were no benefits on oral comprehension, pre-math skills, or phonological awareness.

When the study moved into the first-grade realm, the study showed diminished impacts, apart from vocabulary and oral comprehension. In fact, math skills were higher in the control group than in those in the Head Start group.

Finally came the third grade followup.  Although there were significant improvements in indicators during the actual duration of the Head Start program, by third grade, most of the those improvements had dissipated.  Other than a few indicators, there were no differences between the Head Start group and the control group by third grade. The only real positive impact was for the 3-year-old cohort in the third grade, with average reading/language arts proficiency scores favoring the Head Start group.

Why third grade? Literacy is one of the main things measured by impact studies. And before third grade, children learn to read. In third grade, children read to learn. Those who cannot make the transition fall behind. We see this phenomenon in Oklahoma, so much that a third grade retention law has gone into effect this year, attempting to end the practice of social promotion (the practice of promoting students to the next grade regardless of what they learned in order to keep them with kids their age). Critics of the law argue an individualized learning plan for children in the third grade would be more effective, thus avoiding the self-esteem damage that may come from falling behind. Regardless, third grade is a watershed. And preschool isn’t going to help with that.

The case for preschool (and rebuttals)

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the positives to preschool education, especially in the short term.

First, is a good literacy and math score the only indicator of success? Not necessarily. Much of early childhood education is focused on helping children learn how to be students, whether it is operating in a structured environment or speaking up in class. There are also socialization factors – how to interact with peers, for example. Those are all also indicators of future success in the elementary years.

So, preschool still may help children make a smoother transition to kindergarten, which sets them up for future success. This, of course, means the decision to send a child to preschool is a very child- and family- specific decision. There is evidence that preschool helps even the educationally-advantaged child by improving social skills.

But as a counterpoint consider this: Socialization is not the same as socializing.  Socialization is the art of learning social skills; socializing is interacting with peer groups. Glen Dewar argues that center-based care may increase levels of aggression in students, citing Tucker-Drob’s twin studies as well as other studies. A parent, for example, has more impact on a child’s socialization skills than a daycare or a school.

Second, let’s address the literacy component of this third grade slump. Why aren’t these children making the transition to reading-to-learn?  Perhaps the answer lies in how we are measuring earlier success  Most evaluations of pre-reading and pre-writing ignore the five pillars of literacy, especially comprehension. Comprehension also gets shortchanged in most “teach-to-the-test” instruction in the early grades. Hence, the third and fourth grade drop off in literacy – when, suddenly, reading is more than just stringing words together.  Role playing, telling a story out loud, and similar activities are also necessary parts of pre-literacy; in fact, most studies indicate that in the preschool years, these play-based activities are more suited for developing pre-reading skills than direct instruction in phonics.

So when we see competence in learning-to-read only to see a failure later, we may be misjudging this competence.  Preschool, however, isn’t helping with this issue. What would help would be restructuring the way we teach children in the early grades to help them with the transition.

Third is the benefit of preschool for disadvantaged children. One study indicates that for disadvantaged children, any sort of center-based care provides a comparative advantage over parental care or informal familial care. The study is complicated by the fact the parents self-reported the type of care their child received and the fact they received a mix of care.  Nevertheless, the results of the study seem to be consistent with conventional wisdom: Those disadvantaged students benefited most from pre-kindergarten collocated with the elementary school, less from private preschool, and even less from center-based daycare. But all had a positive effect in comparison to no center-based care at all. Preschool benefits children from disadvantaged families far more than it benefits children from families that already provide the socio-emotional support, learning tools, and exposure to literacy as a natural and holistic part of child-rearing.  One way it does so is by neutralizing the effects of a negative home environment.

The corollary to the benefit disadvantaged children may receive from preschool is if you are an educated parent who spends time talking and learning with your children, your child probably will not gain any extra educational benefit from preschool. Oklahoma makes the classic mistake of assuming the government can do a better job of providing for our children than parents. A well-off parent can afford to send a child to a quality daycare, Mother’s Day Out program, or preschool if care during the day is required (or desired). An engaged parent can provide “education” necessary for a young child by letting him or her play — a solution far better than formal education which can hinder a child’s learning skills or negatively impact more rambunctious children, especially boys.

Preschool for disadvantaged children may have its benefits, but that does not augur for a state-run program that catches all children.

An Oklahoma Case Study

Here’s the situation in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the site of a multiyear Georgetown University project. Children in Oklahoma are served by the Tulsa Public Schools’ (TPS) universal pre-kindergarten, the Community Action Project which has both Head Start and TPS slots, and Educare (a program with Early Head Start slots and TPS slots). Educare, the brainchild of the Buffett Early Childhood Fund and the Ounce of Prevention Fund, is a multi-state research-oriented early education center.

By all measures, all three programs are quality programs. What defines quality? Two accepted standards of quality for a pre-kindergarten program are the environment rating scales developed by the Frank Porter Graham Early Childhood Center at the University of North Carolina- Chapel Hill. The first is the revised Infant/Toddler Environmental Rating Scale (ITERS-R) and the second is the Revised Early Childhood Environmental Rating Scale (ECERS-R). Each features seven subscales: space and furnishings, personal care routines, listening and talking, activities, interaction, program structure, and parents and staff.

A third standard of quality is that of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER). Oklahoma’s state-run universal program scores 9/10 on the scale.  In general, the NIEER standards are a much inferior form of measuring classroom inputs than the ECERS/ITERS scale. ECERS/ITERS have been linked to positive classroom performance through at least the second grade of school, and is measured by a trained observers’ analysis of how a classroom functions, as opposed to the dry measures of NIEER.

CAP Head Start, Educare, and the state-run pre-kindergarten program are all quality based both on the NIEER criteria and the ECERS criteria.  Notably, in all three programs, lead teachers must have a bachelor’s degree in the field, the classrooms must maintain a 10:1 ratio, and teachers are paid a regular public school wage.  The Tulsa-based Head Start’s requirements are above and beyond national Head Start standards. All three programs work seamlessly together. CAP Head Start and Educare also implement data-driven practices, have state-of-the-art buildings designed to encourage learning and exploration, and strongly encourage parental interaction.

So, what happens with these kids? First, let’s acknowledge there are short term gains.


The Frank Porter Graham Institute at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill is in the midst of an implementation study and a randomized control study of five Educare sites. The implementation study found the longer children were in Educare, the better their results upon entering kindergarten. Upon entering kindergarten, long-term Educare students were up to their middle-class peers’ level of development. Of course, results upon kindergarten entry are only half of the story, and unfortunately, Educare does not yet have data on the later years.

Head Start and TPS Pre-kindergarten:

According to the multi-year Georgetown study, both programs had positive impacts on the children’s cognitive development. However, in pre-reading and in pre-writing, the state-run pre-kindergarten program was clearly superior.

Of course, Head Start only serves disadvantaged students, whereas Tulsa Public Schools serves the entire population. However, the researchers accounted for that by also looking at Tulsa Public School students who qualified for the free lunch program. The difference persists.

What about that dreaded third-grade slump?

Unfortunately, there is no Tulsa-specific Head Start data on third graders. However, there have been two studies on Tulsan third graders who attended the state-run pre-kindergarten.

What do you know? The early cohort showed no measurable gains by third grade. For the second cohort, a few years later, there were measurable results in math — for boys, not girls.

The second cohort likely has at least a small success because the pre-kindergarten program was more mature and running more smoothly in 2005-2006 than it was in 2000-2001.

For short-term learning gains to be sustained, changes are likely needed in K-3 instruction – what is taught, when it is taught, and how it is taught. If K-3 teachers do not adjust curriculum and teaching strategies to account for the growing presence of children who experienced preschool, the comparison group children are likely to catch up while learning gains of treatment group children are likely to stall. Reports from the field in Tulsa suggest growing awareness of school readiness improvements, which were well-publicized in Tulsa and which many teachers reported noticing themselves.

But… this program is now 15 years old. Despite high quality inputs, despite massive participation in a universal system – which arguably changed the culture of the early elementary years – there are only modest gains.

Experiments such as Perry and Abcedarian work because we picked the children who need preschool the most and focus on them intensively.  Head Start is not doing its job. The state run pre-kindergarten is not doing its job. After 15 years, it may be time to try something different.

Seriously, we can’t afford this

Oklahoma’s spending is at an all time high.  Certainly, most is not on education. However, despite the argument Oklahoma is cutting spending that goes directly to the classroom, overall the last session increased education spending by $74 million. In some states, the pre-kindergarten budget is separate. In Oklahoma, pre-kindergarten is folded into the overall school funding formula. It’s laughable that the same people who lament that 49th in school spending is not OK aren’t noticing the pre-kindergarten parasite stretching the education budget even further.

Should we instead be spending more money on education? Well, the United States now spends more money per pupil in education than any other country, yet still regularly trails behind rival countries in academic success. There’s a host of other research indicating academic spending is not benefiting educational outcomes.

Let’s go back to Tulsa itself. The state-run pre-kindergarten is significantly cheaper than Head Start.  According to the Georgetown study:

Historically, the costs of the Tulsa pre-K program have been surprisingly low, considering the substantial positive impacts the program has achieved. In fact, we have estimated that, in current dollars, the program cost all governments combined (federal, state, and local) $10,000 per student for a full-day slot, $5,000 for a half-day slot. In contrast, the Perry Preschool Project cost approximately $22,000 per student (in current dollars). We have consistently found that both full-day and half-day versions of the program are highly effective.

Head Start in Tulsa is a behemoth, but a well-run behemoth. CAP receives financing beyond federal Head Start dollars – Federal, state, and local grants; private donations; low-interest loans; and tax-exempt bond financing. Funding includes money from the George Kaiser Family Foundation, Early Head Start, Head Start, Title I, the State of Oklahoma Pilot Early Childhood Program (now called the Early Childhood Program), individual donations, the Tulsa Area United Way, and the Oklahoma Department of Commerce. CAP of Tulsa County Head Start also receives 90 percent of the funding per student that would otherwise flow to TPS if there were no collaboration.

What do you know — Head Start, despite its significant funding — pales in comparison to the Tulsa pre-kindergarten system. According to the Georgetown study, both programs had positive impacts on the children’s cognitive development. However, in pre-reading and in pre-writing, the state-run pre-kindergarten program was clearly superior.

Of course, Head Start only serves disadvantaged students, whereas Tulsa Public Schools serves the entire population. However, the researchers accounted for that by also looking at Tulsa Public School students who qualified for the free lunch program. The difference persists – TPS is better when it comes to pre-writing and pre-reading indicators. In fact, the state-run pre-kindergarten leads to significant improvements for students with parents speaking Spanish at home in reading and writing skills.

For math, both programs equally prepared the children for kindergarten. And for social-emotional development, in general the TPS pre-K students were less timid and more attentive than a control group, whereas Head Start students showed no progress. However, when comparing TPS free-lunch students vs. Head Start students, there were not many differences, indicating some of the timidity and inattention may be related to outside demographic factors. There were however still some differences in attentiveness, with TPS ‘winning’ in that score.

More money isn’t necessarily the answer.

Policy Alternatives

The state-run program, at least in the city of Tulsa, is superior to a well-run Head Start in terms of short-term gains.

In fact, the Georgetown study authors emphasize that in the short term, students from all backgrounds benefitted from the Tulsa pre-kindergarten program:

Tulsa is not a microcosm of the nation, and the Tulsa pre-K program is not a typical program. We have emphasized that Tulsa public school students are poorer than average and that the Tulsa preschool program is better than average. Tulsa students ineligible for a school lunch subsidy are probably less advantaged, in terms of household income and perhaps other attributes, than their counterparts in many other jurisdictions.

But we have successfully identified a segment of the Tulsa student body that is highly advantaged – namely, children whose mothers have a college degree. Even those students benefit from participating in Tulsa’s high-quality pre-K program, as do ALL the student subgroups we have examined.

Reasonable people will disagree on whether a federally-funded universal pre-K program is good public policy. What we can say with certainty is that Tulsa’s version of such a program benefits children from different social classes, children whose mothers have weak and strong educational backgrounds, and children from diverse racial and ethnic groups.

Granted. But here are some alternatives:

If Oklahoma is truly concerned about how the state is failing young children, it might focus instead on reforming educational options for the most vulnerable. That may include bolstering Head Start state-wide with private and non-profit partnerships, as it does in Tulsa.  It may even include some version of the state-run pre-kindergarten, but instead a targeted intensive program for those who fall below the poverty line.

Encourage a variety of education providers to fill the preschool slots. Take a lesson from Florida’s VPK program and encourage contracting with private preschool providers more than public preschool providers. In Florida as of 2009, 89 percent of the programs were privately run and adhered to an output model. If the programs did not have measurable results in three years, they were counselled out of VPK. That could be tweaked a bit to require ECER-type standards from those programs such as teacher certifications and class ratios. If a pre-K model is mostly public- rather than private-run, they are crowding out private programs foro which parents may otherwise pay.

Want to focus on the entire population of children in your state? Revamp kindergarten; revamp the early grades. Fight against No Child Left Behind and the latest trend of Common Core and use proven strategies on how children learn.

Employ administrators who know more than just education policy but who also have an academic understanding of preliteracy and premath skills. That can help the “testing gap.”

Collocate programs with the local public school. Make it part of the whole elementary school process, even though it should be available only to disadvantaged students. Let teachers at the local school cycle through the program, thereby ensuring continuity of care and schooling.

Consider early schooling. Use Early Head Start funds if you must. Get the children before their vocabulary is permanently maimed. By no means should care by mothers be discouraged, but low-quality care for infants should be, if those infants are being put in negative child care settings.

Focus on the parents. Model correct parental behavior. Helping with child care and education issues also helps lower incidences of depression in parents.  Stress in parents lead to stress in children, and there are now studies exploring what higher levels of cortisol do to children.

For those legislatures concerned with reaching the middle class, who often fall through programs that target the impoverished, instead of expanding programs to those who fall up to 200% of the poverty line, consider these classic ideas:

  • Education accounts
  • Vouchers
  • Extra tax incentives for employers that provide quality childcare environments for children under the age of three.

For those concerned that those policies may reward just the working mom and punish those who choose to stay at home with their children, consider the Etsy Earner agenda for education and childcare.

How did this happen, anyway?

A Republican supermajority, a Republican governor, complete Republican representation in the U.S. House and Senate, every county voting for a Republican president since 2000 — there is no doubt Oklahoma is a red state.

But Oklahoma is still technically a plurality-Democratic state with a strong history of having Democrats in public office. The state, which straddles the line between West, Midwest, and the South, is very clearly Southern when it comes to its blue-dog Democrats and and therefore many conservative measures pass with bipartisan support. But this Democratic plurality still supports an expanded government. The biggest battles in the state are those not on the conservative/liberal dividing line but on the limited government line, especially on education excess.

The state-funded universal program was basically sneaked into a bill in 1998 by a Democratic lawmaker who ostensibly wanted to fix what was known as the “four-year-old problem” — small school districts that were enrolling students younger and younger in order to keep state funding. The bill, not widely read line by line, passed easily.

As in other states, the tide of red is engulfing state representation. Until 2004, Oklahoma’s House was solidly Democratic, but the Republican representation keeps growing in both House and Senate. Oklahoma Democrats, who have always distinguished themselves from the out-of-touch DC Democrats, are losing the conservative rural areas, previously democratic strongholds.

Oklahoma has the ability to establish itself as a beacon of federalism and limited government. It has already gained national attention for its states’ rights crusading attorney general. The state legislature is working on tax reform, judicial selection, workers’ compensation reform and tort reform. The state Democrats even acknowledge in their mission statement that less government is sometimes better government.

Despite those gains, Oklahoma can’t claim the mantle of limited government while the universal pre-kindergarten stands. We haven’t even begun to debate its scope, much less move for reform. A program for which we didn’t ask and for which our representatives unknowingly voted now holds an untouchable status.