Pre-K Helps Test Scores in Short Run But Hurts Them Later

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The Arnold Foundation’s Straight Talk On Evidence web site provides a very useful summary of a recently published large RCT on a state-funded pre-K program in Tennessee.  Consistent with a previous, nationally representative RCT of Head Start, this study found that students given access to government-funded pre-school by lottery initially score higher than those who lose the lottery on standardized test scores but then fare worse later.

In the TN study, treatment students score higher at the end of pre-K.  But, as the Arnold summary puts it:

At the end of third grade, the study found statistically-significant adverse effects on student math and science achievement. In math, the VPK group scored 0.12 standard deviations lower than the control group, which equates to roughly 13 percent less growth in math achievement than would be expected in the third grade year.[ii] In science, the VPK group scored 0.09 standard deviations lower than the control group, which equates to roughly 23 percent less growth in science achievement than would be expected in the third grade year.[iii]

In an effort to explain the negative longer-term result, the authors suggest that special education may be to blame.  Students admitted to the government-funded pre-K program were more likely to be labeled as needing special education services and that designation may have lowered academic expectations.  But this explanation is inconsistent with Hanushek, Kain, and Rivkin’s finding that special education tends to improve test score results.  Straight Talk at least considers the possibility that children being with family or in a non-government-funded pre-school may just be academically superior.

The hard reality is that the process of human development is complex and highly varied, so we just don’t know the optimal arrangements for all children.  Andy Smarick has an excellent piece along these lines in the Weekly Standard, suggesting that education policy experts suffer from a Hayekian information problem.  And this was also the subtext of my post last week on how parents are smarter than Technocrats.  Even when Technocrats are armed with the best science, they generally do not have enough information to centrally plan the lives of others.  This doesn’t mean that we never regulate anything.  It just means that if we do regulate we should do so with great caution and large dollops of humility because the experts are typically missing a lot of important information that the individuals they are regulating are more likely to posses.

But caution and humility are no fun, so the Arnold Foundation’s Straight Talk chooses instead to double-down on Technocracy by suggesting that the disappointing results of pre-school as shown in RCTs of both Head Start and the TN program be remedied by identifying which subset of pre-schools seem to be more effective and regulating programs toward imitating those schools:

The above findings and observations, we believe, underscore the need to reform programs such as VPK and Head Start by incorporating (i) rigorous evaluations aimed at identifying the subset of local approaches that are effective, and (ii) once such approaches are identified, strong incentives or requirements for other local program sites to adopt and faithfully implement them on a larger scale.

Keep in mind that the TN program already has regulations in place meant to ensure quality, including requiring at least 5.5 hours of instructional time per day, a cap of 20 students per classroom, a licensed teacher in each classroom, and the requirement that schools choose among a state approved set of curricula.  Also keep in mind that short-term test scores, which are the most common tool by which regulators monitor quality, showed positive results.

If these regulatory practices are insufficient to avoid harming students over the medium term, why would Straight Talk believe that doubling down on the Technocratic approach would make things better?  It would be nice if they at least considered the possibility that we are suffering from a Hayekian information problem and may be unable to devise optimal arrangements for education.

6 Responses to Pre-K Helps Test Scores in Short Run But Hurts Them Later

  1. Greg Forster says:

    What’s the working definition of insanity again?

  2. Andy Smarick’s piece in The Weekly Standard helps to explain why that magazine has been losing whatever authority it may once have had. Supposedly an admission that central planning doesn’t work, and charter schools (very limited choice) may be the only thing to save public education, Smarick’s article doesn’t mention the central planning role played by a state board of education (he was chair of the MD SBOE) or the fact that the State Plan leaves Common Core-aligned standards and tests in place for all publicly-funded schools, including charters, and those standards/tests continue to do their damage to the disadvantaged kids he is supposedly concerned about. Totalitarianism (an iron fist) inside a seemingly velvet glove. If one believes that only fragmentation of power can curb the abuse of central power (why NE towns were set up with multiple unpaid officlals covering the same civic territory but each with a different function), then there is no alternative to a local community’s control of its own public schools by elected reps, however bad many of them are. Civil rights safeguards exist now at the national level and would continue to exist without a USED. But public schools cannot continue their role to preserve this democracy even if all become charters without the national yoke imposed through the State Plan and implemented by a dept of ed under an ignorant state board and incompetent commissioner and governor.

  3. “Without” should just be “with” in the last sentence. SS

  4. “Without” should just be “with” in the last sentence. SS

  5. Ciro Curbelo says:

    Jeebus…I’d do a great disservice to my 4- and 5-year old sons if I put them in a program with 5.5 hours of instruction per day. I think they could handle 3 hors, but 5.5? NFW. Glad I have the ability to opt out of that…Pitty the folks who compulsorily have to give their kids what they are developmentally not ready for.

    How about we write a law – any policy makers have to send their own kids to a school that implements the program they require?

  6. […] off academically if—instead of attending public pre-k—they stay at home at age four,” says a study summary from the Arnold Foundation’s Straight Talk on Evidence research clearinghouse (h/t Jay […]

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