Question for Sara Mead

June 9, 2009

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I saw a documentary on Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign a few years ago. After a completely nasty setback, Napoleon retreated in defeat back to Cairo, but then ordered a victory parade to be held before fleeing the country entirely.

Watching Fordham’s pre-school event online, I can’t help but think that pre-k advocates are trying to do the same thing with Oklahoma: pretend its a victory, when in fact it looks more like their Waterloo.

I watched the Fordham Foundation pre-school event online yesterday. I was especially taken by Sara Mead’s claim that universal preschool could lead to dynamic changes in K-12, and that disadvantaged kids in Oklahoma’s pre-k program made larger gains than other students.

The biggest problem for universal pre-k advocates, in my view, is that the academic gains associated with Pre-K programs fade out. Consider the blue line in the chart below-4th grade NAEP scores from Oklahoma. In 1998, Oklahoma adopted a universal pre-k program.

FL vs. OkI assume that Ms. Mead has a basis to say that disadvantaged children make bigger gains under the Oklahoma pre-k program. The more important question is whether those gains are sustained over time.

Based upon the NAEP scores, Oklahoma’s program looks like a dud, increasing all of one point between 1998 and 2007.

The best one can try to spin out of the Oklahoma situation is scores might have actually dropped in the absence of the program, but now you are really grasping at straws. I seriously doubt that anyone who voted for this program in 1998 could be anything other than disappointed.

The red line, Florida, shows what can be done with a vigorous effort to improve K-12 schools. Florida’s low-income children improved by 23 points between 1998 and 2007.

Florida voters created a universal pre-k program, which was implemented as a voucher, but none of those students had reached the 4th grade by 2007.

Mead would likely argue, and I think she did at the event, that Pre-K and K-12 reform aren’t mutually exclusive, and I agree. It seems fair to ask however: is Pre-K a waste of time as an education improvement strategy? If not, why are the Oklahoma results so dreadfully unimpressive?