Monday, January 31, 2022

What Happened with that Tennessee Pre-K Study?

For my readers who enjoy discussing education questions, here's another, courtesy of Dylan Matthews at Vox:

The pre-K study was conducted by researchers at Vanderbilt University and looks at Tennessee Voluntary Pre-K, or TN-VPK, which has existed in some form since 1996 and offers many 3- and 4-year-olds free access to pre-K services. The actual pre-K sites were often oversubscribed, and had to resort to random lotteries to pick enrollees. The researchers exploited that feature to track students who were randomly able to enroll in pre-K in 2009 and 2010, and compare them to students who, by random chance, couldn’t enroll.

In prior work the same authors found that kids who got into pre-K outperformed ones who didn’t on intelligence tests — when they were 5. By the end of kindergarten, however, the benefits seemed to evaporate and by third grade, the pre-K kids were actually doing worse, with lower test scores in math and science.

This part is, I think, pretty well attested; most studies done over the past 30 years have found that Head Start and similar programs have positive effects, but those effects wear off quickly. 

The new study follows the same children through sixth grade, adding three more years of data. The upshot? the results just keep getting worse. Reading, writing, and science scores in sixth grade were all lower among pre-K kids than other kids, and the gap has grown since third grade. The researchers also found that pre-K kids were likelier to skip school or get into disciplinary trouble as they got older.

Why? They don’t really know. The answer might depend on what the students who weren’t in the pre-K program were doing. The authors report that 63 percent were at home with a parent, relative, or other caretakers, and 34 percent were in private day care or Head Start. So you can read the study as suggesting that being home with a parent, grandparent, or nanny is better than going to pre-K; or maybe what’s going on is that Head Start and private care are better for kids than the Tennessee program. It’s hard to say.

But this isn’t just one study. Research into Quebec’s day care program found long-run negative effects on kids’ behavior, including increased crime. The idea that certain forms of pre-K or child care can harm kids has significant empirical support.

I wouldn't call this "significant empirical support," but it certainly is interesting.

For one thing, we might consider that "Pre-K" can mean a wide range of different things. What children do at a nice Waldorf program in an expensive area, lots of outdoor activities and organic baking and so on, might be very different from what happens at an underfunded Head Start program in a tough urban neighborhood or an Appalachian town. This is my beef with "Universal Pre-K" as a nationwide program; who can say what those programs will be like? If I, as a parent, think the local program sucks and my child will be better off at home, will that be a problem? Or will I have to file some kind of lesson plan like a homeschooling family has to? Can my lesson plan just say, "My child is 4 years old and will do 4-year-old things"?

There is also the question of children as individuals. Some might love preschool, others might hate it, and who knows what sort of long-term effects could arise from forcing 4-year-olds to go every day to a place they hate?

I understand what drives the push for more schooling. American children from poor and minority backgrounds seem to be falling farther behind the upper middle class on a bunch of metrics: IQ, test scores, college attendance, future income. It seems like the worldwide economy is changing in ways that make education more and more essential. Plus, finding care for their children regularly shows up as the biggest stressor in the lives of poor families and single mothers.

But forcing children to spend ever more time at schools that don't seem to be teaching them very much strikes me as a very bad strategy.

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

Again, I find myself compelled to ask, what are other countries doing?

For example: Finland, routinely ranked among the top countries for quality of education, doesn't have children start school until they are seven, opting instead for daycare programs that focus on physical activity and creative play in a social setting rather than formal instruction.

The Finns believe that children need to focus on their overall health and fundamental life skills first, and only bother with things like math or reading later on. They are taught things like how to dress themselves, how to make friends and share, how to speak politely to grownups and interact civilly with strangers, and generally how to be communicative, well behaved, polite, and happy.

Finnish law actually guarantees Finns the right to high quality preschool education, and the Finnish government devotes a great deal of funds and resources to providing such - arguing that the benefits far outweigh the costs. Daycare programs are subsidized by the state; attendance fees, where they exist, are kept low with state mandated hard caps; low income families pay no fees at all; and attendance is voluntary, but rates of enrollment are high - in part because the legal right to government-provided preschool helps it to be seen the as "default" option.

"School selection" is prohibited - it is seen as nothing but an excuse to not shore up struggling catchment schools. There is no privatization of schools. School quality standards are enforced universally across the country, rather than chiefly left up to state and local governments. Exams only appear at college. There is a strong emphasis on actively recruiting preschool staff from the communities the children come from, particularly when seeking to serve minority and/or immigrant communities. School meals are free and high quality. Assistance for at-risk and low-income families is directly handled via the basic system, rather than being spun off into separate programs - it's all one universal system, which incentivizes fixing problems, because a failure anywhere is treated as a failure everywhere.

And it's not just Finland where you will find these practices, nor the levels of success they promote. Plenty of other Northern European countries do much or all of the same things, and achieve their own superior results compared to America.

Studies showing that preschool in America doesn't really help only tell you one thing - that "American style" preschool is flawed. It is important not to make the mistake of assuming that preschool as a whole is flawed - other approaches used elsewhere yield far better results. Beware the fallacy of narrow-mindedness and the trap of "American Exceptionalism".