The Jury's Out on Pre-K

Faced with budget turmoil, the state Legislature needs to make hard decisions

Over the past four years, Tennessee has moved into the forefront of states offering pre-kindergarten programs to disadvantaged four-year-olds. At a state cost of $83 million, some 17,000 youngsters (whose eligibility is based on family income that qualifies them for free or reduced-price lunches) are enrolled this school year in 934 specialized Pre-K classrooms throughout the state.

Gov. Phil Bredesen's commitment to the program is based on the widespread belief that the cognitive and social skills less fortunate kids gain in Pre-K will better prepare them to keep pace with their more fortunate counterparts in school.

In ordinary times, this undeniable enhancement of entry-level skills aimed at leveling the educational playing field would suffice to justify continuation of Pre-K funding co-equally with K-12. After all, who can be opposed to equal educational opportunity for all?

But these are not ordinary times. With the worst economic downturn in many decades now dragging down state revenues and forcing cuts in most state programs, one has to question whether Pre-K should be exempt from them. Sustaining the formula-driven funding of K-12 is almost obligatory. But higher education funding, which is discretionary, is facing a 15 percent cut that will severely impact universities' fulfillment of their mission even if they resort to double-digit increases in tuition at a time when many students and their families are least able to afford them.

At a time like this, one must ask whether the benefits of Pre-K relative to its cost begin to measure up to those afforded by a college education in terms of augmented work-force skills and career-earnings prospects. As of now, there's a paucity of evidence that Pre-K yields lasting benefits—at least in Tennessee.

Indeed, the one study conducted for the state by the Ohio-based Strategy Research Group pedagogically concluded that, "although Pre-K students initially demonstrated an advantage... over peers who did not participate in Pre-K, by the second grade there was no statistically significant difference in these groups attributable to Pre-K participation. Rather, the Pre-K and non-Pre-K groups appear to converge."

The executive director of early childhood learning for the state Department of Education, Bobbi Lussier, is quick to disparage the findings of the SRG study, which was commissioned by the State Comptroller. Lussier points out that the findings beyond kindergarten were based on years when Pre-K was in a pilot mode and did not have the rigorous curriculum that was introduced in 2005.

Moreover, she's joined by the Washington-based advocacy group pre[k]now in criticizing SRG's methodology. In an open letter to all state legislators, that group's executive director, Libby Doggett, asserts that, "The SRG study does not compare randomly selected groups of students. Instead, students have been deliberately assigned to two comparison groups based on predetermined criteria. When study groups are not randomly assigned, the likelihood that unidentified but important differences between the groups of students will skew the results increases significantly." And Doggett questions the study's validity on other counts.

Despite the fact that 37 states now have Pre-K programs, there's a dearth of what is known as longitudinal (i.e. multi-year) comparisons or randomized trials from any of them. The two studies that Pre-K proponents most cite as proving long-term benefits are of much smaller samples of children, commencing in the 1960s—one in Ypsilanti, Mich., and the other in Chicago. While the cognitive advantage of the 123 preschoolers in the Ypsilanti study declined over time, it found "a persistent effect on achievement tests through middle school." Moreover, "the preschool group had better classroom and personal behaviors as reported by teachers, less involvement in delinquency and crime, fewer special education placements and a higher high school graduation rate."

Whether that's enough to justify sacred-cow status for Pre-K's $83 million state funding under present circumstances is a matter for debate. Whatever the flaws in its methodology may be, SRG may be able to shed more light on the subject by the time the Legislature makes painful budget decisions next spring.

Once data from the 2007-2008 school year is taken into account, as SRG is doing now, it will be able to assess how Pre-K participants during the 2005-06 school year when present state curriculum standards took effect performed through first grade relative to comparable non-Pre-Kers. Higher test scores on the part of the Pre-Kers would at least begin to show some lasting benefit from participation in the program.

The director of research and education accountability in the state Comptroller's office, Phillip Doss, cautions that, "There's a danger that those who are inclined to support or oppose Pre-K are going to overinterpret these results." Yet while performance gains through first grade fall far short of the much longer-term assessment of Pre-K benefits that is needed, the absence of such gains would be a telling indictment of the program's effectiveness.

In any event, with some $200 million in higher-education funding on the chopping block, the Legislature needs to make hard decisions as to where the state gets the most bang for its educational buck.