Getting the Facts Right on Pre-K

Find out what science says about the President's pre-K proposal.

Posted Mar 20, 2013

In a recently released policy report, Dr. Steven Barnett of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) provides impartial and comprehensive reviews of the science behind President Obama’s call for universal preschool education. The report answers the four burning questions central to the debate and douses the president’s fired-up critics. Science has spoken!

1. Does high-quality pre-K have lasting benefits?

Yes! A statistical summary of 123 studies overwhelmingly supports the existence of long term lasting benefits. Best effects were found in preschool programs that emphasized intentional teaching, small groups, and one-on-one learning. “Preschool programs designed to emphasize these features are estimated to produce long-term effects equivalent in size to one half or more of the achievement gap between minority and white children or low-income and other children through the end of high school.” (Reported on page 1 of the report.) Critics who have complained about “bad education,” a decline in effects over time, or fading gains after hurrying young children into preschool “hothouses” are dismissed, but schools get a “thumbs up” for helping many children who did not attend preschool albeit in expensive remedial programs. “These greater efforts by the schools for children who did not benefit from preschool education are reflected in the benefit-cost analyses that document the cost savings from prevention.” (Reported on page 2.)

2. What is the evidence for the $7 to $1 return on investment in pre-K?

Forget the $7 to $1benefit-cost analysis. The more recent estimates of the return on intensive programs are up to $16 to $1! The report of the science backs the President in his claim. Experimental studies with randomized trials established links between pre-K and “greater school success, reduced crime and delinquency, and increased earnings over a lifetime.” (Reported on page 3.)

3. Do non-disadvantaged children benefit from pre-K, and is a targeted or a universal approach to pre-K more effective?

Both disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged children benefit though the benefits are greater for disadvantaged children. Studies of universal pre-K in Oklahoma even found benefits for higher income children. Indeed, “. . . some studies find substantial preschool education effects for children from all economic strata.” (Reported on page 4.)

4. Are large-scale public programs, including Head Start, effective?

Yes! “It is simply not true that large-scale public programs have failed to produce meaningful short-and long-term results.” However, “. . . underfunded programs with low standards produce few significant benefits.” (Reported on page 5) Overall, the report concludes that Head Start benefits are significant but that the Obama Administration is pushing for higher quality and sharper focus in Head Start.

The report entitled “Getting the Facts Right on Pre-K and the President’s Pre-K Proposal” concludes, “In summary, when all of the evidence is considered it is found that large-scale public programs have succeeded in producing meaningful long-term gains for children and not just disadvantaged children.” (Reported on page 8.) It’s a compelling read. Link to the full report in its title above.

Note: the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) is affiliated with the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers University.  NIEER supports early childhood policy development by providing independent research, analysis, and technical assistance.

Dr. J. Richard Gentry is the author of Raising Confident Readers, How to Teach Your Child to Read and Write–From Baby to Age 7. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn and find out more information about his work on his website.