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June 04, 2009

The Little Reform that Could

Juggernaut Since reading Chester Finn's article in the Washington Post I learned that Dr. Finn will be in Washington on Thursday at a Panel discussion about pre-k with Steven Barnett, the godfather of preschool research at the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER). Also represented will be Neal McCluskey of the Center for Educational Freedom, Cato Institute and Sara Mead of New America Foundation.  The moderator will be Richard Colvin of Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media. I wish I could attend, but I will likely be helping my students complete their longest wooden train ever and talking about engineering ideas like height, slope, speed, motion, and magnetism as we try to get the train to circle the entire classroom.

In order to get a handle on why Chester would say that the effectiveness of preschool is a "Myth," I decided to download Chester Finn's new book Rerouting the Preschool Juggernaut. I have to say the cover of the book is hilarious. When I think of juggernauts I don't think of The Little Engine that Could, but the reform movement that is voluntary preschool is just that: the reform that "Thinks It Can!" It is not as if voluntary universal pre-k has suddenly appeared on the scene. It has been chugging up the mountain of education reform for 40 years. I have never seen a fast rolling steam roller so to me the image evokes thoughts of big business running away from their responsibilities to children. If opponents really wanted to help children they would get on board and help get the train over the mountain and deliver children the services they need on so many levels.

I will talk more about the book in the next post, but here is the second myth from the Washington Post op-ed. Finn says,

-- Preschool is educationally effective. On the contrary, while a few tiny, costly programs targeting very poor children have shown some lasting positive effects, the overwhelming majority of studies show that most pre-K programs have little to no educational impact (particularly on middle-class kids) and/or have effects that fade within the first few years of school.


It is strange that Finn would say that only a "few tiny, costly programs targeting very poor children have shown some lasting positive effects."
A RAND corporation study disagrees and suggests that pre-k positively impacts every child who attends. RAND suggests that in calculating potential benefit of high quality preschool, high risk students may realize 100% of benefits, medium risk students may realize 50% of benefits and low risk students may realize 25% of benefits. A voluntary universal pre-k system would increase the total number of children realizing benefits that would be passed on to our society as well as provide the most benefit to the students that most need it.

Currently in Virginia, almost 70% of low risk (high socio-economic) students already attend center-based preschools, but approximately 20% of high risk students and 40% of medium risk students attend center based preschools. Oklahoma and Georgia have realized 70% total enrollment in public pre-k across all risk levels. So if universal really means 70% then low risk students already have a universal pre-k program. It is only the poor and middle class that don't receive the benefit of a universal system. The benefits of increased enrollment that might be seen in Virginia would look like the following graph.

Comparisons are made by economic level and potential benefit to the child. In these calculations, high risk students received 4 points benefit (100%), medium risk received 2 points (50%), and low risk received 1 point (25%).

Now, for the "fade" factor:

The long-term positive effects of preschool for at-risk students are well documented by the Chicago Longitudinal Study, the Carolina Abecedarian Study, and the High/Scope Perry Preschool Study. Benefits include increased classroom productivity, higher achievement, higher graduation rates, and higher rates of employment. Similar, though less substantial gains in school readiness can be found for middle and high SES students. According to Virginia’s own position paper on school readiness, high-quality preschool, possibly for all students, can increase the likelihood of school success.

Evidence shows that it is not only low-income students who may benefit from preschool. Nationwide, nearly half (49 percent) of children who enter kindergarten without the ability to recognize the letters of the alphabet are middle-income children. Twelve percent of middle-income children repeat a grade in school.

It seems that high SES students would not benefit as much from attending a public preschool program but benefits exist. Affluence does not mean a student is not at risk.  In fact, high SES students have been shown to be at greater risk than low or middle SES students for depression and drug use in adolescence, both issues that are positively affected by preschool. Academically, a RAND corporation study found that children who attended preschool performed better on the National Assessment Educational Progress. Finally, a study of five state preschool programs found all children were shown to gain from preschool regardless of race or economic background.


Dr. Finn, when I dig my way out from under this tiny pile of evidence, maybe we can talk some more about how pre-k can and does help kids in the long and short term if they attend high quality programs.

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