Universal pre-K remains a dubious idea

In last year’s State of the Union address, President Obama called for federal funding of a “Preschool for All” initiative. He’s likely to renew that call this week.

Unfortunately, as I discussed here, there’s no reason to believe that a universal pre-school program would improve educational or life outcomes. Indeed, a recent article in National Affairs by David Armor and Sonia Sousa strongly suggests that such a program is unlikely to provide these benefits.

We have, of course, decades of experience with a federally funded pre-school program, Head Start. The relevant questions are: (1) has Head Start improved outcomes and, if not, (2) is there a basis for concluding that allegedly “higher quality” programs do so.

As to the first question, the evidence is clear. Armor and Sousa show that:

The Head Start program has been evaluated using the most sophisticated research designs available to social scientists, and the results have been disappointing. While Head Start appears to produce modest positive effects during the preschool years, these effects do not last even into kindergarten, much less through the early elementary years.

Do realistic alternatives to Head Start exist that are likely to produce better results? According to Armor and Sousa, it appears not:

Evidence from comparative studies suggests. . .that Head Start programs are not significantly different from those commonly cited as being high quality, at least in attributes that produce better outcomes. . . .Head Start actually competes well on quality measures with preschools that have reputations for high quality. According to the ECERS-R index, a common measure of preschool classroom quality, the Head Start programs studied in the HSIS are actually of slightly higher quality than the “high-quality” Abbot program.

To be sure, some evaluators have found that the Abbot program in New Jersey and similar programs in Boston and Tulsa (which do not report their ECERS score) produce significantly better results than Head Start. But Armor and Sousa show that these analyses are seriously flawed. When a Tennessee pre-K program with the same quality characteristics was evaluated using a more rigorous methodology, it was found to produce results very similar to Head Start. And a major study found that “higher-quality” Head Start programs do not produce better outcomes than other Head Start programs.

Given this evidence, there is scant justification for pouring billions of federal dollars into a universal pre-K program.