NPRI testimony: Pre-K and full-day kindergarten programs produce only small and temporary gains

LAS VEGAS – Today, Victor Joecks, NPRI’s communications director, offered the following testimony on SB 182 and AB 163 to the Senate Committee on Education and Assembly Committee on Education.

My name is Victor Joecks, and I'm the communications director at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. Thank you for this chance to share how pre-K and full-day kindergarten programs are not a path to permanently increasing student achievement.

Numerous studies have shown that learning gains from full-day kindergarten programs are both minimal and temporary — having faded by the end of the third grade.

One of the studies used to promote full-day K today is by Walston and West done in 2004. In 2005, Walston, West and Rathbun conducted a follow-up study on the long-term effects of full-day kindergarten. Here's what they found:

“The reading score growth per month is .04 points lower (effect size =.10) for children who attended full-day kindergarten compared to those who attended half-day kindergarten after taking into account the other factors in the model. No difference was detected for the growth of mathematics scores. These findings suggest that children who attended public school full-day kindergarten classes did not maintain their advantage over the three years after kindergarten” (Emphasis added.)

study on the longitudinal effects of full-day kindergarten by the RAND Corporation found that “there are initial benefits for students and the mothers of students that attend full-day kindergarten, but that these differences largely evaporate by third grade. Contrary to claims by some advocates, attending full-day kindergarten is found to have no additional benefit for students in families with income below the poverty threshold.”

meta-analysis, published in the Review of Education Research, found that “full-day (or all-day) kindergarten had a positive association with academic achievement (compared to half-day kindergarten) equal to about one quarter standard deviation at the end of the kindergarten year. But the association disappeared by third grade.” The analysis also found, “children may not have as positive an attitude toward school in full-day versus half-day kindergarten and may experience more behavior problems.”

study published in the Economics of Education Review found that “full-day kindergarten has sizeable impacts on academic achievement, but the estimated gains are short-lived, particularly for minority children.”

Finally, I’d like to share the results of a study released by the Clark County School District of full-day kindergarten in 2007. CCSD’s study found that “at-risk” second graders who attended full-day K showed improvement over children in half-day, but for the second graders who were not “at-risk,” those who attended full-day K performed three percentage points lower than students who attended half-day kindergarten.

Let's now examine pre-K programs, like Head Start. The federal government has to date spent $180 billion on Head Start. In 1985, the Department of Health and Human Services conducted the first meta-analysis of the research about Head Start and concluded:

"In the long run, cognitive and socioemotional test scores of former Head Start students do not remain superior to those of disadvantaged children who did not attend Head Start."

In 2010 and 2012, HHS released the results of a high-quality, random assignment study of Head Start and found, once again, that learning gains were both minimal and temporary. To quote from the executive summary of the 2012 study:

"There were initial positive impacts from having access to Head Start, but by the end of 3rd grade there were very few impacts found for either cohort in any of the four domains of cognitive, social-emotional, health and parenting practices. The few impacts that were found did not show a clear pattern of favorable or unfavorable impacts for children."

Next, let’s examine Oklahoma and Georgia, which both started universal pre-K programs in the 1990s. Oklahoma's scores on the fourth grade NAEP reading test are actually lower than when they started pre-K in 1998. In Georgia, it took 19 years from the start of universal pre-K for its scores on the same text to exceed the national average.

Finally, proponents of pre-K have traditionally cited three studies to justify pre-K, but there are significant problems with all three.

Findings from the Perry Preschool Project have been used to claim that a dollar investment in pre-K yields taxpayers a $7.16 return. However, this study, conducted from 1962 to 1965, suffers from numerous methodological problems, including a sample that was "not completely random," and its requirement that "the children in the preschool program had to have parents home during the day."

The Abecedarian Project was much more than preschool. The program put infants — who were, on average, 4.4 months old — into a 40-hour per-week education center. The pre-K component of the program appeared to have no effect on learning:

Herman H. Spitz, a well-respected academic psychologist specializing in measuring intelligence among those with developmental disability, notes that the project's effect appeared by the time the children were just six months old. …

This means that the actual preschool component appears to have had no effect whatsoever. Since current preschool programs and proposals do not begin within a child's first year, this study actually suggests that preschool programs are ineffectual, and hence should be neither passed nor expanded.

The Chicago program is another that poses problems for pre-K advocates. No random-assignment study, it involved "extensive interventions with parents" and included tutoring for some students through the third grade.

The federal government has spent $180 billion on Head Start and achieved no lasting result. Nevada’s kids need a proven reform, like school choice, instead of proven failures, like pre-K and full-day kindergarten.

Thank you.

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