Reminder: Pre-K doesn’t give children a lasting head start

Victor Joecks

Today, in testimony before the Legislative Committee on Education, James Guthrie, Nevada’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, offered his support for both all-day kindergarten and pre-K programs. While Guthrie has been great in a couple of key areas, like noting that education funding is a “phony crisis” and that teacher certification requirements need to be overhauled, he couldn’t be more wrong about all-day kindergarten and pre-K.


Last year when the legislature was considering pre-K, I wrote the following commentary detailing how numerous studies, including two by the federal government, show that learning gains from pre-K are both minimal and temporary. Since this information is directly relevant to today’s public policy debate, the entire commentary is below.


Pre-K doesn’t give children a lasting head start
Overwhelming evidence shows learning gains from pre-K are minimal, temporary

Joyce Haldeman, a lobbyist and associate superintendent for the Clark County School District, testified at a Senate Finance Committee meeting on March 14, 2011, that for “students [to be] ready to learn, early childhood [education] is key.” Her statement was echoed by Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, who said Nevada needs to “invest in early childhood education.”


Indeed, numerous members of the educational establishment and political leftists have already expressed support for expanding government-funded pre-K programs in Nevada. For instance, both Clark County Superintendent Dwight Jones and Washoe County Superintendent Heath Morrison have indicated their desire to expand pre-K.


Unfortunately for Nevada’s children, pre-K produces minimal gains in learning, and even those small gains are gone by the end of first grade.

This is seen most clearly in Head Start, the federal government’s pre-K program. President Lyndon B. Johnson created Head Start in 1965 as part of his “War on Poverty,” and in the last 45 years, the Head Start program has cost taxpayers more than $100 billion.


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 other words, the Head Start program produced only temporary gains.

Despite this evidence, Congress has expanded the Head Start program, although it did require a study on the impact Head Start had on student achievement in its 1998 reauthorization of the program. Last year, the Department of Health and Human Services released this study – a gold-standard, random assignment study of more than 5,000 students – and concluded that:

In sum, this report finds that providing access to Head Start has benefits for both 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds in the cognitive, health, and parenting domains, and for 3-year-olds in the social-emotional domain. However, the benefits of access to Head Start at age four are largely absent by 1st grade for the program population as a whole. For 3-year-olds, there are few sustained benefits, although access to the program may lead to improved parent-child relationships through 1st grade…

While these results appear unimpressive, they are even doubly less impressive since the researchers used a relaxed standard to find the sustained benefits. As education reform scholar Jay P. Greene explains:

For students who were randomly assigned to Head Start or not at the age of 4, the researchers collected 19 measures of cognitive impacts at the end of kindergarten and 22 measures when those students finished 1st grade. Of those 41 measures only 1 was significant and positive. The remaining 40 showed no statistically significant difference. The one significant effect was for receptive vocabulary, which showed no significant advantage for Head Start students after kindergarten but somehow re-emerged at the end of 1st grade.

The study used the more relaxed p< .1 standard for statistical significance, so we could have seen about 4 significant differences by chance alone and only saw 1. That positive effect had an effect size of .09, which is relatively modest. …


I think it is safe to say from this very rigorous evaluation that Head Start had no lasting effect on the academic preparation of students.

Further evidence that pre-K does not produce lasting gains in student achievement comes from states that have universal pre-K programs.

Georgia started its universal pre-K program in 1992 and Oklahoma began its universal pre-K program in 1998. Since then, both states’ scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress fourth-grade reading tests have roughly mirrored the national average. While many factors influence test scores, if pre-K were as important as its supporters claim, some level of improvement should be seen.


Some lawmakers, as did Sen. Horsford in the Senate Finance meeting, cite Florida’s universal pre-K system and Florida’s remarkable achievement gains since 1998 as evidence that pre-K works. Such arguments, however, show either ignorance or willful disregard of what actually happened in Florida.

While Florida’s scores on the NAEP fourth-grade reading test have shown a remarkable increase since 1998, Florida didn’t implement its pre-K program until 2005. The earliest those students could have impacted test scores on the fourth-grade reading test was 2010. Currently, NAEP scores are only available through 2009.

Aside from misrepresenting what happened in Florida, defenders of pre-K programs often rest their intellectual defenses on studies from three programs: the High/Scope Perry Preschool Project, the Carolina Abecedarian Project and the Chicago Child-Parent Centers. (The problems with these studies are explored in much greater depth here, pgs. 2-5)


Proponents of pre-K have used findings from the Perry Preschool Project 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 it required 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 also 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.

In his presentation before the joint Senate and Assembly Education Committees last week, Morrison cited the following quote:

You must maintain unwavering faith that you can and will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, AND at the same time, have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of current reality, whatever they might be. [Emphasis added] – Jim Collins, Good to Great.

The current reality is that government pre-K programs have no lasting impact on student learning. Until Nevada’s educational establishment and political leftists reject pre-K and turn to proven reform, the state’s education system will continue its brutal failures.


Victor Joecks is the communications director at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. For more visit


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