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I sense Ezra Klein did not enjoy writing this piece about new pre-K research:
Perhaps preschool doesn’t help children as much as we thought — or hoped. A new study by Mark Lipsey, Dale Farran, and Kerry Hofer finds that children who were admitted to Tennessee’s pre-K program were worse off by the end of first grade than children who didn’t make the cut.
The study is beautifully designed — it takes advantage of areas in Tennessee where demand for the program outstripped supply, so entrance to the program was decided randomly. That means researchers could compare outcomes for kids who randomly got in with outcomes for those who randomly didn’t, and isolate the effects of the program. What they found should worry advocates of universal pre-K.
At the end of pre-K, the results look pretty much as you would expect: Teachers rates the children who went through pre-K as “being better prepared for kindergarten work, as having better behaviors related to learning in the classroom and as having more positive peer relations.”
The problem is those results dissipate by the end of kindergarten — by then, the group that attended pre-K is no better off than the group that didn’t — and then begin to reverse by the end of first grade. By the end of second grade, the children who attended the pre-K program are scoring lower on both behavioral and academic measures than the children who didn’t.
The researchers admit they’re “perplexed” by their findings, but note that their results echo the findings of the Head Start Impact Study, which was also an unusually well-designed, randomized experiment. And while the researchers don’t bring it up, their findings also echo new evidence out of Quebec, which launched a massive day care program that was successful in signing children up, but seems to have slightly hurt them over time.
Klein does not say this research changed his mind, only that it put a “damper” on his “enthusiasm” for universal pre-K. Likewise, universal preschool booster and Nobel laureate James Heckman apparently remains all in. How about the Democratic Party, which has made pre-K a core part of its anti-inequality agenda? Will Hillary Clinton withdraw her support?
Let me put it this way: I didn’t notice any Democrats advocate reconsidering the party’s support of a national $15 minimum wage after former Obama White House economist Alan Krueger wrote in the New York Times that “$15 an hour is beyond international experience, and could well be counterproductive. … Although the plight of low-wage workers is a national tragedy, the push for a nationwide $15 minimum wage strikes me as a risk not worth taking?” Not so much. And I would guess pre-K will be the same. It’s transcended policy and has now become a “value.” For more on pre-K, check out this Megan McArdle column.