Rep. Bill Dunn wrote a great article on Pre K for the commercial appeal. Unfortunately, it is behind a paywall. Luckily, Bill sent me a hard copy so you can read it here for free.
Pre-K is one of the biggest educational disappointments ever to be experienced by the citizens of Tennessee. The taxpayers were promised for every dollar spent on this program, we would save $16; that graduation rates would increase and educational attainment would soar. Advocates even predicted that there would be 80 less murders and 6,400 fewer assaults in Tennessee if taxpayers would only spend the close to a half billion dollars per year a universal Pre-K program would cost. The results are in and the promises have turned out to be just words.
Supporters of this expensive governmental program cite non-representative studies from other states. For example, the advocates invariably cite the Perry Preschool Program as proof of the power of Pre-K. The Perry Preschool project existed between 1962 and 1965. It was a study of 58 seriously at risk inner city minority children who were bordering on mental impairment. The program was far more intensive and expensivethen Tennessee’s Pre-K and it still resulted in many of the 58 children dropping out of school, being arrested and becoming pregnant at an early age. To use this study to predict a positive Tennessee Pre-k outcome would be scientific malpractice.
The best way to predict what the TN Pre-K program will do is to study the TN Pre-K program. In fact it has been studied by experts twice.
What are the results in Tennessee? The state comptroller commissioned a study of Tennessee’s Pre-K program using statistical analysis to compare children who attended the program and those who did not. The study showed that any early gains disappeared quickly and that Pre-K students did WORSE in every, not some, not most, but every category (reading, math, social studies, and science) in 3rd, 4th and 5th grade when compared to like students who did not attend Tennessee Pre-K.
Vanderbilt University is doing an even more comprehensive study. The results through the first grade are in and they are just as dismal as the previous results.
The cognitive differences between participants in the Pre-K program and non participants were no longer statistically significant by the end of kindergarten except in one category in which the Pre-K students did WORSE. The result was the sameby the end of first grade, no statistical difference except in one category in which the Pre-K students did WORSE.
The non-cognitive outcomes were not much better. There was no statistically significant difference for social skills, for work-related skills, for preparation for grade, for peer relations, for behavior problems or for feelings about school. No difference despite the millions spent.
The Pre-K students needed more special education services when they reached kindergarten and first grade. This meant more tax payer dollars spent on top of what was already spent on the program. It may sound counter intuitive, but a case could be made from the Tennessee data that Pre-K actually has a long term negative effect when it comes to cognitive outcomes.
This makes sense if you consider that starting a child to early in school may lead to educational problems due to frustration.Also, there is only one teacher in the classroom teaching, but there are 15-20 four year olds “teaching” each other and it isn’t always good. Finland, which is at the top in educational achievement, does not have compulsory education until the child is 7 years old.
In fairness, there were two areas where Pre-K students did better, less chance of retention and slightly more days of attendance. Neither of these justify almost a half billion dollars in taxpayer dollars.
It is imperative that the legislature wisely use the tax dollars entrusted to it, especially in the case of education. If Tennessee continues towards the path of fully funding a universal Pre-K program, there will not be enough money for teacher raises, new technology, new classrooms or programs proven to work.School Boards and politicians will be right back asking for more money, more taxes to pay for the things they should have prioritized in the first place.
Pre-K advocates may have good intentions, but it is important for the Governor and legislators to have good policy. It is time to start a bipartisan discussion on an alternative to the previous course of action. Pre-K was given a chance, but failed the test.
Rep. Bill Dunn(R-Knoxville) has a M.S. in Extension Education from UT, serves on the House Education Committee, is Chairman of the House Calendar and Rules Committee and is the father of five children.