Lynn Fuhriman misrepresented the facts in his response to my column that extolled the benefits of voluntary, state-funded pre-kindergarten schooling in Idaho. Contrary to Furhiman’s claims that “basically no studies” validate the points I made, and only one pre-K study has been done and that study shows no gains in fourth grade test scores from pre-K programs, I derived my points from the many studies of pre-K concluding that high-quality pre-K programs provide lasting academic and social benefits.
Here are the facts.
The findings of the first long-term study of a universal, public pre-K program were published in the Journal of Policy and Management in 2017. Georgetown University tracked nearly 3,000 Tulsa pre-K graduates since 2001 and found benefits through middle school, including that pre-K graduates 1) scored higher on standardized math tests, 2) enrolled in honors courses more often and 3) were 26 percent less likely to be held back a grade — important because of negative impacts on the children held back, and higher special education placement and social costs.
Researchers at Duke University tracked nearly 1 million children born between 1988 and 2000 who attended North Carolina’s Smart Start and More at Four programs and found benefits through eighth grade. As in the study of Tulsa pre-K, the Duke study published in 2018 found higher standardized test scores in math and reduced grade retention. But test scores in reading also improved, special education placement was reduced by one-third and a spillover benefit of higher scores for classmates who did not attend pre-K was found because of fewer disciplinary problems and a better learning environment. A University of South Carolina study of the state’s pre-K programs for at-risk children published this year showed similar spillover benefits. David Feigen’s 2019 article, “The Research is Clear: High-Quality Pre-K Pays Off,” underscores that high-quality pre-K pays for itself. But when graduates of high-quality pre-K programs are followed into adulthood, the results are resounding: Nobel economist James Heckman and others calculate returns of $10 and higher for every dollar invested because of the higher social contributions of children attending these programs and the lower social costs.
A randomized study of the Tennessee pre-K program did find mixed results, including fadeout of the benefits of pre-K. The quality of the programs is the key difference in study findings. In the Tennessee study, 85 percent of the pre-K classrooms scored lower than “good quality,” little support and oversight were provided to pre-K teachers and only 22 percent of Tennessee 4-year-olds attended a pre-K program. Oklahoma and North Carolina require small pre-K class sizes and pre-K teacher certification. The majority of Oklahoma and North Carolina at-risk students attend pre-K, — filling first-grade classrooms with students possessing skills at grade level — and the states’ elementary curricula build on rather than repeat the pre-K material, resulting in less remediation and more acceleration.
High-quality pre-K programs produce outcomes eminently worthy of Idaho taxpayer dollars. The benefits of a high-quality pre-K education should not be restricted to children whose parents can afford pre-K but should be available to all Idaho children.