Two Questions on Negative Results in Pre-K Study


As Gail Heriot points out two distinct questions arise from a study finding negative effects from prekindergarten programs for low-income children.

The first, obviously, is why the results would be negative.  In this case, the writers speculate that it could be statistical noise, with pre-K falsely identifying students as requiring special education, which would then affect expectations that they won’t perform as well in elementary school.  Another explanation, that we’ve addressed in this space, before, is that the free pre-K option, while attractive in the moment for families, is not necessarily better for the children than the alternative of time at home with family or a more personalized day-care option.  And yet another explanation we’ve touched on in the past is that being more advanced in an academic sense at the start of kindergarten creates boredom as the other kids catch up.

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Perhaps all of these things are in play; the question then becomes whether it’s worth the expense and risk of unintended consequences to attempt to tweak the project.  The hypothesis that pre-K will only work out if it’s universal can’t be proven without making it universal, at which point we may very well exacerbate the problem for children whose parents would have been happy to stay home with them.

The second question is the one on which Heriot focuses.  Apparently, the study authors had difficulty publishing and received push-back in a way that seemed to have more to do with a policy preference than a scientific assessment.  Heriot writes:

Here’s a question worth knowing the answer to: How much of the vitriol was coming from individuals with a financial stake in the continuation of government-subsidized pre-kindergarten programs for low-income children? As always, the more that gets spent on any government program, the harder it is to turn the spigot off.

Vitriol may also come from people invested in the notion that government needs to get children away from their backwards parents as soon as possible.  Either way, anybody not on the take or ideologically invested should want policy decisions to be made on a firm basis, which means an openness to the possibility that meddling in people’s lives will have unintended consequences.