Although Dale Farran has been studying early childhood education for 50 years, her most recent scientific publication has caused her to question all of her previously-held beliefs.
“It has required a lot of soul-searching, a lot of reading of the literature to try to think of what were plausible reasons that might account for this.”
In other words, the study lasted for over ten years and looked at almost 3000 children from low-income families in Tennessee. Those who were accepted into the free pre-kindergarten program were picked by lottery, while the others were rejected. This created two groups that were as similar as possible, which is the best way to show causality in science.
The children who went to Pre-K scored higher on school readiness after their first year, which was expected.
The students in the study were doing worse than a control group after third grade. By sixth grade, the students had lower test scores, were more likely to be in special education, and were more likely to get suspended from school.
“Whereas in third grade we saw negative effects on one of the three state achievement tests, in sixth grade we saw it on all three — math, science, and reading,” says Farran. “In third grade, where we had seen effects on one type of suspension, which is minor violations, by sixth grade, we’re seeing it on both types of suspensions, both major and minor.”
This study found that a statewide public pre-k program had a negative effect on children. The program is taught by licensed teachers and is housed in public schools.
She was surprised that her study design was so strong and she didn’t like it because she couldn’t explain it easily.
“This is still the only randomized controlled trial of a statewide pre-K, and I know that people get upset about this and don’t want it to be true.”
Why It’s a Bad Time for Bad News
This is not a good time for early childhood advocates to receive bad news about public pre-K. President Biden’s social agenda contains a provision for federally funded universal pre-kindergarten for 3- and 4-year-olds, but that provision is currently stalled. In recent years, preschool attendance has been growing, and public funding for preschool is currently available in 46 states. About 7 in 10 4-year-olds are currently enrolled in some kind of academic program.
Policymakers and experts have been saying for decades now that if you give a 4-year-old who is growing up in poverty a good dose of story time and block play, they’ll be more likely to grow up to be a high-earning, productive citizen.
What Went Wrong in Tennessee
The study of pre-Kindergarten is ongoing and inconclusive. A working paper released in May 2021 observed Boston’s pre-K program and found that while disciplinary records and the likelihood of high school graduation, taking the SATs, and going to college were all improved, there was no difference in test scores.
Farran believes that a citywide program in Boston provides more opportunity for quality control than her statewide study in Tennessee. Boston’s program is mixed-income, whereas Tennessee’s program is for low-income kids only.
So what went wrong in Tennessee? Farran has some ideas — and they challenge almost everything about how we do school. He suggests that the way teachers are prepared, how programs are funded, and where they are located are all factors that play into the success of a school. Even something as simple as where the bathrooms are can make a difference.
In other words, Farran is taking a closer look at the previously- held beliefs about what makes a good pre-kindergarten program. These beliefs are not just her own, but are shared by many in the field of early childhood education.
Do Kids in Poverty Deserve the Same Teaching as Rich Kids?
“One of the biases that I hadn’t examined in myself is the idea that poor children need a different sort of preparation from children of higher-income families.”
She is saying that teaching children basic skills through worksheets and lectures is not effective. Only a small number of children will be paying attention and the rest will be bored.
“Higher-income families are not choosing this kind of preparation,” she explains. “And why would we assume that we need to train children of lower-income families earlier?”
According to Farran, families who have a lot of money tend to send their children to preschools where the focus is on play, with opportunities for art, movement, music, and nature. These programs ask children open-ended questions and then listen to their responses.
This is not what Farran is seeing in classrooms full of kids in poverty. She thinks that part of the problem is that teachers in many states are certified for teaching students in prekindergarten through grade 5, or sometimes even pre-K-8. Very little of their training focuses on the youngest learners.
This data suggests that having a teaching license does not mean that the teacher is any good at their job.
Early Childhood Education Yields Big Benefits
The benefits of attending preschool are not as long-lasting as one might think. The benefits will fade after a few years. Surprisingly, though, there are still some benefits that last a lifetime.
There seems to be a paradox at the heart of research into early childhood education. Some research suggests that kids who go through intensive education at the ages of 3 and 4 don’t have any advantage in academic abilities by kindergarten. However, other research suggests that early education can have benefits.
There is also a large amount of research that suggests that early childhood education has a long-term positive effect. Studies have shown that children who attend preschool are less likely to be arrested or have substance abuse problems as adults, and are more likely to graduate from college.
This text is discussing the importance of research in the field of early childhood education. The Head Start program is a major recipient of government funding, and if research indicates that the program is ineffective, it could have major implications for how that funding is spent.
This explanation makes sense of the research by saying that the benefits of early childhood education are not primarily coming from the academic skills that are taught, but rather from the reliable daycare that it provides.
Early Childhood Education’s Effects Fade
Except for the ones that persist decades later.
In recent years, studies of the long-term effects of early childhood education have shown that the benefits of programs like Head Start are not evident by the time children reach first grade.
The perfect natural experiment occurred in the 2008 to 2009 school year when Tennessee had to assign spaces in their early childhood education program by lottery. Researchers found that the control children caught up with the pre-k participants on [kindergarten and subsequent] tests and generally surpassed them.
Although some studies suggest that taking standardized tests can have long-term benefits, the majority of well-conducted studies show that the benefits are not significant.
One explanation for the debate over early childhood education is that the studies supporting each side are both equally valid. Pessimists about education interventions have pointed out that the recent studies, which found no effects from early childhood education interventions, are randomized control trials (RCTs), which are considered the gold standard for research into policies like these.
RCTs (randomized controlled trials) are generally more reliable than longitudinal studies when investigating complex questions like the benefits of preschool. So maybe the RCTs are right and the longitudinal studies are all turning up noise. This would mean that there are no benefits from preschool.
Despite the lack of a control group in many of the studies, the evidence base for long-term effects of early childhood education is quite solid according to its defenders.
For example, the Brookings Institution conducted a study comparing kids who attended Head Start with their siblings who didn’t and found long-term effects on graduation rates, college attendance, and adulthood self-control and self-esteem. They even found that Head Start improved parenting practices for the next generation.
An analysis by the National Bureau of Economic Research concluded that Head Start has positive effects on child mortality, graduation rates, and college attendance by using a regression discontinuity design. This design takes advantage of the fact that Head Start was provided to the poorest counties but not to some nearly identical counties just over the income threshold.
Optimists have argued that there are some studies which show that there are persistent effects from early-childhood school programs, despite most studies not finding such effects. They claim that it might be that a few standout programs do deliver academic results, even though they are rare and hard to scale.
There are reasons to believe that the benefits of attending preschool do not last. Studies have shown that there is not a strong correlation between attending preschool and performing well in elementary school.
Other than early childhood education programs, health interventions are also effective in having long-term health outcomes. This is probably because health interventions usually come with education interventions. For example, Head Start provides not just preschool education but also meals, social services, parenting services, immunizations, and health screenings that can detect diabetes, anemia, and vision and hearing problems.
The benefits of early childhood education may come largely from the health interventions associated with the programs, rather than the preschool education itself. This is significant because the health interventions are usually less expensive than the preschool components of the programs.
Obviously, the writer is saying that more research is needed. They are surprised that even programs that did not include health interventions still saw results.
Where to Go From Here
But that approach has not solved the problem. The United States has a child care crisis that has been exacerbated by COVID-19. Progressive policymakers and advocates have been trying to expand public support for child care by using the existing public school system, but this has not been effective.
Instead of only having one type of preschool, New York City has a “mixed-delivery” program with slots for 3- and 4-year-olds. Some kids attend free public preschool in existing nonprofit daycare centers, some in Head Start programs, and some in traditional schools. This is praised by Farran because it gives more options to children and families.
“And early education looks like a magic bullet. You can start early and change everything.” Farran has found that pre-K programs are not as effective as people think. She thinks that people expect too much from pre-K programs.
“Whoever thought that you could provide a 4-year-old from an impoverished family with 5 1/2 hours a day, nine months a year of preschool, and close the achievement gap, and send them to college at a higher rate?” she asks. “I mean, why? Why do we put so much pressure on our pre-K programs?”
She suggests that we might get better results by simply letting little children play.