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Is pre-K all it’s cracked up to be?

January 5, 2016
AssessmentOutcomesQuality and CurriculumState & Local
Andrew Flowers
FiveThirtyEight Economics

Prekindergarten is extremely popular. President Obama made expanding pre-K a major policy goal. In the past few years, several states have launched pre-K programs, and large cities such as New York have pushed to make pre-K universal on the promise that seemingly large benefits can come from educating kids at a young age, setting them up for success later in life. But a recent study of Tennessee’s voluntary program for 4-year-olds from low-income families found that by third grade, kids who went to pre-K fared worse academically than those who didn’t. That shocking finding has triggered a debate among experts; some have called into question pre-K’s long-touted benefits, while critics of the study have sought to reaffirm pre-K as a good investment. . .

But a separate team of researchers at the University of Chicago has criticized the Tennessee study in a recent working paper. They view its results as more than just surprising — they claim they run counter to most other pre-K research. The University of Chicago team — led by Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman, one of the godfathers of early childhood education research and a long-time pre-K proponent — has marshaled a battery of arguments to dispute the Tennessee study’s findings. First, Heckman’s team criticizes the study’s methodology, saying that the researchers failed to get a fully random sample of participants. (The Vanderbilt team stands behind its study design, saying that it checks out against selection bias and that Heckman’s team is making a mountain out of a molehill.) Heckman’s team also maintains that the case for pre-K’s benefits outlined in earlier research is strong. In their new working paper, the Chicago researchers re-analyze a slew of studies — experimental, observational, and in-between — on early childhood education and conclude: “There is a strong case for high-quality early childhood education for disadvantaged children.”