School's Out Forever

Universal pre-K study


Barack Obama laid out a plan to bring pre-kindergarten education to all children in 2013. Hillary Clinton, the frontrunner for the party's 2016 presidential nomination, has called for universal preschool on the campaign trail, citing research supposedly showing its benefits. But a major new study published in September suggests that universal pre-K may not provide the boost that these politicians claim.

In the study, Mark Lipsey, Dale Farran, and Sandra Jo Wilson of the Peabody Research Institute at Vanderbilt University followed more than 1,000 children over a period of several years. The kids were divided into two groups; one was randomly assigned to a voluntary pre-kindergarten program in Tennessee and the other was not. The random assignment allowed the researchers to create an effective control group, giving the results more credibility.

The children selected for pre-K performed much better on a variety of early learning metrics than the other kids—until they got to kindergarten. But by the end of their first year in school, the researchers report, "there were no longer significant differences between [the two groups] on any achievement measures." By the end of second grade, the children who had been assigned to the pre-K program performed slightly worse than the control group.

This finding could possibly be dismissed in isolation, but several other recent studies, including one by the Department of Health and Human Services that looked at the impact of the Head Start program, have found similar results.