Universal pre-K is the wrong path forward for education

“I will work with the new Legislature to achieve the best education for our people, from preschool through college and beyond, beginning with full and fair funding for schools, including our Career and Technical Centers.”

So said Gov. Janet Mills in her inaugural address, a week ago.

It was a minor line, and the only one in her speech that mentioned education, schools or children learning.

Yet despite that conspicuous absence of political rhetoric in her first speech as governor, we know that universal pre-K is a massive priority for Mills and the people around her.

On the education section of her campaign website, for instance, she highlighted as much, calling for an implementation of “universal pre-K for every 4 year old in Maine, including expanding Head Start participation.”

She has been lauded by the Center for American Progress, an intensely liberal special interest group, for her pledge to “implement universal preschool for all 4-year-olds.”

Allies are writing OpEds in Maine newspapers, stumping for the idea. Supporters are being flown in to tell the Legislature just how great the idea is.

Retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Earl Adams (right) reads a book to Kathryn Griffith’s pre-kindergarten class at Downeast Elementary School in Bangor on June 11, 2013. Retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Ralph Leonard (center) and retired Army Brig. Gen. Robert Carmichael (left) also read books to the children. All three called on Congress to support a White House proposal to add early education funding. BDN photo by Nok-Noi Ricker

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Ultimately, who could be against this? Education is good, and more education is better, right? Starting earlier and getting kids a “leg up” on school has to produce better results, doesn’t it?

I grant you that it sounds logical, but there’s a big problem. It is expensive, and it doesn’t work.

In 2010 — during the Obama administration I will remind you — the US Department of Health and Human Services published a report, Head Start Impact, which examined a variety of developmental outcomes, including cognitive development, social and emotional development, as well as physical health outcomes of nearly 5,000 three and four-year-old children in 23 states.

Today, that study is considered the best “gold standard” study conducted of the Head Start program, and it produced a number of surprising results.

The results? Well, to be succinct, the report showed that participants did, in fact, show positive results in cognitive skills (letters, word identification, etc) during the time they were in the program, but by the time they had finished first grade, there were virtually no differences between the control group and the Head Start group.

Indeed, for the four-year-old group, access to the program failed to raise their cognitive abilities on 41 different measures, including language, literacy, and math. In fact, it appeared to have a negative impact on teacher-assessed math ability once the children entered kindergarten.

Behaviorally, even during the Head Start year, there were very few social and behavioral changes.

Two years later, DHHS — again under Obama — released a follow up to the original study, which followed students into third grade, to see what the lasting impact of the program may have been.

The results? Not good. By third grade, Head Start had “little to no effect” on cognitive, social-emotional, health, or parenting outcomes of participating children.

These are the largest and most well-regarded studies on the impact of pre-K, but they reflect what we have seen in other, smaller studies for a long time.

The Brookings Institution, which has long been held as the world’s most influential, non-partisan, and respected think tank, has long been critical of preschool for all.

Grover Whitehurst, senior fellow at the Brookings Center on Children and Families, repeatedly threw cold water on the Obama administration’s push for expanding these programs. “Unfortunately, supporters of Preschool for All,” he said, “including some academics who are way out in front of what the evidence says and know it, have turned a blind eye to the mixed and conflicting nature of research findings on the impact of pre-k for four-year-olds.”

And he is right, studies have shown fading, if any, results for decades.

Why is this? Theories abound, including a lot of developmental psychology that says that children are really ready to learn in school at the age of seven, and that prior to that the thing they need most is structured play.

Rather than trying to force kids into school earlier and cram their heads with more learning earlier, we should be encouraging them to explore and play. There’s a reason everyone evens out by the time they’re in second or third grade.

A number of European countries, incidentally, have figured this out and are producing better educated children as a result.

So I ask only one thing of you. As Mills pushes for tens of millions of dollars to be spent on this, take a moment and consider what the science, the neutral studies, and the experts say. It would be a lot of money, for virtually no benefit, and may in fact be the exact opposite of what we should be doing.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.