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Pre-k programs may not achieve long-term results

Most, if not all, educators would likely agree that pre-k is a valuable program that puts young children on the path to success. States, including Mississippi, invest heavily in pre-k with the assumption that it is beneficial.

But what if it is not?

A randomized, controlled trial involving thousands of students in Tennessee found that pre-k might not be all it’s cracked up to be. Pre-k students experience greater gains in “literacy, language, and math skills during the pre-k year than the control children, and this difference was recognized as greater preparedness for grade level work by kindergarten teachers at the beginning of the following year,” according to the Wall Street Journal.

Sounds good so far. But those gains don’t last, according to the study.

“Those positive effects on achievement largely disappeared by the end of kindergarten with children in the control group catching up to the pre-k participants. Moreover, by second grade the performance of the control children surpassed that of the pre-k participants on some achievement measures. This pattern was echoed on the third grade state achievement tests …”

Pre-k participants had more disciplinary problems and special education placements by third grade when compared to those who didn’t attend the program.

That seems to defy common sense. How could children in pre-k outperform their peers early on, and then fall behind their peers in second and third grades?

Pre-k is obviously beneficial when it comes to early reading and math skills. Those children are better prepared when they entered kindergarten. But, according to this study, it does not help them later. The non pre-k students in this study caught and then outperformed their pre-k peers.

The study does not thoroughly address economic issues that are at play. Most research shows that disadvantaged students get more from these programs than their wealthier peers.

This is just one study, so it’s possible it is an outlier. But what if it’s not? What if we expect too much from pre-k programs? Or what if the way we build pre-k programs isn’t best?

In Mississippi, the state began funding pre-k a few years ago after being convinced of the benefits of the program. Many of those benefits are believed to be long-term: narrowing achievement gaps and boosting wages as adults, namely.

But what if the program as designed doesn’t produce the desired results? One study is not enough to reach a consensus on the issue, but it should spark more discussions among educators and legislators. 

Pre-k, as we currently know it, may not be the best system.  The only thing clear at this point is that more research is needed.

Publisher Luke Horton can be reached at luke.horton@dailyleader.com.