Study finds serious doubts that pre-K has long-term benefits for kids

A new study on the long-term benefits of pre-K has produced surprising -- perhaps shocking -- findings.
The Tennessee study found that students who took part in Pre-K had lower academic achievements and more disciplinary problems six years later.

Channel 2 investigative reporter Richard Belcher says Georgia's pre-K boss is pushing back.

She says there is almost universal agreement that pre-K is great. Some even call it the “silver bullet” for children from lower-income families.

Five years ago, Belcher did his first reporting asking the question: Does it work long-term? The apparent answer then was "no,” and new research seems to confirm that.

That message is not getting a warm welcome.

Belcher sat down with one of the authors, researcher Dale Farran of Vanderbilt University in Tennessee.

“We were pariahs. Even people who had been former friends and colleagues have shunned me,” Farran said.

Tennessee's pre-K is aimed at children from lower income families.

Farran and her partner studied two groups who were part of the pre-K lottery -- children who got in and children who did not get in.

Early findings showed that those in pre-K were better prepared for kindergarten than children who had not gone to pre-K. But the benefits didn't last.

“By the end of kindergarten, there were no differences in the groups anymore,” Farran said.

From there, the advantages for the pre-K kids declined even more.


“As soon as the children who hadn’t been in pre-K encountered formal schooling, they just caught right up,” Farran said.

In third grade, those without pre-K did better in math and science. By fourth, fifth and sixth grades, those without pre-K scored better in reading, math and science. And by sixth grade, the pre-K students had more major disciplinary problems.

“I am phenomenally concerned about what we may be exposing poor children to that has the opposite effect from what we intended,” Farran said.

“You can’t look at a study of another pre-K program and make generalizations about Georgia’s pre-K program,” Commissioner Amy Jacobs said.

Jacobs has run Georgia's wildly popular pre-K program for nearly five years. Unlike the program in Tennessee, Georgia's is open to children of all income levels.

Jacobs contends the differences between the states' programs make a direct comparison difficult. And she focuses on a much shorter time frame.

“Success in pre-K is making sure they’re prepared for kindergarten,” Jacobs said.

And what about looking at long-term benefits?

“There’s four years in between pre-K and third grade so you can’t just look at what happens in one year,” Jacobs said.

Jacobs said there are also other influences to consider.

“It’s not just what happens after pre-K, it’s what happens before pre-K,” Jacobs told Belcher.

But both the professor and the commissioner acknowledge that public confidence in the benefits of pre-K may be too high.

Farran recalls the earliest thinking on pre-K in the 1970s.

“Suddenly people start believing that pre-K is this answer to a very significant problem of poor children not doing well in school,” Farran said.

Belcher asked Jacobs what she would say to those who call pre-K the “silver bullet”.

“I don’t think any grade is the silver bullet,” Jacobs said. “I think what we have to talk about is does pre-K do its job. Does it prepare children for kindergarten?”

"This is an educational policy whose goal is to try to help poor children and if it isn’t meeting the goal, aren’t we obligated to figure out how to do it better?" Farran said.