Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s fiscal year 2008 budget calls for a
nearly $200 million increase in early childhood funding initiatives,
bringing the early childhood budget to about $300 million, The money would
go to school districts offering full-day preschool programs to children at
risk, followed by mandatory full-day kindergarten the next year. Meanwhile,
legislators are considering requiring all districts to offer full-day
Proposals for universal preschool and full-day kindergarten
are an increasingly popular policy solution for everything from low academic
achievement to reducing crime to lowering the dropout rate.
In short, research on preschool and full-day kindergarten
shows that these programs have had meaningful short-term effects on
disadvantaged students’ cognitive ability, grade-level retention and
special-education placement. However, most research also indicates that the
academic effects of early education programs disappear soon after children
leave the programs.
The National Center for Education Statistics Early Childhood
Longitudinal Study assessed 22,000 children at kindergarten entry and most
recently reported on those students through the third grade. This research
shows that by the end of third grade, the researchers no longer detect a
difference between students who attended part-day or full-day kindergarten
They write, "This report did not detect any substantive
differences in children’s third-grade achievement relative to the type of
kindergarten program (full-day vs. half-day) they attended." The
finding holds across all subject matters tested. Third-grade reading,
mathematics and science achievement did not differ substantively by
children’s gender or kindergarten program type.
Similarly, the California-based RAND Corp.’s December 2006
report, "School Readiness, Full-Day Kindergarten, and Student Achievement,"
examined data from a nationally representative sample of almost 7,900
students and found "that full-day kindergarten programs may actually be
detrimental to mathematics performance and nonacademic readiness skills."
The study established that "children who had attended a
full-day program at kindergarten showed poorer mathematics performance in
fifth grade than did children who had attended a part-day kindergarten
Evidence from other states that have made significant
investments in universal preschool also cast doubt on the ability of
universal preschool to fix long-standing problems with K-12 education. In
New Jersey, for example, the 31 Abbott districts have been making a
decade-long investment in public preschool. (The term "Abbott districts"
originated with a New Jersey Supreme Court ruling that found the education
provided to some urban school children was inadequate, and that mandated
reform measures in certain districts. Those became known as Abbott
New Jersey’s Abbott districts spend the most money in the
nation on prekindergarten education. Yet in 2005 more disadvantaged children
in New Jersey scored below basic, which means they cannot read, on the
fourth-grade reading assessment of the National Assessment of Educational
Progress than in 1998. In 1998, 54 percent of students eligible for the free
lunch program scored below basic on the NAEP reading exam. By 2005, 55
percent of students eligible for free lunch scored below basic. New Jersey’s
significant investment in universal preschool in low-income Abbott districts
has had zero effect to date on the bottom line of fourth-grade reading
scores for disadvantaged children.
Similarly, in Oklahoma, which has also had a decade-long
investment in universal public preschool, 47 percent of students eligible
for the free lunch program scored below basic in 1998. By 2005, 50 percent
of free-lunch students scored below basic.
Michigan reflects a similar pattern. Despite increased
investments in preschool for disadvantaged children, more fourth-grade
students in Michigan who qualify for free lunch scored below basic in
reading on the NAEP in 2005 than in 1998. In 1998, 56 percent of free-lunch
eligible students scored below basic on the NAEP; by 2005, 57 percent of
free-lunch eligible children in Michigan scored below basic.
In Michigan, student performance is relatively high in the
early grades. However, Michigan students have declining proficiency rates as
they move toward high school. Test scores reflect a stair step pattern.
Consider Detroit Public Schools, which has already made large investments in
early education programs and full-day kindergarten. In 2007, 76 percent of
third-graders were proficient in reading; in seventh grade only 57 percent
of students were proficient in reading, and by high school only 48 percent
passed the MEAP high school reading exam.
In addition, Education Week’s "Diplomas Count" reports that
Detroit public schools have a graduation rate of 24 percent. The longer DPS
children stay in school, the worse they do. These performance issues in the
public school system are unlikely to be fixed with early education programs.
While preschool and full-day kindergarten may be politically
popular, they are no silver bullet to fix the academic performance issues
that plague this state. Michigan is considering investing hundreds of
millions of taxpayer dollars each year in a program whose benefits disappear
by third grade to solve education problems that come after the third grade.
Shouldn’t policymakers be focusing scarce education resources on programs
that can make a lasting difference?
Lisa Snell is director of education and child welfare at the Reason Foundation, Los Angeles, Calif.