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Citywide pre-k? Don't waste the money

Manchester Superintendent Debra Livingston said last month of a proposed district-wide pre-kindergarten program, “It’s truly an investment.” Not necessarily.

A lot of people, including many who should know better, assume that to spend money on pre-kindergarten programs is to make a genuine investment in children’s futures. The research does not show that. Writing for the left-leaning Brookings Institution last November, developmental psychologist Grover J. Whitehurst pointed out that supporters of universal preschool “have turned a blind eye to the mixed and conflicting nature of research findings on the impact of pre-k for four-year-olds.”

Whitehurst cited studies, well-known in educational circles, that debunk the pre-k investment claims. Probably the most famous was the National Head Start Impact Study, “which found no differences in elementary school outcomes between children who had vs. had not attended Head Start as four-year-olds.”

Whitehurst also reviewed newer research, including a recent study of Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K Program. Students in the pre-k program “performed somewhat less well on cognitive tasks at the end of first grade than the control group” and did worse on measurements of work skills, school preparedness and behavior problems, among others. “I see these findings as devastating for advocates of the expansion of state pre-k programs,” he wrote.

In the Winter 2014 issue of National Affairs, George Mason University public policy professors David Armor and Sonia Sousa wrote that “the most rigorous studies conducted to date on the effectiveness of preschool programs ... do not find preschool to be effective in increasing long-term cognitive or social and emotional outcomes.”

If Manchester throws money at any old pre-k program, it will squander that money. Pre-k is not always an “investment.”

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