In January of this year, the federal government finally released a long-awaited study of Head Start’s impact on the low-income children it’s meant to help. The impact was pretty much none. As I wrote in January:

For the second time in two years, a Congressionally mandated study of the Health and Human Services program has shown it does not work. Its published date is October 2012, but it wasn’t released until after Obama’s election, presumably so Democratic campaigns could safely accuse Republicans of not caring about children and ignore the actual results of the programs they favor…

The theme of this evaluation is “no statistically measurable effect,” and what tiny positive effects there are among subgroups in behavioral and parental improvements are outweighed by statistically measurable harmful impacts in others. This is not a wise way to spend billions of dollars.

Because this program is for low-income children and families, it’s easy to demagogue. All of its critics just hate low-income children, the speeches go, making it rather hard to criticize the program. But the reality is, when you’re taking billions out of the federal budget and out of American citizens’ budgets to prop up a program that has been shown repeatedly not to work for the very people who need it to work, you are doing a disservice to those children. It is not enough to pass legislation that funds a giant federal program if that program does nothing to help the people you claim to be helping. It is not compassionate to perpetuate that program when scientifically rigorous studies done during a Democratic administration have shown it does not help, and sometimes hurts. There are a thousand private entities doing work on education, social-emotional development, and parenting skills in low-income communities that would make better use of a 1/100th of Head Start’s budget than Head Start is. Head Start’s allotment in Obama’s 2013 budget is $8 billion— more than Twitter’s entire net worth and four times the worth of Pinterest, for some budgetary perspective. Head Start was upset there wasn’t more “investment.”

Naturally, on the heels of these scientifically rigorous findings, the president announced his desire for a massive expansion of Head Start and state pre-K programs. Universal pre-K— Who could object to that?

You know, study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road. But today, fewer than three in ten 4-year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program. Most middle-class parents can’t afford a few hundred bucks a week for private preschool. And for poor kids who need help the most, this lack of access to preschool education can shadow them for the rest of their lives.

So, tonight, I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America.

Making high-quality preschool available to every single child in America. So, what would we get for that money? And, more importantly, what do students get? A new study of Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K program suggests, once again, the answer is not much.

Like HHS’s Head Start Impact study, the study of the TN-VPK program is a randomized trial, which meets the highest standard for scientifically evaluating programs. The study followed 3,000 4-year-olds starting in 2009. A state lottery system determined which children of the 3,000 who applied for pre-K were admitted to the program. Those who won the lottery became the pre-K group and those who lost, the control group to which they were compared. Three quarters of those in the control group did not end up in a pre-K program, so you’re looking at a pretty close approximation of state pre-K vs. nothing. A subset of 1,100 students were tested as they progressed from pre-K to first grade to determine what gains, if any, stuck around, as pre-K proponents claim they do.

The Brookings Institution’s Russ Whitehurst, who is an educator and young-education proponent interested in programs shown to actually work, explains:

An intensively studied subset of about 1,100 children drawn from both groups was directly tested on cognitive skills, such as knowledge of vocabulary, at the beginning and end of the pre-k year and at the end of kindergarten and first grade. These same children were rated by teachers at the end of first grade on a number of non-cognitive characteristics, such as the ability to play well with other children and work independently…

The research team previously reported positive impacts on cognitive measures favoring the TN-VPK participants at the end of the pre-k year. The recently released findings are with respect to how TN-VPK participation affects children’s later performance in kindergarten and first grade. The whole justification for investing in pre-k is that it provides long-term benefits, so these follow-up data are critically important.

The Vanderbilt researchers summarize their findings:

The relatively large effects of TN‐VPK on the Woodcock Johnson achievement measures found at the end of the pre‐k year were greatly diminished and no longer statistically significant at the end of the kindergarten year. The only exception was a marginally significant negative effect on Passage Comprehension such that nonparticipants had higher scores at the end of the kindergarten year than TN‐VPK participants.

Similarly, at the end of first grade, there were no statistically significant differences between TN‐VPK participants and nonparticipants on the Woodcock Johnson achievement measures with one exception. There was a significant difference that favored the nonparticipant group on the Quantitative Concept subscale.

These diminished effects were not entirely unexpected in light of the findings in other longitudinal studies of the effects of early childhood programs on economically disadvantaged children. For preschool programs, a typical finding is that the cognitive effects are not sustained for very long after that initial year.

Aside from the fact that it sounds like a 13-year-old boy made up the name of the achievement test, this is a sobering assessment of a program very much like the kind the president would like to extend to all American children at great expense.

Whitehurst puts it in graph form. A shorthand explanation: If the bar is below the zero line, the control group of non-pre-K kids beat out the pre-K kids. If it’s above the zero line, the pre-K kids outperformed. Ouch:

graph pre-K

In only one area of testing did pre-K kids outperform the control group, and the only statistically significant result was a negative affect on Passage Comprehension (Correction) Quantitative Concepts. Heckuva job, pre-K.

As with the Head Start Impact Study, one can find tiny, tiny bright spots in this research, but one would have to be a pretty determined pre-K proponent with a bad case of confirmation bias. (I’m acknowledging and attempting to inoculate myself from the same, by the way, hence the Brookings scholar.) I’ll leave you with Whitehurst’s words, which echo mine from January.

I see these findings as devastating for advocates of the expansion of state pre-k programs. This is the first large scale randomized trial of a present-day state pre-k program. Its methodology soundly trumps the quasi-experimental approaches that have heretofore been the only source of data on which to infer the impact of these programs. And its results align almost perfectly with those of the Head Start Impact Study, the only other large randomized trial that examines the longitudinal effects of having attended a public pre-k program. Based on what we have learned from these studies, the most defensible conclusion is that these statewide programs are not working to meaningfully increase the academic achievement or social/emotional skills and dispositions of children from low-income families. I wish this weren’t so, but facts are stubborn things. Maybe we should figure out how to deliver effective programs before the federal government funds preschool for all.

It is not compassionate to use billions in taxpayer money that could be better used by those who might actually get results. How many private tutor sessions could more than a hundred billion buy? You are not serving those you wish to serve by simply saying so.

Exit quotation: “Poor children deserve effective programs, not just programs that are well-intentioned.”

Front page photo credit to jetheriot on Flickr.