On Dec. 21, 2010, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction issued a news release celebrating the expansion of 4-year-old kindergarten.
The programs are now part of 85 percent of the state’s school districts. In all, 41,176 state children are enrolled in 4-K programs offered by 350 school districts and 84 private schools through the parental choice program.
State Schools Superintendent Tony Evers attributed the growth to the fact "school districts know the value of early education for young children."
On Dec. 29, 2010, state Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, issued his own take.
He believes school districts use 4-K to pad their budgets with additional state aid and that the programs are a pet project of the teachers’ unions. He urged Republican Gov. Scott Walker to "immediately announce he will not provide any more money for four-year-old kindergarten."
Grothman said it was critical that Walker act soon because the Madison school district is adding 4-K in 2011, a move he says will cost $10 million a year in state aid.
In the release, Grothman said there was a "lack of any credible evidence that 4-K programs are beneficial to young children." He added: "Recent studies have confirmed that any academic benefits of government funded preschool disappear by the fourth grade."
Welcome to the latest installment of the kindergarten wars, where students, parents, academics, policy groups and politicians of all stripes mix it up like, well, kids in one of those play areas filled with plastic balls.
We asked Grothman to back up his statement, which presents the value of 4-year-old kindergarten as a settled issue, one "confirmed" by the studies.
He pointed us to a 2006 report by the "free-market" Pacific Research Institute, a 2006 report by the libertarian Reason Foundation, and a Dec. 20, 2010, e-mail from Reason Foundation staffer Lisa Snell that summarized programs around the country and included a transcript from an Oklahoma City television news report.
The studies are from 2006, which is not all that recent. And both are from groups that come at issues from a particular point of view, not independent academic researchers.
Let’s take a look.
- The Pacific Research Institute report was commenting on a ballot proposition in California that would give students a year of voluntary 4-K in public schools. It concluded: "Given the empirical holes that exist in the evidence for universal preschool, it would seem premature in the extreme to entrench an untested, expensive program, run by poorly performing government bureaucracies, into the state constitution."
- The Reason Foundation report cited a National Center for Educational Statistics study of 22,000 children and said it found "no lasting reading, math, or science achievement differences between children who attend half day and full-day kindergarten." It concluded: "We find widespread adoption of preschool and full-day kindergarten is unlikely to improve student achievement."
- The e-mail from Snell, one of the authors of the Reason Foundation’s study, noted that Oklahoma's fourth-grade reading score in 1998, when it adopted universal preschool, was 219. Her comments noted: "Last year, it had dropped to 217 -- three points below the national average. Similarly, its math score was at par with the national average in 2000. Last year, it had dropped two points below. Since employing universal preschool, not only is Oklahoma doing worse compared with the nation -- but also its own prior performance."
Now a broader view.
The 4-K programs in question have been around for decades. A rudimentary review shows they have been studied at length. We found a huge body of research -- including entire academic institutes and researchers at politically oriented think tanks -- devoted to the subject.
We are not trying to settle the question of whether the programs are good or bad for performance of young students. We are looking at Grothman’s claim that the recent studies effectively close the debate on the question.
We turned to several national experts, including Steve Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, based at Rutgers University.
According to that group’s website, Barnett: "reviewed 22 long-term studies of the effects of preschool in a 1993 article entitled Does Head Start Fade Out? Each study followed children from preschool until at least 3rd grade. Results from these studies show that initial gains in children's IQ scores tended to disappear over time. However, gains in graduation rates, as well as declines in special education placements and grade retention, were maintained."
Barnett added: "There is considerable evidence that preschool programs of many types -- including Head Start -- have persistent effects on academic ability and success. There is no convincing evidence that these effects decline over time."
A summary of recent research on 4-K programs by the institute cites 20 academic reports and studies. It makes no mention of work conducted by the Reason Foundation or the Pacific Research Institute.
Another study, which looked at 123 comparative studies of early childhood interventions, concluded: "significant effects were found in this study for children who attend a preschool program prior to entering kindergarten. Although the largest effect sizes were observed for cognitive outcomes, a preschool education was also found to impact children’s social skills and school progress."
Finally, an Education Week commentary by Nobel Prize winning University of Chicago economist James Heckman, who was part of a pre-kindergarten study, concluded: "I now believe that early interventions with children are not so productive if they are not followed up with ongoing investments in children during their elementary and secondary school years. Instead, we need to invest early in children — and not stop. And by ‘invest’ I do not simply mean that government should be pumping money into new social programs for disadvantaged youths."
OK, time for recess.
The debate over 4-K is about more than whether kids benefit in their later schooling. It’s about money, politics, social agendas and more. For support of his position, Grothman said recent reports "confirm" that academic benefits are soon lost. Some studies reached that conclusion. But Grothman is citing one small portion of a much broader debate and declaring the whole matter settled when there is considerable evidence on the other side.
We rate Grothman’s statement False.