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Preschool Actually Harms Reading Achievement
By Karen R. Effrem, MD
 EdWatch Director of Government Relations

September 30, 2010

     Education is a very big issue in the state of Minnesota and across the nation this election season, as it should be for comprising 40-50% of many state budgets.  Using Minnesota as an example, all three gubernatorial candidates in their budget plans, debates, and speeches are discussing the importance of "investing" in early childhood education.  Democrat Mark Dayton and Independence Party Candidate Tom Horner constantly discuss the importance of early childhood, with Horner boldly calling for "cradle to grave" government education.  Republican Tom Emmer, to his credit, has been emphasizing the importance of literacy and school choice regarding preschool, especially for poor children to close the "achievement gap." 

However, none of the candidates seem to understand the miserable failure of early childhood education in improving literacy or closing the achievement gap.  In fact, they all seem to have been taken in by the usual suspects in the preschool cabal into believing that "kindergarten readiness," however subjectively defined, is equivalent to improved reading performance.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.Reading is the most fundamental of academic skills and if especially poor children are not taught well how to do so, they are doomed to life of failure. By 4th grade, when the effects of preschool should be most apparent, Pre-K actually at best, leaves reading scores unchanged and in the worst case scenario finds them to be lower than the national average.  The news is even worse for poor children, making the achievement gap worse


Despite a huge growth in the national average of roughly 20% to 70% of 4 year olds joining a pre-k program between 1965 and 2001, 4th grade reading, math and science scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP test) have remained basically flat over roughly that same period.  (See here, page 5 of PDF)

Oklahoma is the state with the highest percentage of children in the nation enrolled in their pre-K program and the highest quality rating scores according to the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER - see page 4 of PDF).The program started in 1980 and went universal in 1988.  Oklahoma went from having NAEP 4th grade reading scores above the national average in 1992 to being below the national average every time the test was taken since then.   The 2010 graphs from the NAEP organization showed that 72 percent of Oklahoma fourth graders are reading below their grade level proficiency.Why would Minnesota want to follow the same road for the same dismal results when there is no money?
Georgia -Their preschool program began in 1993 and went universal in 1995.  It overall ranking for quality and access is 3rd in the nation according to NIEER (page 4 of PDF) with 58% of their children participating in the government program.Before, during and since this massive and expensive 15 year preschool expansion, Georgia's 4th grade reading NAEP scores have remained below the national average.State data (p. 70 of pdf)through the first grade showed that children involved in a private program or those who were raised at home did the best academically.

POOR CHILDREN - Since the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Educational Act and Head Start back in 1965, the difference in achievement between poor and minority and middle class children, the achievement gap, has been talked about and measured.  Billions, if not trillions, of state and federal dollars have been spent on millions of poor children across the nation over the last 45 years and NOTHING has worked.  Minnesota is notorious for having the largest or among the largest gaps in the nation.  Data show that preschool seems to exacerbate the achievement gap in poor children.

  • National Head Start - A congressionally mandated national evaluation of Head Start released in May of 2010 followed the progress of three- and four-year-olds entering Head Start through the first grade. The program had little to no positive effects for 4 year old children granted access to Head Start after the first grade year.  There was actually harm to the math skills of three year old children in Head Start compared to those who  did not participate.  An investigation in the Spring of 2010 by the Government Accountability Office resulting in a congressional hearing found fraud at selected Head Start programs where false income data was not verified or was doctored and families were  committing fraud and encouraged by the Head Start programs.
  •  Georgia - State data, (p. 70 of PDF)showed students enrolled in the [Georgia] Head Start program "consistently tested below the national norm and significantly behind their peers" by the end of first grade.
  •  Oklahoma-In this high quality, high access, universal preschool state, a 2010 national study reported by the Tulsa World found that "more than four out of five children from low-income families fail to reach the proficiency level in the 4th grade reading, according to the National Assessment of Education Progress."
  •  New Jersey - That state has been offering court ordered preschool to low income children since 1998.  Yet, the number of poor children scoring below basic on the 4th grade reading NAEP test, meaning that they were illiterate, increased between 1992 and 2007.

WHAT DOES CLOSE THE ACHIEVEMENT GAP? - According to Researcher Dr. William Jeynes at the University of California at Santa Barbara, there are three sets of factors that actually erase or significantly improve the achievement gap:

  1. Intact Families and Religious Faith - Dr. Jeynes found, "data from the National Educational Longitudinal Survey to examine the impact of student religious commitment and living in intact families on academic achievement among black and Hispanic 12th graders. Students with intact families and high levels of religiosity scored as well as all white students on most achievement measures and higher than their black and Hispanic counterparts without intact families or high religiosity. "(Emphasis added).  Believe it or not, these two combined ERASE the achievement gap and is the only thing known to accomplish that feat.  For all the billions and billions, if not trillions, of dollars spent on education at the state and federal levels, this is the only thing that actually accomplishes that noble goal.  When we discuss welfare reform, we need to not penalize Dad's involvement as families wean of the program and we will reap many other important benefits.
  2. Phonics Instruction -There are significant improvements in reading scores for poor and minority children taught with phonics. This has been known for a long time from many other additional studies and is just common sense, but unfortunately for our nation's poorest children, is not being adequately implemented.
  3. Real Parental Involvement - The positive effects of parental involvement hold for both White and minority secondary children on academic performance.  We do need to empower parents as much as possible. 

CONCLUSIONS AND WHAT TO DO:  The future ability of our children to read and become responsible, freedom minded citizens in the global economy combined with the peril of our economic state cannot allow us to believe the lies and empty promises of invasive, ineffective, harmful, preschool programs.  We must urge our policy makers and candidates to reject early childhood programs and support ideas that actually work such as:

  • Cutting taxes so that one parent can afford to stay home and raise children
  • Support intact families in welfare and divorce policy, which as Dr. Jeynes data points out ERASES the achievement gap and much other research prevents many other childhood and adolescent social and emotional ills.
  • Teaching children, especially poor children, to read early and well in elementary school using intensive systematic phonics,
  • Promote authentic parental involvement.
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