Would Pre-K Education Programs Like Headstart Help North Dakota's Reading Problem?


According to a new report, roughly 66% of North Dakota’s elementary students aren’t proficient readers by the time they reach the fourth grade. That sounds abysmal, but it’s also the national average.

Which doesn’t mean that North Dakota’s number is good, but rather that we have a lot of work to do as a nation.

So what can be done? At least one lawmaker – Rep. Kylie Oversen, D-Grand Forks – in the state has trotted out an education policy hobby horse as a solution:

In the world of education policy, “more is better” seems to be the motto. Schools not performing up to snuff? Give them more money. Students testing poorly? Hire more teachers. Kids not learning to read fast enough? Pile on more years of schooling.

But here’s the thing: The academic and social advantages of pre-k education, specifically Headstart, are simply non-existent according to a long-term federal study commissioned by Congress and released in 2010. It found that while there were some short-term benefits to the program, long-term any advantage students got from the program was negligible:

An excerpt from the report, which you can find here (emphasis mine).

In sum, this report finds that providing access to Head Start has benefits for both 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds in the cognitive, health, and parenting domains, and for 3-year-olds in the social-emotional domain. However, the benefits of access to Head Start at age four are largely absent by 1st grade for the program population as a whole. For 3-year-olds, there are few sustained benefits, although access to the program may lead to improved parent-child relationships through 1st grade…

And then there’s this, from elsewhere in the study: “As with the 4-year-old cohort, there was no strong evidence of impacts on children’s language, literacy, or math measures at the end of kindergarten or at the end of 1st grade.”

This findings were substantiated for early childhood education in general in a 2011 study by New York University’s Amy Lowenstein:

Institutionalized messages surrounding ECE claim that it has the potential to promote children’s life-long success, especially among low-income children. I examine the legitimacy of these claims by reviewing empirical evidence that bears on them and find that most are based on results of a small set of impressive but outdated studies. More recent literature reveals positive, short-term effects of ECE programs on children’s development that weaken over time.

And then there’s this 2006 study out of the University of California, Santa Barbara, which finds that “the achievement impact of preschool appears to diminish during the first four years of school…preschool alone may have limited use as a long-term strategy for improving the achievement gap.”

I’m not saying that pre-k education is bad. It’s just not necessarily good either. It’s certainly not the education policy panacea some, such as Rep. Oversen, make it out to be.