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Is Pre-K Broken?

Universal pre-K, or preschool, helps families in two important ways. It puts 3- and 4-year-old children in a happy, safe place for most of the day, where they are exposed to letters and numbers and are forced to share, and it allows parents to go to work. Lately, it’s been seen as an achievement steroid, a school-performance boost especially powerful for those otherwise in need but an aid, truly, to everyone. It’s so much a win-win — so incontrovertibly good for kids, for parents, for the economy — that a buy-in from liberal constituents can be taken for granted; even purse-string conservatives offer only muted opposition. 

So it came as a shock last week when a report from Vanderbilt University — large, longitudinal, funded by the U.S. Department of Education (a proponent of universal pre-K) — showed that scaled-up, state-supported pre-K doesn’t work. Worse: It showed that kids in Tennessee who attended public pre-K fared less well, on academic and behavior scales, than their peers, most of whom stayed at home and presumably watched TV. One of the researchers, Mark Lipsey, said the results left him “stunned.”

But do the findings really mean what they appear to mean?