Lots of folks are debating the merits of President Obama's proposal to build "high quality" universal pre-school programs
nationwide. The suggested price is $10b per year, which doesn't really sound all that bad. We already dump well over $20b a year on Pell Grants, which go to people well past their educational prime and is surely a big waste of money, so half that on 4 year olds doesn't sound so terrible.
But Obama and other proponents are touting it as some miracle investment that pays off its investment 7 fold. The claim seems preposterous on its face. Is there any good evidence of such a payoff?
Obama praised Georgia and Oklahoma, the latter in particular, for establishing such high-quality, universal pre-school. Oklahoma's went into effect in the 2000-2001 school year. So how'd they do? The NAEP tracks state performance every couple years or so. Those bragging about the program go on-and-on about how these pre-school students do far better than their peers in word recognition in first grade. Critics contend that whatever advantages might exist in first grade dissipate in later grades.
Since this is mostly intended to help "disadvantaged" students, lets look at the performance of black 4th grade students on reading. We'll look at Oklahoma, its neighbor Arkansas that does not have universal pre-school, the nation as a whole, and a large-city composite.
Oklahoma had a large increase in scores in 2007,
but it's not clear that this would have included the first class of universal pre-schoolers (presumably that first class would have still been in 3rd grade in 2007)
. and this cohort would have been the in the second class of universal pre-schoolers. But that year appears to have been a fluke, as the scores for 2009 and 2011 do not show any clear advantage for Oklahoma students.
How about Math - Obama's always going on about how we need to better our STEM performance in order to compete internationally. Surely we must expect this awesome investment to demonstrate improved math performance among 4th graders. Here are the math results:
Again, there clearly improvements in Oklahoma scores, but not clearly any more than the comparison groups. Oklahoma students do indeed do better than their pre-school-less Arkansas neighbors, but that was the case 10 years ago, and over that period Arkansas scores have improved even more dramatically than Oklahoma's.
If universal pre-school is going to have such a powerful effect that it results in measurable performance improvements in adulthood, then surely this power should be clearly evident just 5 years later in 4th grade. Yet no such obvious improvement is visible for the much praised Oklahoma system.
Universal pre-school might be desirable for other reasons - like for working mothers - although for welfare mothers we hardly need any more incentives for them to have more kids. But it seems highly unlikely it will amount to much of an "investment." Perhaps in a few years we'll see some dramatic improvements - but until then there's no evidence it is any such thing. It would make sense to wait at least a few years to see if anything substantive develops.
Update (2/15 8:10am EST):
Looking at 8th grade reading, again there is a bit of a spike, but no clear positive trend that differs from either neighboring state Arkansas or national trends. In fact, the 2009 spike we see would pre-date the first univesal-pre-school class, which would have been in 7th grade at the time. Of course that means only one such class is visible among 8th grade NAEP assessments - the 2011 assessment. But no increase is notable.