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Study Suggests State-Funded Pre-K Not as Beneficial as Once Thought

By Matt Patterson January 28, 2022

Editorial Credit: Alejandro Guzmani /

As the federal government considers legislation that would create universal pre-kindergarten nationwide, a new study finds that state-run pre-k programs actually have long-term negative effects for children. The study, published by Developmental Psychology and the American Psychological Association, examined the effects of state-supported pre-K for children in Tennessee and followed them through the sixth grade, tracking educational and developmental progress.[i] “The analytic sample includes 2,990 children from low-income families who applied to oversubscribed pre-K program sites across the state and were randomly assigned to offers of admission or a wait list control.”[ii] The control group included in the study was comprised of a majority of children who received at-home education, rather than attending a pre-K program. The rigorous, randomized study determined that, initially, “significant positive immediate effects” were evident at the end of the pre-K program, but by the end of kindergarten those positive effects had diminished. Surprisingly, by the end of third grade, “certain measures had turned slightly negative”.[iii]

The next phase of the study, which has recently been published, found that “control children continued to outperform” children enrolled in the state-run pre-K, and the control children were less likely to require special education services.[iv] Additionally, the study found that students enrolled in the program were more likely to have discipline issues than students who did not attend. One of the authors of the study, Vanderbilt University professor Dale Farran, expressed deep concern about the outcomes of the state-run program:

At least for poor children, it turns out that something is not better than nothing. The kinds of pre-K that our poor children are going into are not good for them in the long term.[v]

The authors of the study also noted that the results are consistent with other studies of state-run pre-K programs and Head Start, which show initial positive effects that quickly disappear and eventually lead to negative outcomes.[vi] The authors end the study with an alarming statement about the programs:

The whole package of outcomes we have found is disconcerting. The intent of everyone who has advocated for expansion of state pre-K programs is well meaning and reflects a commitment to improving the life outcomes for children from impoverished circumstances. If the programs we have created do not produce the desired effects, the findings themselves should not be dismissed simply because they were unanticipated and unwelcome. Rather, they should stimulate creative research into both policies and practices with potential to have the desired effects. The goal remains the same. If we are serious about the goal, the means to attain it may have to change.[vii]

Farran suggested that more research into state-run programs is needed, but that the negative outcomes indicate that there is a need to rethink these types of pre-K programs. Farran also stated that parental motivation is a critical factor in student achievements and outcomes.

Every advocate for state funded pre-K wants the best outcomes for children, that is beyond doubt. But lasting positive outcomes for children should always be the goal of education policy. If state-funded pre-K falls short of that goal or creates measurably negative effects, then policymakers should earnestly study alternatives or reform such programs in ways that will help children in the long-term.


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