Free, State-Run Preschool Worse for Poor Kids Than No Preschool, Study Finds

Dale Farran, a researcher who spent a decade studying over a thousand kids who went to a state-run pre-kindergarten—and a control group of kids that wanted to, but didn’t get in—is shocked and dismayed by what she has discovered.

The preschoolers did worse in sixth grade. They scored worse on reading, math and science, and were more likely to have both learning disorders and disciplinary problems—including serious ones that got them suspended.

“It really has required a lot of soul-searching,” Farran told Anya Kamenetz on NPR. Farran has spent decades studying early childhood education and is now trying to find “plausible explanations” for why this might be happening.

Her theory is that the preschool she receives for free doesn’t seem like expensive preschool. The best programs allow for unstructured play, art, and music, which is what well-off parents prefer. Children with the most money can play in the woods with sticks and mud.

“This [was]Farran doesn’t see in schools full of children in poverty, noted NPR.

She was instead seeing children tracing letters onto worksheets or trying to not squirm while teachers gave lectures. Children also spent much of their time hopping from activity to the next, while teachers told them to keep it down. The state schools had to give the children five hours each of instruction time.

Four-year-olds are pre-schoolers.

Conducted in tandem with a team of Vanderbilt University researchers, Farran’s study arrives at either the best or worst time: just as there is talk of reviving President Biden’s “Build Back Better” proposal to provide free, state-run pre-school for all three and four-year-olds.

Peter Gray, who is a Boston College psychology professor, and was co-founder of Let Grow along with me, believes the timing is auspicious.

He says, “If this study does not put the nail in academic training for little children’s coffin, it is hard to imagine how.”

This is how it happened: Nearly 3,000 children applied for free preschool in Tennessee, which was available only to low-income families. The lottery decided who was admitted, creating an A/B split. Two demographically identical children were accepted into the preschool program, with one group being staffed by licensed teachers and the other being a control group. They will remain there until they reach kindergarten.

Of the kids in the control group, the majority—63 percent—were simply cared for at home. The remainder were equally divided between Head Start care and private childcare. These were children who lived below the poverty level in any case.

The kids that had won the lotto looked, at first glance, like they were winning the lottery. In kindergarten they scored higher on academic exams. However, these gains began to reverse by the third grade. Preschoolers were 48% more likely than their peers to have committed a behavior offense and 75% more likely that they had been diagnosed with learning disorders by sixth grade. Meantime, on the achievement tests, the gap kept growing—with the preschool kids at the bottom.

Gray thinks these results were predetermined. He believes kids will be pushed to academics before their readiness. This disrupts curiosity, mastery, joy, and the natural development of knowledge. It is similar to being required to master Go Fish before you can learn poker. Children feel confused, lost and bored. You might find that they are bored at school or feel like acting out is the best way to get away.

It’s like just playing. Children learn new skills, make mistakes, make friends, and discover ways to make it happen. Self-management is a skill that allows you to maintain your own integrity and allow other kids to have fun with you. Those are real lessons—some of life’s biggest, in fact. Academics can be done later.

This was something the Germans realized 50 years back. In a Psychology Today piece on the Tennessee study, Gray recounts an enormous educational experiment in the 1970s:

German officials were trying to determine whether or not it was a smart idea to teach academic skills to kindergarten instead of keeping it purely for stories and singing. They conducted an experiment with 100 kindergarten classrooms. They provided academic training to fifty of the children, but not to all 50.

Academic kindergarten graduates performed well on first-grade academic tests, but this difference faded and they began to perform worse on all measures of the study by the fourth grade. They were more poorly abled to read and do arithmetic, as well as less socially and emotionally balanced than their peers.

Taking these results to heart—and, even better, policy—the Germans decided not to pursue academic pre-kindergarten and to keep it more play-based. U.S. policymakers need to take notice.