As political rhetoric heats up over government-funded pre-K programs, studies suggest that pushing academics too early on children can create unintended long-term consequences.
While children from these programs may show a brief improvement in academic performance, research suggests this improvement quickly disappears and leads to worse performance for later grades.
Children graduating from pre-K programs may be more likely to receive a diagnosis of a learning disorder and have a higher rate of school rule violations, studies also found.
“Four-year-olds need lots of time to play, create, socialize, take initiative, figure things out on their own, and learn to manage themselves,” said Dr. Peter Gray, research professor at Boston College.
“The time spent in academic training is time that they cannot spend on learning the much more important skills that come from self-directed activities.”
Following the research
Questions about these programs’ effectiveness have continued since the 1970s when Germany conducted a controlled experiment to determine whether to start teaching academic skills in kindergarten.
The results were conclusive enough for the government to abandon the attempt, Gray said.
“The graduates of academic kindergartens performed better on academic tests in first grade than the others, but the difference subsequently faded, and by fourth grade they were performing worse than the others on every measure in the study,” he writes.
“Specifically, they scored more poorly on tests of reading and arithmetic and were less well-adjusted socially and emotionally than the controls.”
While the German government used scientific research to influence their educational policies, Gray argues that contemporary U.S. schools continue to advocate for a system that has demonstrably failed its students.
“Today we have much more evidence of long-term harm of early academic training than the Germans had in the 1970s, yet we persist in such training in almost every public kindergarten in the country,” he writes.
Tennessee pre-K program shows similar results
The findings do not pertain just to German students. A more recent example comes from the Tennessee pre-K program, designed to provide free preschool for children whose family income was below the poverty level.
Researchers at Vanderbilt University conducted a long-term study of the pre-K program, publishing their report in 2018.
“Our initial results supported the immediate effectiveness of pre-k; children in the program performed better at the end of pre-k than control children, most of whom had stayed home. The press, the public, and our colleagues relished these findings,” wrote study authors Dale Farran and Mark Lipsey.
“But ours was a longitudinal study and the third-grade results told a different story. Not only was there fade out, but the pre-k children scored below the controls on the state achievement tests. Moreover, they had more disciplinary offenses and none of the positive effects on retention and special education that were anticipated.”
The study authors discovered that these later findings didn’t receive such a welcome, to the point where they encountered difficulty getting their results published.
Follow-up report reveals greater disparities
This year the Vanderbilt University researchers published a follow-up report after following the students through higher grade levels.
By sixth grade, disparities between children in the pre-K group and those who were not enrolled had considerably worsened in three main areas.
The first area measured academic achievement. On all achievement tests from math, reading and science, the control group scored higher than the pre-K group.
“In every case the advantage to the control group was highly significant statistically and the differences were all larger in sixth grade than they had been in third grade,” Gray writes.
The second main area focused on learning disorders. By sixth grade, children in the pre-K group were 74 percent more likely than the control group to receive a learning disorder diagnosis sufficient to require an Individualized Education Program, or IEP.
The third main area focused on school rule violations, including major offenses such as fighting or bringing a weapon to school. By sixth grade, children in the pre-K group were 48 percent more likely than the control group to have committed a behavioral offense in school.
While the study does not delve into reasons for the disparities, Gray explores research-based theories as to why the pre-K group had such a marked increase in diagnosed learning disorders.
For example, he says, schools often operate under the false assumption that all children of a given age should learn the same lessons, in the same ways, at the same time.
“Instead of admitting that the school system is disordered, an abnormal environment for children’s learning, unable to accommodate normal human variation,” he writes, “the school bureaucracy chooses to label the children as disordered.”
Children in the pre-K group were exposed to this environment earlier than most, giving them more time and opportunity within the system to receive a learning disorder diagnosis.
“Being labeled with a learning disorder can, through various means, become a self-fulfilling prophecy and result in poorer academic performance than would have occurred without the diagnosis,” Gray said.
In addition, increased academic pressure can cause children to develop a rebellious attitude for, and hatred toward, their school.
“This might account for the increased rule-breaking and offensive behavior of the pre-K group as they went through elementary school,” Gray writes. “The same rebelliousness might also have caused the children to take their lessons less seriously, which could, over the years, result in an ever-greater gap between them and the controls in test scores.”
Repercussions for future policies
Despite all these studies suggesting long-term harm from early academic programs, the Biden administration’s “Build Back Better” legislation proposes universal, free preschool for children as young as 3 and 4 years old.
This plan has already drawn criticism from religious freedom proponents, who have argued that non-discrimination provisions in the bill could prevent them from hiring only teachers who share their religious beliefs.
Moreover, Gray takes issue with the assumption that this approach could be useful, or even helpful, to children that young. He disagrees with the bill’s proponents who say these programs include “developmentally appropriate curriculum” for children under 5 years old.
“Curriculum implies imposed learning goals, which implies assessments, which necessarily implies coercing children to abide by the curriculum plan,” he writes. “That is not appropriate for any children in my opinion, but it is certainly not appropriate for 3- and 4-year-olds.”