Earlier this month Republican legislators questioned the value of preschool programs, suggesting research shows that by at least fourth grade, there’s no difference in the performance of students who went to preschool and those who did not. Their critique comes as Republicans prepare to push for an end to state funding for preschool programs in 326 Iowa school districts.
“What I tell the public and what I tell state legislators is, ‘Look at the evidence, not just some someone’s study they picked but all of the evidence.’ Preschool programs can have a high rate of return if they’re well-implemented to high standards and there are many other things that states fund and there’s no evidence they do anything for anybody,” says Steve Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. “…There are plenty of things in state budgets to cut — I’m not one of those people who says, ‘Don’t cut state budgets,’ — but preschool is not the place to start.”
Barnett’s research team has evaluated “all the research” on preschool that dates back to 1960 and he says they found the “effects” of preschool don’t “ever disappear” throughout elementary, middle and high school — but the effects vary based on the quality of preschool instruction. “So if you have a good program like the one that Iowa started, and you have big effects to start with, then you’re going to have good-sized permanent effects,” he says.
Earlier this month Senate Republican Leader Paul McKinley cited research which he said showed there is no benefit to preschool because there is “no impact on student achievement past third grade.” Other critics say there’s no difference in the quality of preschools where the teachers have a degree and preschools where teachers don’t have college training.
Barnett, the researcher from Rutgers, argues it makes a “big difference” if teachers are well-prepared. “In Shanghai, China, you can’t teach preschool unless you have a four-year college degree,” Barnett says. “We don’t need to turn back the page on that if we’re serious about competing.”
In New Jersey, where Rutgers is located, the state requires all teachers to have a four-year degree and Barnett says shortly after that law was implemented, children’s test scores went up and the number of New Jersey children who had to repeat first grade was cut in half.