Biden Stretches Evidence for Universal Pre-K

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President Joe Biden has made sweeping claims about evidence that he says supports his universal pre-kindergarten plan. There is plenty of research on specific targeted programs, but there isn’t much on universal programs. And the research that does exist, in many cases, is more nuanced and less optimistic than Biden suggests.

While research into some preschool programs has shown promising long-term outcomes, particularly for disadvantaged students, some opponents of universal pre-K point to a recently released randomized study in Tennessee. The study found students who participated in a statewide pre-K program fared worse on 3rd and 6th grade academic achievement tests than students who were turned away from the oversubscribed program. It is the only ongoing randomized control trial of a statewide pre-K program.

Another working paper of a randomized study released last May found “no detectable impact on state achievement test scores” among kids in a universal pre-K program in Boston compared with those who could not get in the program. However, it did find the program there led to improvement in the percentages of kids taking the SAT and going to college, as well as improvements in behavioral outcomes.

Some experts in early childhood education say that assessing the success of preschool based on standardized test scores alone misses the big picture and ignores long-term benefits such as higher graduation rates, higher career earnings and lower criminal activity.

Other experts say Biden is generalizing the positive results from more costly, high-quality programs that targeted disadvantaged students from low-income families, and that the evidence is not there to justify Biden’s universal pre-K proposal.

Below, we will explore some of the claims Biden has made about universal pre-K and how they stack up to the research.

What Biden Proposes

In his proposed Build Back Better plan, Biden proposed free universal preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds. The White House estimated the cost at about $200 billion over six years. The Congressional Budget Office later estimated the cost could nearly double over 10 years if the program were made permanent.

Specifically, the federal government would help states expand access to free preschool and improve the quality of existing programs. Parents would be able to choose to send their child to public preschool, child care providers or to programs like Head Start, a federally funded initiative for local programs that help low-income children prepare for school.

The Build Back Better bill stalled after Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin announced in December that he would not support it. But in a press conference on Jan. 19, Biden said that he is confident Congress can pass pieces of the Build Back Better agenda, and he has continued to include universal pre-K as a priority.

“And so what we do here is we want to have the best-educated workforce,” Biden said at a Build Back Better CEO roundtable on Jan. 26. “And that’s why universal pre-K is going to mean so much.”

Biden said preschool “increases exponentially the prospect of that child being able to, no matter what her background — or his or her background — get through 12 years of school and then go on — almost half go on to a two- or four-year college. … I think it’s an economic necessity to have the best-educated workforce.”

The Research

Although the White House did not respond to us regarding what studies Biden was citing, a White House press release on the Build Back Better plan linked to several studies, including two economic studies that say dollars spent on early childhood care and education are a good long-term investment.

The White House also linked to a study of the long-term effects of universal preschool in Boston to back up its claim that students who go to preschool are more likely to graduate from high school and college. That unpublished working paper from scholars affiliated with the National Bureau of Economic Research did conclude that “[p]reschool enrollment boosts college attendance, as well as SAT test-taking and high school graduation.” But it also found “no detectable impact on state achievement test scores” by the time students reached third grade.

The White House press release also says that students who participate in early childhood education “do better in school.” It links to a 2020 study that found when compared with a means-tested/targeted program, “state-funded universal preschool generates substantial immediate test score gains, particularly for low-income children.” By “immediate,” the authors say they are referring to standardized reading and math scores for 4-year-olds.

But some experts say those testing gains disappear over time, as students who do not attend preschool quickly catch up.

Indeed, research from Vanderbilt University recently published in the journal Developmental Psychology found that in a Tennessee program, “children randomly assigned to attend pre-K had lower state achievement test scores in third through sixth grades than control children, with the strongest negative effects in sixth grade.”

Dale Farran, one of the authors of the study, said the results were surprising.

“My colleagues and I designed a study in partnership with the TN Department of Education fully expecting to be the first rigorous validation of a statewide prekindergarten program,” Farran told us via email. “Our data did not come out as expected and we have done a phenomenal number of additional analyses to try to make the effects go away — which is why each report of our outcomes has taken two years plus to come to print.”

The Wall Street Journal editorial board cited the study to make the argument that Biden’s pre-K plan would be a waste of money.

“In this era of big government, politicians care only about money spent, not results, so Democrats will probably ignore this evidence,” the editorial board wrote on Jan. 31. “But we thought taxpayers might like to know what their $200 billion will be buying.”

The Tennessee study has its detractors in academia. Some point to design concerns (parental consent was requested after randomization), while others simply dismiss the Tennessee program as a poor quality initiative.

“All programs are not created equal,” James Heckman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist at the University of Chicago, told us in a phone interview. “The whole issue rests on quality.”

Heckman also said evaluating the success of preschool solely on middle school standardized test scores is missing the lasting effects of social and emotional skills taught in preschool.

The Case for Preschool

For example, numerous studies have linked positive long-term impacts to participation in the Head Start program — which provides a comprehensive approach including preschool, health care, nutrition and parent outreach — including higher rates of high school completion, and college enrollment and completion. Other studies have found that participation in the program reduced behavioral and health problems, lowered depression, and reduced criminal activities among young adults. These were longitudinal studies, which followed program participants over the course of several years, but they do not include a control group (though in some cases there were efforts made to compare the participants with similar populations, such as siblings or nearby populations with similar demographics).

It is possible, some researchers say, that despite a fade-out of academic benefits in the immediate years after pre-K, these other improvements become apparent as students get older.

“There is an ongoing debate in early childhood about the phenomenon that test score impacts fade out, but effects re-emerge for adult outcomes,” Parag Pathak, a professor in the economics department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and one of the authors of the controlled randomized trials in Boston, told us in an email. “This is sometimes called ‘sleeper effects’. As a general rule, it is not a good idea to make decisions about effectiveness of education interventions only based on short-run outcomes.

“We usually think that short-run academic outcomes are related to longer-term outcomes, but a growing body of literature argues that there are non-cognitive effects of education that are not easily measured via standardized assessments,” Pathak said. “This is an active scholarly debate. My own view is that there is considerable uncertainty on both sides and we need more well controlled studies before any definitive statements can be made.”

As for Biden’s claim that among those who attend preschool, “almost half go on to a two- or four-year college,” that appears to be based on research headed by Arthur J. Reynolds, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development. (Biden put it more precisely in a Dec. 8 speech: “Great universities have done a lot of studies in this in the last decade. One study shows that low-income children from poor homes participating in preschool are 47% more likely to go on to earn an associate’s degree or higher after high school.” In another speech on Oct. 27, he claimed that studies show pre-K “increase[s] by 58% the chances that a child will complete the rest of their education in high school and beyond.”)

The study followed some 1,400 disadvantaged children who took part in a preschool-to-third-grade intervention program in Chicago. The researchers concluded the “intervention was significantly associated with a 48% higher rate of degree completion (associate’s degree or higher) compared with lesser participation.”

Farran notes that there is a heavy parent component — including, as the study notes, “participation in school activities, support groups and workshops, and home visits.” The program also provided “[s]ervice continuity from preschool to third grade (ages 3-9 years).” All of that is more than statewide programs provide today, and more than Biden is proposing in his universal pre-K program.

Leveling the Playing Field?

There is less support for Biden’s claims that universal pre-K will “increase academic achievement in all children” and that it “equalizes the playing field” for students from underprivileged backgrounds.

Biden, Nov. 9: There’s universal pre-K for every 3- and 4-year-old child in America. It’s going to increase academic achievement in all children and give them an even start no matter what — what home they come from, no matter how little — little they’ve been taught to read or they’ve been read to. It’s going to change everything. … And the studies have shown that kids who go to pre-K are more likely to stay in school and do better over the course of their education, no matter what the background they come from. … This is one of the best investments we’re going to make because it equalizes the playing field. The 3-year-old from the house that has been — had economic pressure on it and the 3-year-old from the house that doesn’t, they end up being able to do the same thing throughout school.

Biden contends universal pre-K “equalizes the playing field” and would put students from lower-income households “in a position to compete with every other child in America.” But Farran said there’s no evidence for that.

“The problem with his statement in general is that it sounds good — it sounds as though we are protecting children from a deleterious home environment,” Farran said. “But no study, not even the earlier premier ones like Perry and Abecedarian has assured that children can compete with ‘every other child in America.’”

Farran was referring to the oft-cited Perry preschool program, which targeted at-risk students at an elementary school in Michigan, and the Carolina Abecedarian Project in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, which also targeted children from low-income families.

The Perry project found that students who participated in the pre-K program showed an array of social and educational improvements, including fewer teenage pregnancies and higher high school graduation rates, and participants were more likely to hold jobs and have higher earnings and commit fewer crimes. (The White House linked to a July 2021 working paper tracking participants in the Perry program to back up the claim that students who attend pre-K “earn more as adults.”)

The Abecedarian project, which included educational intervention from infancy through age 5, concluded that children in the intensive program had higher IQs, scored higher on achievement tests through secondary school and had fewer placements in special education classes.

But those were intensive and costly programs. As we wrote in 2013, according to a Perry program report, the two-year program cost $14,716 per student in 2001 dollars, which now adjusted for inflation would be just over $23,000. And the Abecedarian program was even more expensive: About $90,000 per child over five years in 2010 dollars, or about $115,000 today. Biden is proposing to spend a fraction of that. A press release on the Build Back Better plan put the cost of its plan at about $8,600 per child for one year.

Heckman noted that there are two sides to the equation: cost and rate of return. Studies show targeted, high-quality preschool programs provide a high rate of return that far outweighs the costs, he said.

Universal Pre-K

Others say the research also does not support a universal program such as Biden is proposing.

“The benefits of public preschool programs are the greatest for the most disadvantaged children,” Alison Baulos, executive director of the Center for the Economics of Human Development at the University of Chicago, told us via email. “The ‘intervention’ that a well-resourced family gives to its children has huge benefits that, unfortunately, have never been measured well. Public preschool programs can potentially compensate for family challenges and disadvantaged home environments, and longitudinal research has documented the long-term benefits to individuals and their families from high-quality early childhood education programs for disadvantaged children.”

As a result, she said, “We do not feel it is economically efficient to subsidize preschool for more advantaged families.”

Making it universal greatly expands the cost of the program, Heckman said. “The base of knowledge just doesn’t support universality. There’s no evidence for it.” By contrast, he said, there are significant returns on investment for high quality, targeted preschool programs.

Benefits of Pre-K as Day Care

In an article for Vox in 2018, staff writer Kelsey Piper offered this explanation for the seeming disparity between research that shows a fade-out of academic benefits and the research that suggests students who participate in preschool fare better in college and after: “The benefits of early childhood education aren’t coming from the academic skills they teach students. Early childhood education helps because it’s reliable daycare.”

Indeed, there was a marked increase in labor force participation among mothers with young children after Washington, D.C., in 2009 made two years of full-time preschool free and universal, the Vox article said. In other words, the preschool program freed them up to work.

“So the most important effect from early childhood education may be that these programs are places where parents can leave their children all day, allowing the parents to work a full-time job or pursue higher education,” Piper wrote. “In other words, early childhood education may change children’s lives not by teaching them things they’ll retain in elementary school, but simply by being in a safe, predictable, and consistent environment for them to play in — and by providing their parents with the stability to get and keep better jobs.”

Heckman believes there is a day care component to preschool that accounts for some of its long-term success, but he said the evidence shows there’s more to it than that.

Nonetheless, Jorge Luis Garci­a, an economics professor at Clemson who researches the economics of early childhood education, told us the economic benefits to the parents alone offset the whole cost of the program, even without the economic benefits from improved outcomes for the kids.

Nonetheless, that’s not how it’s being sold by Biden.

“People want a magic bullet,” Farran, who co-authored the Vanderbilt study, told us. “It is easy to advocate for something that is simple and easy to understand, even if its very simplicity should warn us that it is likely wrong.

“If it were up to me,” Farran said, “I would take the various pots of early childhood funding and try to create a universal child care system, similar to what all other industrialized countries have. Children need care and support before they enter formal education. Families need support to enable them to work. Our child care system is abysmal in this country. It can be improved. It should be.”


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