Transitional Kindergarten Is Not Ok

California politicians just can't seem to avoid hucksterism.

 In California, parents are abandoning the k-12 system, college enrollment is down, and now the state is trying to lure 4-year-olds to transitional kindergarten.

According to just released data from the California Department of Education, the state has lost 110,000 students this school year, and has fewer than 6 million students for the first time this century. Additionally, on the college level, California’s fall 2021 undergraduate enrollment dropped by nearly a quarter-million students since pre-pandemic fall 2019, according to a survey released in January. The report from the National Student Clearinghouse shows that California saw an overall decline of more than 99,000 (4.3%) in undergraduate enrollment from fall 2020 to fall 2021, driven mostly by a 9.9% drop in the community colleges.

So now the government is doing what it can to expand the system by adding bodies – specifically 4-year-old bodies – by implementing universal free transitional kindergarten. A massive undertaking, the state is scrambling to find enough teachers for all the kiddos. It will take somewhere between 11,000 and 25,000 teachers and teaching assistants to work with the massive influx of children. Currently, TK serves about 100,000 children, primarily those who turn 5 between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2. These are the students who narrowly miss the cutoff for traditional kindergarten. The new $2.7 billion universal TK program, however, will be made available for free to every 4-year-old in California, regardless of income, potentially serving nearly 400,000 students by the 2025-2026 school year.

Not surprisingly, teacher union honchos are salivating over the vision of thousands of new dues-paying teachers. Accordingly, the National Education Association extols the virtues of TK on its website, claiming that children in early childhood education programs are less likely to repeat a grade, less likely to be identified as having special needs, more prepared academically for later grades, more likely to graduate from high school, and be higher earners in the workforce.

But then, there is reality. In fact, studies invariably show that pre-K school doesn’t help, and can even damage young kids. The results of a study done in Tennessee were released in January 2022, revealing “that 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. A negative effect was also found for disciplinary infractions, attendance, and receipt of special education services, with null effects on retention.” It is worth noting that the Tennessee study was of the highest quality because the program was oversubscribed, so applicants were selected to participate by random lottery. As researcher Greg Forster reports, “That allowed the study to use the top-quality method used in medical trials, comparing outcomes for a “treatment” group (those who won the lottery and attended pre-K) and a “control” group (those who lost the lottery and did not attend pre-K).”

The Tennessee analysis is hardly an outlier. Study after study has shown that TK is an extraordinary waste of money. In fact, the U.S. has a near 60-year history of funding early-childhood programs in the form of Head Start. The federal government released the last of a three-part longitudinal study of the $8 billion-a-year program in 2012, and its results were grim. According to the report’s executive summary: “…there was little evidence of systematic differences in children’s elementary school experiences through 3rd grade, between children provided access to Head Start and their counterparts in the control group.” The 2012 report reinforced some disappointing findings from the study’s second phase, which showed that any gains “had faded considerably by the end of 1st grade, with Head Start children showing an edge only in learning vocabulary over their peers in the control group who had not participated in Head Start.”

Other studies purporting to show preschool’s benefits also have failed to prove that spending billions on TK would be money well spent. Two often-cited studies by TK touters, the Abecedarian and Perry Preschool projects, for example, are now two generations in the rearview and involved no more than 60 children. As American Enterprise Institute scholar Charles Murray wrote in 2013, both studies “were overseen by the same committed, well-intentioned people who conducted the demonstration projects. Evaluations of social programs are built around lots of judgment calls—from deciding how the research is designed to figuring out how to analyze the data. People with a vested interest in the results shouldn’t be put in the position of making those judgments.”

Also, at the time when President Obama’s Preschool for All proposal was under consideration in 2013, the Brookings Institution’s Grover J. Whitehurst wrote about the Tennessee Voluntary State Pre-K Program, a full day program for 4‐year‐olds from low-income families. He said that this cohort “performed somewhat less well on cognitive tasks at the end of first grade than the control group, even though of the children in the control group had no experience as 4-year-olds in a center-based early childhood program.” Whitehurst concludes, “Until the field of early education becomes evidence based, it will be doomed to cycles of fad and fancy.”

Nobel Prize-winning University of Chicago economist James Heckman, a highly regarded expert on early child development, when asked about universal pre-K in a recent interview, said, “I have never supported universal pre-school. ... No public preschool program can provide the environments and the parental love and care of a functioning family and the lifetime benefits that ensue.”

Tara Ann Thieke, a former social services assistant and preschool teacher, adds that separating children from their homes at a very young age can have detrimental effects. “I observed that even the highest quality care could elicit sustained traumatic responses…The most entertaining preschool with a room full of friends and nearly every need met on cue could not erase a longing for home in the best circumstances. In more troubling situations, the child would struggle to separate the roles of paid versus familial caregivers. Separation from the staff with whom they spent most of their time became as traumatic as separation from parents. Stressful transitions and confusion flooded the child’s body: as repeated studies have shown, the levels of the stress-hormone cortisol remain elevated for children in institutionalized care compared to children in a home setting.”

It’s important to note that the studies haven’t concluded that all kids are harmed by pre-K. They simply find that in aggregate they don’t work and that some do harm. But if a parent has a compelling reason to enroll their kid, they should be free to do so, without the state’s overbearing sales pitch.

But California’s governor and a majority of its state legislators just can’t seem avoid hucksterism. Instead of “following the science,” California’s politicos indulge in what Stanford’s Caroline Hoxby refers to as the cardiac test. “We just know in our heart that this is right.”

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

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