Universal pre-Kindergarten programs, beloved by many education advocates and policy wonks, also have some critics (ourselves included). The critics aren’t anti-kid or unworried about Kindergarten readiness. Rather, they argue that states should target their limited resources at pre-K programming for youngsters truly in need. This CALDER study, which examines the impact of such a program in Texas between 1990 and 2002, backs that assertion. Drawing upon a huge sample of “at-risk” children, analysts compared those who participated in Texas’s PreKindergarten Early Start (PKES) program to those who didn’t. They found that PKES participation was linked to higher academic achievement in reading and math and lower likelihood of being held back or receiving special-education services. Two more items of note: These achievement data were collected in third grade, showing the staying power of the PKES program (positive effects of Head Start begin to fade after first grade). And the PKES program’s per-pupil cost is less than half that of Head Start in Texas. The report concludes, “Even modest programs can achieve important gains” for disadvantaged youth. A question naturally arises: What is the PKES program doing differently than its counterparts, many of which have been found wanting? We think we’ve found the answer: In Texas, even pre-K has standards and curriculum—and they’re aligned with those of the K–12 system.
Rodney Andrews, Paul Jargowsky, and Kristin Kuhne, The Effects of Texas’ Pre-Kindergarten Program on Academic Performance (New York, NY: National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research, November 2012).