Is Kindergarten More than a Holding Pen for Toddlers?

Does anyone remember former Gov. Tim Kaine’s push for universal pre-K childhood education in Virginia? I do. The aim was to level the disparities in educational outcomes by ensuring that “at risk” children enjoyed the same kind of early-childhood enrichment as their more privileged peers. It was a noble goal. As it turned out, budget constraints limited the scope of the initiative. But the dreams of Nanny Staters live on.

Now comes research from Canada that calls into question the underlying assumption that pre-K is a good thing for the little tykes.

In the early 1990s, the Canadian province of British Columbia conducted what social scientists call a “natural experiment.” BC mandated a program called “dual entry” in which students would enter school at two different points in the school year rather than all at the same time. BC then abruptly canceled the program, with the result that some students were kept in Kindergarten for as few as 6 months while those only a few months younger were kept for 16 months. As a result, state the authors of a research paper, “The Long-Run Impacts of early Childhood Education: Evidence from a Failed Policy Experiment,” November-December children effectively started Kindergarten 4 months late while January-April students started 6 months early.

The authors then tracked the subsequent educational achievement of the two age groups. In findings strikingly at odds with the prevailing sentiment that more early-childhood education is better, they concluded (my emphasis) that “starting Kindergarten one year late substantially reduces the probability of repeating the third grade, and meaningfully increases tenth grade math and reading scores. Effects are highest for low income students and males. Estimates suggest that entering kindergarten early may have a detrimental effect on future outcomes.”

Further, the authors write:

[The BC policy] approximate[s] the potential impact of introducing a pre-K program where one did not previously exist. Introducing such a program would increase time spent in school, which comes at the expense of time spent at home, and would also lower a student’s entry age and readiness. For both grade repetition and tenth grade test scores, the estimates imply poorer outcomes for children who participate in such a program.

Will this research alter the thinking of people who believe as a matter of faith in the power of the state to cure the failings of dysfunctional families? No. But it may give pause to everyone else.

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