The Iowa Department of Education has as its first goal to have every child ready to learn upon entry to school. They plan to measure readiness to learn by way of participation in quality preschool programs, including Head Start. In his Condition of the State speech, Governor Culver reaffirmed his commitment to the final installment of $60 million for voluntary preschool.
Unfortunately, universal preschool programs do not appear to show any significant lasting benefits for student achievement. That is, preschool attendance is not translating into significant improvements in 4th grade NAEP reading scores. Additionally, a recently released Head Start study shows that even Head Start programs do not provide significant lasting academic benefits.
By the end of 1st grade, only a single cognitive impact was found for each cohort. Head Start group children did significantly better on the PPVT (a vocabulary measure) for 4-year-olds and on the Woodcock-Johnson III test of Oral Comprehension for the 3-year-olds.
Some suggest that failures in elementary education are causing a fade-out of preschool gains in school-readiness. That is, that by early elementary school children who participated in the preschool programs are indistinguishable from those who did not. Chester E. Finn, Jr. challenges the underlying assumptions of universal preschool proponents about the need for and effectiveness of preschool programs.
The stakes are high if you agree with President Obama, as I do, that “the best anti-poverty program around is a world-class education.” Low income students are being short-changed in Iowa. According to the 2009 Condition of Education Report, 34.1 percent of Iowa public school students are eligible for free or reduced price lunches (page 58). These lower income children lag behind their higher income peers by twenty points or more in reading proficiency rates (figures 31, 38 and 45). We need to spend education dollars on programs that will result in lasting academic achievement for all children. School-readiness is of little value to a child who ends up a functionally illiterate adult. Universal preschool and Head Start have not been shown to provide lasting academic benefits. The goal should be 100% literacy rates for children educated in Iowa and the money should be spent on programs that actually help achieve this goal.