It was a bit of a shock to many last year when a major study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found little or no academic benefit to children who took part in the federally funded Head Start program.
Head Start is geared to 3- and 4-year-olds from low-income families. Total federal spending on Head Start since it started in 1965 is now approaching $200 billion, and many people have just assumed it must be working well. But judging from the findings of the massive study, Head Start appears to be one more example of well-intended but wasteful federal spending.
The study looked at everything from academics to social development to health, and it simply didn't find lasting benefits.
In fact, it found that any positive effects from Head Start had virtually disappeared by the end of the students' first-grade year.
And yet, the United States strangely continues to spend about $10 billion per year on Head Start. Do you think that's wise?
Now, a Tennessee lawmaker has raised similar questions about the tens of millions of dollars that our state spends on its own pre-kindergarten program. Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, pointed to a report on the Tennessee program that suggested pupils may not be getting much long-term academic benefit.
The study by the Strategic Research Group found that "for students in grades 3-5, analyses have found either no significant effect of pre-k participation on assessment scores, or, in some cases, have found that students who attended pre-k, on average, score lower than their nonpre-k counterparts on some assessments."
Dunn said: "People make big promises, but nothing big is showing up in this report at all. We were sold a silver bullet. It turns out it's made of lead."
The apparently bleak findings about Tennessee's pre-kindergarten program do not end debate on the issue. The researchers were careful to point out that the program has changed in important ways over the past few years, and that the study does not necessarily reflect the current effectiveness of the pre-k program in Tennessee. They also say there is some evidence of better performance in kindergarten by pupils who took part in the pre-k program.
We should all want our children to get an excellent education, to prepare them for happier, more productive lives. But we should also insist that our limited tax dollars for education be spent effectively.
At a minimum, it is worth looking carefully into these concerns about Tennessee's pre-kindergarten program to ensure that it is having positive effects.