Kirwan Doubles Down on Failed Pre-K Education

A signature recommendation of the Maryland Kirwan Commission includes increasing full-day pre-K across the state. The Commission’s total price tag reaches a staggering $32 billion over the next decade.

Kirwan’s interim report claims: “Research shows that investing in the early childhood learning and development of disadvantaged children yields a high return to society, offsetting taxpayer costs for poor health, dropout rates, poverty, and crime. Other benefits include reductions in special education costs, grade retention rates, teacher turnover, and absenteeism costs, and costs for tutoring and other supports.”[i]

Had a student made such an evidence-free claim in a research paper as Kirwan does, they would have been marked down and reminded of the need for supporting citations.  Or at least they would have been at one of the state’s better-performing schools.

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The extensive existing academic research on pre-K effectiveness and long-term benefits reaches exactly the opposite conclusion as Kirwan. Studies of pre-K and similar programs, such as Head Start, have repeatedly found that any academic gains are short-term, fading away as early as the third grade.  Even worse, some studies conclude that pre-K students end up worse off!

The Tennessee Voluntary Pre-K study, described by the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution think tank as “perhaps the most widely cited report” on pre-K, found that any early gains from pre-K education were short-lived. Even worse, the study’s control group, those children who did not participate in pre-K, actually surpassed the pre-K group in achievement by second and third grade.[ii]

One response, as Brookings recounts, has been to reflect on the lack a consensus over what good pre-K should be. Critics speculate that Tennessee’s “rigid, academic approach” could have been responsible for the children in the pre-K group disengaging from school in later years.

These conclusions match similar results from the Head Start program. The program, begun in 1965 as part of the Johnson Administration’s War on Poverty. It serves about 10% of the nation’s 3- and 4-year-olds.

Congress mandated a comprehensive review of the program in the nineties. Planned during the Clinton Administration, implemented during the Bush years, the Head Start Impact Study was finally completed while Barack Obama was President.  The report remains perhaps as the most thorough, methodologically rigorous and expensive federal program evaluations carried out in decades.

Brookings Institution scholar Grover Whitehurst summed up the Head Start study’s findings in “Can We Be Hard-Headed about Pre-School: A Look a Head Start: “ If this conclusion by the authors isn’t clear enough, I’ll put it in less academic language: There is no measurable advantage to children in elementary school of having participated in Head Start.  Further, children attending Head Start remained far behind academically once they are in elementary school.  Head Start does not improve the school readiness of children from low-income families.” [iii]

The findings indicate that what early benefits of pre-K do exist, fade away by third grade.  Just like the later Tennessee study “At the end of 3rd grade, there was suggestive evidence of an unfavorable impact— the parents of the Head Start group children reported a significantly lower child grade promotion rate than the parents of the non-Head Start group children.” [iv]

After over five decades of serving millions of disadvantaged children, if any program should have finally cracked the code in developing a successful pre-K formula that could provide long term benefits, Head Start has had the opportunity to do so.  Instead, repeated studies have reached a similar conclusion, a result now referred to in the literature as the “Head Start Fade.”[v]

But returning to Kirwan.  The Commission proposes spending an extra $32 billion over the next decade. The Maryland Department of Budget and Management says this would require a 39% increase in the personal income tax, an 89% increase in the sales tax or a 535% increase in the state property tax. [vi]

Incredibly Kirwan does not bother to offer evidence to support their recommended educational strategies. The same strategies that have already been tried, been thoroughly studied and found to fail.


[i]    p.33

[ii]    Tennessee Voluntary Pre-K study at


[iv]     p. xxii

[v] Valerie E. Lee; Susanna Loeb (Spring 1995). “Where Do Head Start Attendees End up? One Reason Why Preschool Effects Fade Out”. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis17 (1): 62–82. ;  S. Barnett (Winter 1995). “Long Term Effects of Early Childhood Programs on Cognitive and School Outcomes”. The Future of Children. 5 (3): 25–50.



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