Achievement Gap

Landmark Tennessee study contradicts conventional wisdom about the power of pre-K

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Students at Ross Early Learning Center, a pre-kindergarten center in Nashville

A new Vanderbilt University study suggests that public pre-kindergarten programs in Tennessee might actually negatively impact students as they advance through school, surprising experts and advocates alike. But the study’s lead researchers say that policymakers shouldn’t abandon pre-K as they seek to close the achievement gap between minority and lower- and higher-income students.

The U.S. Department of Education-funded study, released on Monday, is the first to thoroughly investigate the impacts of state-funded pre-K programs, which are increasingly popular as policymakers across the nation promote pre-K as a salve for unequal educational opportunities.

Lead researchers Dale Farran and Mark Lipsey found that Tennessee’s pre-K program for economically disadvantaged children, called Tennessee Voluntary Pre-K or TN-VPK, is not producing the positive impacts on academic achievement in the later grades that its advocates and sponsors expected. However, they said the potential for pre-K should be further investigated.

“We’re pretty stunned looking at these data and have a lot of questions about what might be going on in the later grades that doesn’t seem to be maintaining, if not accelerating, the positive gains the VPK attendees made in pre-K,” Lipsey said in a news release.

The five-year study was a joint effort between the Tennessee Department of Education and Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development, where pioneering experiments on the early education of “disadvantaged” children helped to inspire the creation in 1965 of early childhood programs under Head Start.

Gov. Bill Haslam has been waiting on the Vanderbilt study before determining whether he will propose spending more next year on pre-K. Haslam and state lawmakers have been hesitant to expand pre-K — some wanting to scrap the program altogether — citing a 2011 comptroller’s report finding that the impacts were negligible.

Vanderbilt researchers found that students who participated in TN-VPK benefitted significantly at first. But by first grade, there was no difference. By third grade, the students who attended pre-K actually fared worse on a variety of measures assessing both academics and behavior.

“We’ve got a platform out there that’s serving thousands of disadvantaged kids (in Tennessee) who are worthy of our attention,” Lipsey told Chalkbeat. “If we’re not getting what we wanted yet from that platform, we should at least explore its potential before we give it up.”

Groundbreaking report

National experts called the Tennessee study important and compelling.

“It’s a very exciting report because it’s the first time it’s been done on a state level,” said Bruce Atchison, director of early learning for the Education Commission of the States.

“The fadeout is definitely disappointing, but in the context of other studies, the Tennessee findings suggest that we need to raise the quality of programs to avoid the fadeout. It punctuates the fact that pre-K alone is not a silver bullet,” said Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at the University of California-Berkeley.

Both Fuller and Atchison questioned whether uneven or mediocre elementary programs might contribute to a flattening out of academic performance by second and third grades.

“You can have high-quality pre-K and talk about a kindergarten-ready child,” Atchison said, “but if you don’t have a high-quality K-3 programs in place, some fadeout is going to occur.”

Kyle Snow of  the National Association for the Education of Young Children called the report “courageous” for going against popularly held beliefs in the policy community that pre-K is a panacea. He said he eagerly awaits follow-up from Farran and Lipsey on what factors in elementary school interacted with the skills learned in pre-K to cause students’ achievement to decline, after initially outperforming their peers.

“What is so important about this study is that it leads to these questions about sustaining gains and momentum,” he said. “What is the (elementary school) environment doing to support these skills?”

Payoff vs. cost

Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K program, which was started about a decade ago and cost about $86 million in 2013-14, serves about 18,000 children. It ranks high among state-funded pre-K initiatives, meeting nine out of 10 benchmarks set forth by the National Early Education Research Institute for quality pre-K.

Gov. Bill Haslam and first lady Chrissy Haslam read to children in 2014 at the University of Memphis Child Care Center.
PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Haslam and first lady Chrissy Haslam read to children in 2014 at the University of Memphis Child Care Center.

Farran and Lipsey launched the study in 2009, focusing on 3,000 students who applied. They compared the academic trajectories of students who gained seats through a lottery system, to those who applied for the program but didn’t make it in. All of the students were eligible for free and reduced lunch, a requirement for Voluntary Pre-K. The results only reflect students whose parents gave the researchers consent. Lipsey and Farran are still waiting for data for the rest of the students — almost 2,000 — from the Department of Education and will continue tracking them through the sixth grade. The researchers hypothesize there might be some potential long-term behavioral gains associated with attending pre-K.

Rep. Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville), a member of the state House Education Committee, called the study “invaluable.”

“When you’re in government, the question you always asks is how do we use taxpayer dollars effectively and efficiently,” said Dunn, a vocal critic of spending on pre-K. “This study would lead one to believe this approach isn’t very effective and efficient.”

Dunn said he’d rather see state dollars go to improve teacher quality. A more effective pre-K program, he said, might be to prepare at-risk students for kindergarten during the summer leading up to school, rather than the whole preceding year.

“We can help some of these at-risk kids get ready for kindergarten without spending all of that money,” he said.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said the department is continuing to focus on improving the quality of existing pre-K programs across the state. “This is why the department is anchoring our work on establishing early foundations for our students and monitoring and emphasizing high-quality pre-K instruction,” she said. “We also believe that it is important that the Vanderbilt study continues to follow student gains over time to better understand long-term outcomes.”

Farran said policymakers should remember that classrooms observed in the study were diverse in their approaches — and that much can still be learned from the classrooms that did see positive impacts on students in later grades. Farran and Lipsey also are further evaluating the 160 Voluntary Pre-K classrooms that were part of the study to ascertain what qualities most helped children in kindergarten, first, second and third grades.

“TN-VPK was rolled out very quickly and not all pre-K classrooms in Tennessee are alike,” Farran said in the news release. “What might you get from the same pre-K program if you had a common vision and could push the quality up? These are among the questions we are raising in light of the findings of our study.”

"Pre-K is a good start, but without a more coherent vision and consistent implementation of that vision, we cannot realistically expect dramatic effects."Dale Farran, Peabody researcher

Lisa Wiltshire, executive director of the Tennessee Department of Education’s office of early learning, said during a roundtable discussion last week that a common vision and common standards for pre-K classrooms is one of her top priorities.

The researchers emphasized that the potential of pre-K to produce positive academic achievement cannot be dismissed.

“Pre-K is a good start, but without a more coherent vision and consistent implementation of that vision, we cannot realistically expect dramatic effects,” Farran said. “Too much has been promised from one year of pre-school intervention without the attention needed to the quality of experiences children have and what happens to them in K-12. There is much work to be done.”

Read the full report here.

overruled

Lawmakers take first step to ease testing burden for young English language learners

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/Denver Post
Justin Machado, 9, reads on his iPad during his 3rd grade class at Ashley Elementary in 2015.

State lawmakers from both political parties are seeking to undo a controversial State Board of Education decision that called for schools to test thousands of Colorado’s youngest students in English — a language they are still learning.

House Bill 1160 cleared its first legislative hurdle Monday with unanimous support from the House Education Committee.

The bill would allow school districts to decide whether to use tests in English or Spanish to gauge whether students in kindergarten through third grade enrolled in dual-language or bilingual programs have reading deficiencies.

The bill is sponsored in the House of Representatives by Reps. Millie Hamner, a Frisco Democrat, and Jim Wilson, a Salida Republican.

If the bill becomes law, it would overrule a decision by the State Board of Education last year that required testing such students at least once in English. That meant some schools would need to test students twice if they wanted to gauge reading skills in a student’s native language.

Colorado’s public schools under the 2012 READ Act are required to test students’ reading ability to identify students who aren’t likely to be reading at grade-level by third grade.

The bill is the latest political twist in a years-long effort to apply the READ Act in Colorado schools that serve a growing number of native Spanish-speakers.

School districts first raised concern about double-testing in 2014, one year after the law went into effect. The state Attorney General’s office issued an opinion affirming that the intent of the READ Act was to measure reading skills, not English proficiency. The state board then changed its policy to allow districts to choose which language to test students in and approved tests in both English and Spanish.

But a new configuration of the state board in 2016 reversed that decision when it made other changes in response to a 2015 testing reform law that included tweaks to early literacy testing.

The board’s decision at the time was met with fierce opposition from school districts with large Spanish speaking populations — led by Denver Public Schools.

Lawmakers considered legislation to undo the board’s decision last year, but a committee in the Republican-controlled Senate killed it.

Capitol observers believe the bill is more likely to reach the governor’s desk this year after a change in leadership in the Senate.

Some members of the state board, at a meeting last week, reaffirmed their support for testing students in English.

Board member Val Flores, a Denver Democrat who opposed the rule change last year, said she opposes the bill. In explaining her reversal, Flores said she believes the bill would create a disincentive for schools, especially in Denver, to help Spanish-speakers learn English.

“If the district does not give the test in English, reading in English will not be taught,” she said.

Board member Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican, said he still believes the intent of the READ Act was to measure how well students were reading in English.

“I think this is a serious departure from what the legislature intended initially,” he said last week. “The READ Act had everything to do with reading in English.”

Hamner, one of the sponsors of House Bill 1160, also sponsored the READ Act in 2012. She disagrees with Durham and told the House committee Monday that the intent was always for local school districts to decide which language was appropriate.

“We’re giving the local educators and districts the decision-making authority on what’s best for the students,” she said.

Multiple speakers on Monday said the requirement to test native Spanish speakers in English was a waste of time and money, and provided bad information to teachers.

“A teacher who teaches in Spanish will not be able to use data from an English assessment to drive their instruction, much like a hearing test would not give a doctor information about a patient’s broken arm,” said Emily Volkert, dean of instruction at Centennial Elementary School in Denver.

The bill only applies to students who are native Spanish speakers because the state has only approved tests that are in English and Spanish. Students whose native language is neither English nor Spanish would be tested in English until the state approves assessments in other languages.

“The question is can you read and how well,” said bill co-sponsor Wilson. “We’re trying to simplify that.”

Regrouping

Tennessee pre-K took it on the chin in a 2015 Vanderbilt study. Here’s what the state is doing about it.

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Students at Casa Azafran, a Nashville pre-K center that collaborates with Vanderbilt University researchers to serve as a model for best practices in early childhood education

Catalyzed by a landmark study showing its public prekindergarten program is ineffective, the Tennessee Department of Education is tying funding to quality and evaluating teachers as part of a sweeping overhaul.

The changes are in response to a Vanderbilt University study that showed the benefits of Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K program faded by the second grade — and that students who attended eventually performed worse than their peers. The state department has since been exploring how to improve the quality of pre-K classrooms while staying true to 2005 initiative’s original goal: helping students from low-income families start kindergarten on an equal footing with their more affluent peers.

“We know the findings from the 2015 Vanderbilt study are real, and we’ve got to take those study findings seriously,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said last week. “We have made changes to the VPK application to focus on quality and ensure we are funding programs that are high quality and serving students who most need this strong start.”

The state won’t change its $86 million in funding for Voluntary Pre-K, and the goal of the overhaul isn’t to cut programs. Department officials hope that revamping how districts can access the money will push them to improve their pre-K practices. Before, distribution was based on how many students were served by districts; from now on, it will be based on a rigorous application process.

The state also has hired an assistant commissioner to oversee early education and literacy, part of Tennessee’s priority to improve the reading skills of its youngest readers.

The study’s surprising results shook the nation’s pre-K community and prompted concerns from Tennessee pre-K advocates that state lawmakers might even scrap state funding for pre-K. Instead, state officials heeded the urgings of Vanderbilt’s researchers to look into quality. While the program wasn’t working as a whole, some districts were getting pre-K right, according to Vanderbilt’s Dale Farran and Mark Lipsey.

For instance, more successful programs limit whole-class instruction and focus on hands-on learning so that students stay engaged throughout the day. Meanwhile, less effective ones have their students spending a lot of time switching locations or waiting in line for the bathroom. That takes away from learning time.

The new application for state funding asks districts for details about curriculum and how they’ll structure their days to maximize student engagement and learning. It also asks that localized plans be developed for getting parents and families involved in their child’s pre-K experience. Research shows that parental involvement, like reading to students at home and attending parent-teacher conference, helps students be more successful at school.

“The Vanderbilt report has opened our eyes to (what programs need),” said Candace Cook, who directs Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K program. “We’re focusing on what we can do to better serve our children.”

The new application, which seeks funding for the 2017-18 school year, is due in April. District officials have been attending trainings this month to understand what the state is looking for, and why.

“We are currently … meeting with VPK directors to go through these changes in detail and provide them with tools and resources,” said Elizabeth Alves, the state’s newly hired assistant commissioner of early education and literacy.

Districts also are being asked to take a harder look at which students enroll in their pre-K classrooms. Vanderbilt researchers found that nearly 20 percent of students statewide did not meet the state’s high-needs criteria.

“We have been really trying to advocate for using this (state) money in the way it was intended, which is to serve low-income pre-K students,” Cook said.

The pre-K evaluation system is Tennessee’s first. It goes into effect next school year for pre-K and kindergarten teachers as part of the 2016 Pre-K Quality Act, and will use videos and portfolios of student work in reading, language, counting and shapes to determine teachers’ effectiveness. The state already has developed a similar model for evaluating first-grade teachers, as well as teachers of fine arts and foreign language.

Ultimately, McQueen says the tool should help district administrators and the Department of Education figure out how to better support pre-K teachers.

“We’ve not had the ability to really dig into the effectiveness of our (pre-K) teachers,” she said. “The intent of portfolios … have really been about making sure that we are training and educating our teachers.”