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.

early intervention

Meet Colorado’s resident expert on early childhood mental health

Jordana Ash, Colorado's director of early childhood mental health

Jordana Ash holds a job that doesn’t exist in most states.

She’s Colorado’s director of early childhood mental health — a position created three years ago within the state’s Office of Early Childhood. A local foundation paid Ash’s salary for 18 months and then the state took over.

The addition of a high-level state job dedicated to the mental health of young children was a win for advocates, coming at a time of growing awareness about the long-term impact of childhood trauma. Ash said her role helps infuse both the Office of Early Childhood, where her unit is housed, and other state agencies with programs and policies focusing on child mental health.

Before coming to the Office of Early Childhood, which is part of the Department of Human Services, Ash ran a mental health consultation program in Boulder for 13 years.

We sat down with Ash this week to discuss her background, the state’s work on early childhood mental health and her thoughts on the recent defeat of state legislation that would have limited early childhood suspensions and expulsions.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What sparked your interest in early childhood mental health?
My first job out of graduate school was in Alameda County, California and I was a child welfare worker. I didn’t have a lot of life experience at that time. I didn’t have children of my own. I didn’t know a lot about child development. But what I could really do is listen to families. We met families at the hardest times.These were families whose children were removed for suspicion of abuse or neglect.

Everybody has a story and if you spend time listening, you will hear about their hopes for their child, things that bring them joy in parenting. To me, it’s about the stories and what parents do every day to try to do better for their kids.

Can you put into context Colorado’s work on early childhood mental health compared to work in other states?
Colorado is really in a unique position compared to other states. My position was created three years ago with philanthropic dollars (from the Denver-based Rose Community Foundation, which is also is a financial supporter of Chalkbeat) looking to get a position in state government completely focused on early childhood mental health.

There are very few states that have a position of leadership in state government with (early childhood mental health) being their primary focus. Minnesota has a similar position, Connecticut has a coordinator position. A couple of states are coming along. Other states have recognized that it’s a wise investment to have a position where you can really institutionalize some of those important changes and policies for statewide reach.

Can you talk about the major efforts your unit is working on now?
Our two main initiatives are the mental health (consultant) program and Colorado Project LAUNCH. (See this story for more about Project LAUNCH.)

We are (also) studying the effects of parent adversity on child well-being. We were (also) selected to receive three years of technical assistance on infant and early childhood mental health consultation. We’re hoping that helps us finalize our system of consultation in Colorado so we are a premier program that other states look to.

Last year, the state doubled the number of early childhood mental health consultants available to help child care providers and preschool teachers manage challenging behavior. How is it going?
Our state-funded program of 34 full-time positions is one of the largest (in the nation). We’re working really hard on developing Colorado’s system of mental health consultation so it’s consistent — for state-funded positions, for positions funded by philanthropy for programs that have their own hired consultants — so everyone is working toward the same standard of practice.

Can you share an anecdote about how mental health consultation works?

I can think of a situation where a consultant provided support for a cook at a child care center. Her child was enrolled in the program. This was a 3-year-old with a lot of challenging behaviors. At first, (the mother) was really nervous to talk to the consultant. She confused the role of the mental health consultant with something like social services and wondered if she was going to be judged or somehow scrutinized about her parenting. She had never had contact with any kind of mental health service before.

In getting to know the consultant not only did she find some new ways to interact with her child so that he could be more successful in the classroom and at home, but she also had her first experience with a mental health professional. It reduced the sense of stigma (around) getting mental health help.

She found that she could get a better position at the child care center because her child was successful in his classroom. She wasn’t having to take him home because of his problems.

What advice do you have for child care providers or early childhood teachers who are at their wits’ end over a child’s challenging behavior and haven’t accessed a consultant? Take a deep breath. We want to understand that that child is telling us something. We might not understand what that behavior means but it’s our responsibility as adults to help figure that out.

We really encourage providers to access a mental health consultant or other support right away when they’re starting to be puzzled or concerned about a child’s behavior. It’s much easier to intervene if you have new ideas sooner in the process.

The role of child care providers and teachers is critically important. So we are not in a position to judge or to evaluate what you’ve done. We’re in a position to partner with you and help you provide the best care you can.

To locate an early childhood mental health consultant, providers can call 303-866-4393.

What advice do you have for parents who know their child is acting up at preschool or child care and worry they could get counseled out or kicked out?
Reach out and connect directly with your child care program about the problem before you start feeling like your child may be at risk of being suspended or expelled. That partnership between parents and providers is the most powerful part of a solution.

I would also say you can talk to your child’s primary care physician as a start. Maybe there’s a developmental concern your physician can help figure out and that’s gonna be a really important piece of the puzzle.

Connecting with a mental health consultant in your area is a really good solution to start looking at the causes of those challenging behaviors and to start putting in place some interventions while other tests or other assessments are being done.

For help locating a mental health consultant, parents can visit: http://www.coloradoofficeofearlychildhood.com/ecmentalhealth

What are your thoughts on the bill killed during Colorado’s 2017 legislative session that would have limited suspensions and expulsions in preschool and kindergarten through second grade?

The fact that the bill made it as far as it did meant lots of people were invested, were having great conversations about this problem in a way we never (had) before. Stakeholders were for the first time …. considering issues of disproportionality and implicit bias in a way that was a first. We had never had that kind of visibility to the early childhood time period and this very complex issue that affects children’s trajectories way into their school years.

Would you like to see a similar bill pass next year?
As an office, we’d be super interested in whatever’s put forward.

Early education

Colorado gets good marks on preschool access for 3-year-olds, not so much on funding

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Preschoolers play dress-up on a recent morning at Fairview Elementary in the Westminster school district.

While Colorado ranks near the back of the pack for state preschool funding, it gets relatively high marks for providing preschool access to the state’s 3-year-olds, according to a report released Wednesday by the National Institute for Early Education Research.

Colorado ranked 11th for 3-year-old access among 33 states offering preschool to 3-year-olds. The state-funded Colorado Preschool Program, which is for children with certain risk factors, served about 5,400 3-year-olds and about 15,700 4-year-olds last year.

PHOTO: NIEER
This chart shows the percentage of Colorado children served by state-funded preschool over time.
PHOTO: NIEER
This chart shows how Colorado’s per-pupil preschool funding has changed over time.

Colorado ranked 24th of 44 states for 4-year-old preschool access in the state-by-state report, slightly worse than last year. Seven states, including Colorado’s neighbors, Wyoming and Utah, don’t fund preschool at all.

Besides gauging preschool funding and access, the new report revealed that Colorado meets five of 10 benchmarks designed to judge preschool quality. Last year, the state met six of the benchmarks, but several benchmarks changed this year in what the research institute described as an effort to raise the bar.

State officials said that observers should take Colorado’s middling benchmark score with a grain of salt because while the state didn’t get credit for having certain standards enshrined in state policy, the standards are widely practiced by school districts that participate in the Colorado Preschool Program. One example is the benchmark that calls for vision, hearing and health screenings of preschoolers — Colorado didn’t check that box, but most districts conduct the screenings.

Two other benchmarks that Colorado doesn’t meet include a requirement for lead teachers to have a bachelor’s degree and assistant teachers to have a Child Development Associate credential.

Cathrine Floyd, program director for the Colorado Preschool Program and Results Matter Program at the Colorado Department of Education, said the degrees are highly encouraged by the state but not required. That’s because some state-funded preschool slots are offered at community-based preschools that would not be able to afford to pay teachers if they all had higher-level degrees, she said.

Among the five benchmarks Colorado meets on the revised list are two related to class size and staff-student ratio, one related to teacher training, one related to state early learning standards and one related to preschool curriculum.

Floyd and her colleagues described the annual report from the well-regarded National Institute for Early Education Research as a good starting point for conversation, but said the state’s annual Colorado Preschool Program report provides more detail and context about Colorado’s progress.