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.

Asked and answered

Longtime advocate (and current First Lady) Diana Rauner sizes up the challenges ahead for early education in Illinois

PHOTO: Courtesy of Ounce of Prevention

Fluent in the languages of developmental psychology (her Ph.D., from the University of Chicago) and finance (her MBA, from Stanford University), Illinois First Lady Diana Rauner is equipped more than most to navigate the maze that is early childhood education in America. As anyone who has tried to find, or build, a quality program for a child under 5 knows, there are plenty of hurdles to securing good options: availability and affordability; too few full-day seats for families that require them; and low pay and turnover among providers, just to name a few.

In her 11 years in leadership of the Chicago advocacy group Ounce of Prevention, Rauner has used her platform to push for higher quality programs for the youngest children in Illinois and nationwide. As the wife of Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner (who is up for election this fall against another early childhood education advocate, businessman J.B. Pritzker, who has funded some of Ounce of Prevention’s work), she’s as fluent in political speak as she is everything else: “Early childhood is not a partisan issue,” she says.

She spoke to Chalkbeat Chicago’s Cassie Walker Burke amidst big developments for early childhood advocates: Mayor Rahm Emanuel is touting the rollout of an ambitious universal pre-K program in Chicago, and the state is set to release a trove of data on kindergarten readiness later this month. She was joined in parts of the conversation by Ireta Gasner, vice president of Illinois policy for Ounce of Prevention.

The interview has been condensed and edited for publication. 

Why is the issue of early childhood education so important to you?

DIANA RAUNER: This is the most important human capital and social justice issue for our nation. We are increasingly a society that requires everyone to have both social-emotional self-regulation skills and the flexibility to continue to learn throughout your life. We know that, as Warren Buffett says, all men are created equal and that lasts for the first 15 seconds. Something we know now that we didn’t know a generation ago, or even 10 years ago, is the importance of the prenatal period to long-term health and health outcomes. And so, actually it’s not even true that all people are born equal.

We really have to ensure that we’re giving all families the kinds of supports they need in order to help their children develop to their highest potential. It’s a moral issue, but it’s also an economic and civic issue as well.

Many people understand the value of early childhood programs, but we are also seeing the percentages of students enrolled in public pre-K in Illinois and Chicago dropping. What is your assessment of why this is happening?

RAUNER: The Early Childhood Block Grant (which is the Illinois State Board of Education’s early childhood education program) was cut several years in a row starting in 2010. We lost $80 million over a number of years. The block grant didn’t begin to grow again until 2016, so because of that, enrollment did drop during that time. It has rebounded. We are not sure that the numbers are not back up and over, but the (latest publicly available counts) aren’t current. We just aren’t sure.

IRETA GASNER: The other thing impacting that is that Illinois for decades had one of the nation’s shortest pre-K days: We were serving kids in 2½ -hour programs. Knowing what we’ve learned about at-risk kids, (we need to) serve up a longer day. But there’s some tension there: We can give a lot of kids a little dosage or we can grow the programs back up a little more slowly and give kids who need it the right dosage. So there’s some nuance around the number of kids served now compared to where we were 10 years ago or so.

Funding for early childhood comes from a lot of places; it’s complicated. Some providers lost a state grant recently and complained the application process rewarded good grant writing, not quality programming. How do we build a pipeline of providers and sustain it?

RAUNER: Those are huge questions. Clearly, we know that the Early Childhood Block Grant, while we’ve seen increases, is still not sufficient to serve all the kids who need it. There is a big gap between how we’re funding now and where we need to be to reach all the kids who need it. The recompetition (to reapply for the Preschool for All grants that fund programs throughout the state) that was done this year wasn’t a perfect process. You combine the fact that the process wasn’t perfect with the fact that there’s not enough money to go around, and you end up with an outcome that doesn’t satisfy everyone.

You talked about what it takes to do quality. As a state, for a very long time, we’ve had probably one of the strongest early childhood systems — birth to 5 — of any state. It’s truly a birth to 5 system, it has a birth to 3 set-aside, and it has real attention to birth to 3 funding. It’s also a mixed-delivery system, which means both community-based settings and school settings. It’s meant to meet families where they are and meet families’ different needs. And it sets aside investments for quality infrastructure: that means professional development, data collection, research, innovative programming. That’s been a hallmark of the way that we in the state, and in the city, have prioritized our early childhood system.

Researchers also stress that only quality programs really move the needle with kids from low-income backgrounds. How do we ensure quality?

RAUNER: For a long time in education we’ve had this myth that teachers are somehow superhuman, and that a great teacher is great, and that an average teacher is average, and that bad teachers are bad. At Ounce, what we’ve focused a lot on this: Teachers, like other adults, work in organizations. They work in organizations that either support and enhance and develop their performance, or they work in organizations that don’t. Rather than focusing everything on the individual teacher and how good or bad the individual teacher is, we need to look at the organizational supports that help that teacher do great work in the classroom. We focus on leadership in instructional support and instructional excellence, and all of the essential elements of organizational support for great teaching — it doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

What’s an example of a program that you’ve visited recently that you’d like to see scaled?

RAUNER:  Our work with universal newborn support. The Illinois Family Connects program is a model that comes out of Durham, North Carolina. It is a nurse home visiting program that serves as a coordinated intake to a web of community supports for new parents and their children. It is a validated and well-trained individual assessment of a new parent and new family and a system of referrals that support families in all kinds of things they need. It’s a universal system, and it’s one that right now we are piloting in two Illinois counties, Peoria and Stephenson. We are hoping to expand in the city of Chicago and other counties across the state.

A year in, what have you learned from the newborn visitation program?

RAUNER: First of all, we’ve learned it’s very, very welcome by families. The uptake rates are high: More than 80 percent of families say, yes, I’d love to have a nurse visit me at home. We’ve also learned that 97 percent of the families that have visits have some kind of need. Many of those needs, more than half, can be addressed right in that visit. Over a third, though, are getting referrals to some kinds of support, including mental health programs, intensive home visiting programs, other kinds of family support programs. A very small percentage, maybe around 1 percent, are getting referred for really urgent issues: medical issues, mental health issues, safety issues in their home. That’s amazingly important and critical to getting addressed quickly.

Do you think Illinois has the ability to scale a program like that? Is there the will on the public side and on the political side?

RAUNER: I think the most important thing we can do is demonstrate both the important outcomes we are seeing, and also, over time, population-level changes that save the state money. In Durham, this program has shown substantial decreases in emergency room visits and child welfare referrals. Those are extremely expensive. And so, if you can really do this kind of program at scale and prevent those kinds of expenditures, you can actually save money and put that money toward prevention and toward serving more families.

"For a long time in education we’ve had this myth that teachers are somehow superhuman, and that a great teacher is great, an average teacher is average, and bad teachers are bad. "Diana Rauner

What else can Chicago learn from other states and cities that are doing early childhood well?

RAUNER: We’ve worked really hard to bring things back here. We brought a program that was developed in Florida called Baby Court to Illinois, which is intensive supports for families with very young children in the child welfare system.We’re always thinking about opportunities to bring innovations here and try new things, and we’re also trying to share some of our innovations with other states.

Pay is really low throughout the early childhood education system. Do you see a realistic path to changing that?

RAUNER: There’s no silver bullet unless we have $100 billion drop from the sky. But there are a lot of things we’ve been doing in Illinois: alternative certification programs, pathway programs, better connections between our high schools and community colleges. There are a lot of things we want to try, but it will take ongoing attention. It’s a little bit like — oh, I shouldn’t make a sports analogy — but you gain a yard at a time. You just keep pushing. It’s not like something is going to transform overnight.

As Chicago has more CPS-backed pre-K seats come online and pays teachers on the CPS scale, community programs are going to have to compete with their wages. Isn’t that going to become an issue here as universal pre-K rolls out?

RAUNER: It is an issue, and part of that is ensuring that the universal pre-K program is still a mixed-delivery system (a mixed-delivery system includes community providers who receive public funding as well as school district-funded programs). We want to make sure the community providers are still part of the preschool system. Clearly pay parity is really important in the long run, and we’re certainly still some way away from that across the board, but it is a really high priority.

It’s important to recognize that a birth-to-3 program is more expensive than a preschool, so that’s one of the reasons why, as universal preschool rolls out, we’ll be focused on it continuing to become a community-based program.

Why is a mixed-delivery system something you advocate?

RAUNER: Very often, community-based programs are actually more reflective and responsive to the communities they serve. Another reality: Many community-based programs blend and braid funding streams, so they can provide full-day coverage for children whose parents are working. The trouble is that programs that operate 6 hours a day cannot serve families who need 10 hours of coverage.

Will the universal pre-K program being rolled out in Chicago have a watershed effect on other places in the state?

RAUNER: I don’t know. We’ll have to see. We have many districts in the state, so they all have very different priorities.

Later this month, the state will release its first kindergarten readiness reports. What can we expect?

RAUNER: It’s a milestone. It’s a tool that serves many different purposes. One is a professional development tool for kindergarten teachers, it helps them see and observe their students and understand (what it takes) to move them along on their developmental path. It’s helpful for parents to understand the range of developmental expectations for kindergarten. And it’s helpful for policy makers to understand how we’re doing relative to our expectations and goals.

I do think that we have to be prepared for some instability in the data in the very beginning — that’s pretty typical. But obviously, well — sometimes the truth is a difficult thing. Here we have always focused on third-grade test scores as evidence of the achievement gap, but we all know the achievement gap opens up much, much earlier. Being able to articulate that and identify that and document it — we hope it will change the conversation so we can talk about it at a much earlier level.

"Sometimes the truth is a difficult thing."Diana Rauner

I imagine that wasn’t an easy sell. How did you convince people?

RAUNER: We had many conversations. We did this as an early childhood and K-12 partnership, we brought together teachers, and school administrators, and early childhood advocates, and researchers. We wanted to make sure this tool was developmentally appropriate, that it was valid and reliable, and that it really served the purpose of professional development as well as accountability. Not accountability for individual students — we wanted to be really sure it wasn’t used in any inappropropriate ways to penalize individual students — but rather, as a way to hold us adults accountable to our very youngest learners.

We’re in the middle of a heated governor’s race, as you know. How does this affect the work you do?

RAUNER: We know from our work in Illinois and at the federal level that early childhood is not a partisan issue. The majority of every partisan persuasion are strongly in favor of investment in early childhood. That makes our work easy. It means we are able to articulate a vision for early childhood education and to promote the best practices to all candidates and all legislators. We have seen strong bipartisan support here in Illinois on the issue for decades.

mental health

Trauma can make it hard for kids to learn. Here’s how teachers learn to deal with that.

Childhood drama can make it hard for students to focus or behave in classrooms.

There’s no debating that childhood trauma seriously impacts how students learn. Researchers have tied stressful events such as divorces, deportations, neglect, sexual abuse and gun violence to behavioral problems, lower math and reading scores, and poor health. The latest research, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, finds that children who endure severe stress are more likely to suffer heart attacks and mental health disorders.

So, we know trauma affects kids, but how do we teach educators to confront it? That’s where Dr. Colleen Cicchetti comes in.

PHOTO: Lurie Children's Hospital
Dr. Colleen Cicchetti.

A child psychologist at Lurie Children’s Hospital and an assistant professor at Northwestern University’s medical school, she helps lead the hospital’s efforts to improve how local schools handle trauma. The goal: to train teachers to spot and respond to warning signs in kids. Last Tuesday and Wednesday, about 150 aspiring teachers with Golden Apple’s scholars program attended day-long training sessions.

It’s not the job of a teacher to become a mental health provider, said Cicchetti, who earlier this year was named Public Educator of the Year by the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “It’s really their job to try to understand what barriers are making it hard for them to do their job.”

Chalkbeat Chicago interviewed Cicchetti about training teachers, the cost of childhood trauma in Chicago communities, how it takes a toll on classrooms, and what teachers can do to promote healing in schools.

What are some examples of the different types of trauma Chicago children might be dealing with?

Seeing someone shot, seeing someone stabbed. It could be sexual abuse, it could be physical abuse. It could be parents incarcerated, divorced, separation, death. It can be someone that you know being killed, someone you know in a car accident.

What are some ways that trauma finds its way into the classroom?

Flashbacks, difficult sleeping, difficulty eating, choosing not to — or being unable to — enjoy the things you used to enjoy. Being hyperalert where you are scanning the space because you don’t feel safe, which impacts your learning. There’s that hopelessness and sense that the world is dangerous. They might be getting in fights. Another thing we sometimes see is frequent absences.

We see some kids who are spending a lot of time in the nurse’s offices, complaining of stomachaches and headaches — their biology is triggered.

We often see it manifest in difficulty negotiating relationships with other people. Some days they can be really engaged with the teacher, the next day they’re really angry and throwing temper tantrums.

How do you teach teachers to recognize trauma?

We do these trainings called Trauma 101. We show them pictures of brains and which areas of the brain are impacted by that flight-or-fight response being triggered all the time. We talk about the ACES studies. (Many studies on Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACES, have linked childhood trauma with the development of diseases like diabetes and heart disease, behavioral problems, substance-abuse disorders in adults, and self-harm. But chronic trauma also can disrupt brain development, impair learning, and make it hard to cope with emotions.)

child trauma pyramid
PHOTO: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

We look at the symptoms you would see [of PTSD] and what that would look like in a classroom. For example, a kid having flashbacks: You might see a kid who is distracted or looking out the window, or they’re having nightmares so they’re coming into class and putting their head on their desks and they’re sleeping during class because the classroom feels safe and they can’t sleep at night. We sort of try to walk between the clinical symptoms and the manifestations you may see in the classroom.

How do you teach teachers what to do once they see signs of trauma? What are they supposed to do?

The first level is to be aware of kids you think are likely to be experiencing trauma in your classroom. What do you do to create a sense of safety, and do that self-regulation and peer building in your classroom? But if you have kids who are sort of experiencing more challenges and those things aren’t working, in Chicago Public Schools we have something called a request for assistance. Teachers can fill out a form and submit it to their social worker or their behavioral health team. Somebody in the school will do a more in-depth assessment or screening. Those kids are then linked to services, either provided by the school or, in some cases, there’s community providers.

There are few — if any — jobs harder than teaching. What are the limits to what teachers can really do?

In a lot of schools, it’s not very safe for a teacher to say ‘I’m struggling with this student.’ But when teachers feel very isolated, and then feel bad and get angry at themselves and at the student, that’s where burnout comes in. What we’re trying to create is a culture within a school, not just the teachers, but from the administration to all the adults in the buildings, that says it’s our job to take care of the whole child here. If a child is struggling, it’s not a bad teacher, it’s a situation we need to modify.

We try to only go into schools and have these conversations when we’re invited in at the systems level, where the administrators are talking about understanding professional development and reflective learning practices for new teachers, and mentoring, so they can understand why this work is crossing over into their home lives, why they’re coming home grumpy, or overeating or drinking, and don’t want to go back to work. It’s hard, but we can teach you what you can do to set your classroom up to be successful, and also make sure you have the right kind of supports, so if you’re seeing a kid who’s struggling — and you’re struggling — that you can reach out to other adults in the building.

What does a safe classroom look like in practice for a kid who has experienced trauma, maybe multiple forms of trauma in their lives?

It’s predictable. [Students] know what expectations are, what they need to do to be successful. There’re different parts of the day where it may be getting hard for them to focus, but then they get breaks.

If you didn’t get your homework done it’s not super punitive. We want to hold people accountable and help them be successful, but let’s say maybe they took three buses to get to school and they were babysitting their siblings last night, so they don’t have enough time for an assignment. Are you going to get a zero or will you be coming in during your recess or lunch break to get this done?

It’s an environment that says, I believe you can be successful, and I’m going to stack the deck for your success. I’m going to provide both physical safety and emotional safety. We’re going to have rules around respecting differences and how we talk to one another. We’re going to have restorative conversations and practices around discipline, so we can not be so reactive. And we’re going to foster relationships both with kids and between each other.