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.

Starting early

Report says Tennessee’s pre-K program needs consistent monitoring and more rigor to get better

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum
A new report shows that funding for Tennessee’s preschool program — known as the Tennessee Voluntary Pre-K — has been largely stagnant since 2010.

All parents look for a quality program when they send their children off to preschool.  But in Tennessee, parents may have to look a little longer and harder than families in many other states.

Tennessee met only five of 10 quality benchmarks designed by a national advocacy organization that released its annual preschool report last week. The report criticized the state for its lack of both a rigorous curriculum and a system that measures improvement in classroom quality.

Children enrolled in privately funded programs were not included in this data.

The quality benchmarks range from professional development to classroom size to curriculum. Only three state-funded pre-K programs met all 10 of the new standards — Alabama, Michigan, and Rhode Island.

The report also showed that funding for Tennessee’s preschool program — known as the Tennessee Voluntary Pre-K — has been largely stagnant since 2010.

These findings come from the “State of Preschool 2017,” a report released last week by the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. The annual report looks at state spending, enrollment, and quality in the 43 states and Washington D.C. that provide state-funded preschools.

Tennessee responded that the state has moved toward improving quality, but doesn’t have a plan in place yet for measuring outcomes.

“We are currently considering our next steps for monitoring quality, but currently do not have the infrastructure for site-based monitoring of these quality indicators,” state Education Department spokeswoman Sara Gast said in a written statement.

However, the state recently contracted with 15 educators and experts to review and help select higher caliber pre-K curriculums that will be taught in state-funded classrooms starting in the 2018-19 school year.

But the founder of the institute that led the study said that to really make progress, Tennessee has to first start measuring and tracking the quality of its classrooms.

“It all comes back to this — there’s nobody at the state level that’s engaged and paying attention to the system to first, identify problems and second, to fix them,” Steven Barnett, co-director and founder, told Chalkbeat.

When analyzing Tennessee, the report pulled from a 2015 study by Vanderbilt University 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.

At the time, the state pledged to shore up quality of pre-K teachers and offer more professional development for them.

In the current report, Tennessee’s ratings fell in the middle of the pack — ranking 27th for 4-year-old access to preschool, 25th for 3-year-old access and 23rd for state funding.

The report said Tennessee’s stagnant funding has kept enrollment hovering near 18,500 pre-K students since 2010 — or 22 percent of 4-year-olds and one percent of 3-year-olds.

Gast said in her statement that the state is filling 90 percent of available pre-K seats with 4-year-olds from low-income families.

Tennesseans for Quality Early Education, a statewide advocacy group, said they want to see the state shore up program quality before adding new seats.

“Quality pre-k works, but program quality is inconsistent across the state,” said Lisa Wiltshire, policy director at the advocacy group. “Tennessee should stay the course and double down on pre-k quality improvement efforts… so that pre-k gains can be sustained.”

Developing Dads

From reading to breastfeeding, Detroit dads learn how to engage with their pre-K children

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Dwayne Walker sits with son, Braylen, during a break at Dad's Day in Pre-K

Although he grew up without a father or male role model, Dwayne Walker is the kind of dad who goes on his 5-year-old son’s school field trips, sits in on his classes, and dresses him in a mint green golf shirt and khaki pants to match his own.

At Dad’s Day in Pre-K, a Detroit district event to help fathers better connect with their young children, the 43-year-old realized how much he has changed over the years. His youngest son, Braylen, was with him at the event.

“I broke the cycle when I became a father. I’m involved, and this is helping me to learn I can do even more as a father and a father figure,” he said.

Walker was one of about 100 fathers who attended Dad’s Day in Pre-K, sponsored by the main district to help remove barriers that prevent fathers from engaging in their children’s lives and their schools.

District leaders are working to get parents more involved in their children’s education through a new Parent Academy, teacher home visits, and other efforts. They also are trying new approaches to get parents to participate when their children are younger — including focusing more on fathers.

A study published in 2016 in the Journal of Family Psychology indicated that the more fathers took part in bathing, dressing, reading, and playing with their infant children, the more these nurturing activities increased as the children got older and started school.  

That’s why the district held its second Dad’s Day, said Franchott R. Cooper, preschool supervisor with the district’s Early Childhood Department, who coordinated the event.

“If we keep the fathers involved from preschool, they’ll be there for elementary school, middle school, and high school,” he said. “They’ll be there to support their children with homework, help them with math, help them with reading, supporting them in their academic pursuits.”

Services that the program helps with include job placement and training, helping to reinstate their driver’s licenses so they can get to work and see their children, and assisting with child support issues. Fathers also got tips on how to nurture their children by reading to them, and advice on helping their mates breastfeed.

Wilma Taylor-Costen, former executive director of the district’s Early Child Education program, came up with the idea for Dad’s Day just before she left the district last year. Her department held the first event of its kind a year ago.

“I recognized there was a gap in early child education with our fathers,  particularly with black fathers” she said. “They have been beaten up a lot and the conversation always is they are not in the home, and they don’t care about their children.

“I wanted to give an opportunity for our fathers to come together in a structured support system and if there were barriers preventing them from being in the child’s life, we would bring the courts, the elders, and services they may need under one roof so they can learn lessons and be great dads.”

Durrail Sanders of Highland Park said he was excited to attend because it was positive food for thought for him and other fathers.

“I’m for anything positive that’s going to better myself as a father, other fathers and our youth,” said Sanders, father of five sons, including 5-year-old Isrrail Simmons, who loves to play basketball video games with his dad. “I can get better at this.”

Keynote speaker, author, and educational consultant Jelani Jabari reminded the fathers of the importance of playing with their children, reading to them, helping them with homework, and simply spending time with them. He said he learned that by making mistakes he didn’t realize he was making. He was so busy being a good provider, and working so much, that he was barely at home.

He said he received a wake-up call on July 1, 2011, when he came home from work early and his youngest son, then 3, looked very confused and asked him why was he home for dinner.

“Dinner time, daddy gone,” his son kept repeating.

The comment left him shocked and speechless, but it prompted him to spend more time with his family.

He reminded the men to avoid being so busy making money that they forget to spend time with their children, and to be engaged in their lives. He urged them to add specific activities, such as reading, doing homework, or coaching their child’s sports team, to add structure to the time they spend with their children.

“We are in this together,” he told the fathers. “There is no manual for teaching dads how to be great fathers. It’s a process. Some of us seem to figure it out earlier than others.”