Researchers at Vanderbilt University are using Tennessee as a cautionary tale for the rest of the nation to pause before expanding pre-kindergarten programs.

In their landmark study released last year, Dale Farran and Mark Lipsey found that academic gains achieved by students in Tennessee pre-K classrooms flickered out by third grade. In their new report, published by Behavioral Science & Policy Journal, the authors share similar challenges they’ve observed in other states’ pre-K programs.

“The idea that a year of pre-K can close the achievement gap for at-risk children is appealing to policymakers, school administrators, businessmen and law enforcement officials, but this kind of magical thinking doesn’t benefit children,” said Farran, a professor at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education. “Expansions are being conducted without much attention to the question of how to design and support those programs so they are effective.”

The researchers cited inconsistent curriculum implementation and teacher quality as contributors to the fade-out, as well as lack of supports for the children when they reached the second and third grade. All children in the study were from low-income families.

Successful pre-K programs held up as exemplars are generally expensive, and states shouldn’t expect to replicate their results without making big investments, the researchers argue.

"Expansions are being conducted without much attention to the question of how to design and support those programs so they are effective."Dale Farran, researcher

Farran and Lipsey still believe in early childhood education. They just argue against thinking pre-K in itself is a silver bullet. It needs to be supported and include research-based practices, they say.

They also note that positive evaluations of state pre-K programs frequently stem from examinations conducted or commissioned by the departments charged with their oversight.

“If the (evaluators) adopted a more critical approach, the reports policymakers base their decisions on would be more forthright about the limitations of the studies and less rosy about their conclusions,” said Lipsey, research professor at Peabody Research Institute. “They would also acknowledge the considerable difficulty of implementing an effective program at scale and avoid claiming or implying that scale-up had been successfully accomplished.”

You can read about the researchers’ collaboration with Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools here, and see their new study here.