Tennessee’s pre-K wasn’t working, a 2015 study found. Now the state is putting new focus on teaching.

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.”