Pre-K gains don’t stick for all Tennessee students

Pre-K gains don’t stick for all Tennessee students

(Tenn.) Children attending Tennessee’s state-funded preschool program saw short term advantages, but few remained by the time they reached 3rd grade, according to the latest results of an ongoing study by researchers at Vanderbilt University.

Mark Lipsey, director of the Peabody Research Institute at Vanderbilt University, found that students who had participated in the Voluntary Pre-K, or VPK program had considerably greater gains in literacy, language, and math skills during the pre-k year than their peers who did not receive the same early support.

However, those positive effects had largely disappeared by the end of kindergarten, with children who hadn’t participated in the state-funded program catching up to those who had. By second grade, the non-VPK children began to outperform VPK participants on some achievement measures.

And on the 3rd grade statewide achievement tests, children who had participated in the preschool program scored lower on the reading, math, and science tests than the control children–with differences that were statistically significant in math and science.

“One possible explanation for why the gains children made in VPK did not continue to advantage them afterwards is failure of kindergarten and later teachers to build on the skills those children bring from their pre-k experience,” Lipsey, and his co-authors Dale Farran and Kelley Durkin of Vanderbilt University, wrote in the report. “It is doubtful that anything done in pre-k can have sustained effects if the gains made there are not supported and extended in the schooling that follows.”

Research has shown that participation in high-quality childcare or pre-K has been found to have a number of positive benefits for children–though there is disagreement on how long lasting some benefits are. Children enrolled in early learning childcare often demonstrate increased levels of academic achievement, cognitive and social-emotional development, and are better able to adjust to different social environments than their peers.

Many studies have found that children who participate for two years in high-quality preschool programs are less likely to come into contact with the juvenile justice system, and require academic remediation or special education services.

That said, little to no benefits have been found among children who enroll in lower-quality early learning and care programs.

State legislatures and university systems have taken steps in recent years to improve the quality of early education through increased state funding for preschool teacher training and increasing the number of slots for low-income families, as well as providing scholarships for early childhood educators pursuing a bachelor’s degree.

Tennessee’s VPK program, which prioritizes enrollment of children from low-income homes and those who are homeless or in foster care, began in 2005. Now, almost every school district in the state offers at least one full-day VPK classroom.

The Vanderbilt study was based on outcomes of nearly 3,000 students from 79 different programs in urban, suburban, and rural locations across the state. Some of the students that started in the 2009-10 school year and the 2010-11 school year. More than 1,800 of the children participated in the VPK program while about 1,140 did not, and acted as the control group.

Authors of the report found that while teachers reported that VPK participants were better prepared than their peers early in the kindergarten year, in the later grades, the opposite was true, with the control group receiving higher ratings.

Additionally, those who had not participated in VPK outperformed children who had in all three subjects included on the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program–a required annual assessment of reading/language arts, mathematics and science skills that begins in third grade.

Researchers did identify some benefits for certain subgroups, however. At the end of their time in preschool, English learners and those who started as low-achievers saw the some of the largest positive and statistically significant effects after participating in the program.

And Black children who had participated in VPK were rated by first and third grade teachers as having stronger interpersonal skills–such as working and getting along well with others, or being self-confident and a good listener–than their white or Hispanic peers.

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