Early Childhood

Study Casts Fresh Doubts on Durability of Pre-K Gains

By Christina A. Samuels — October 06, 2015 4 min read

A new study on Tennessee’s prekindergarten program for disadvantaged children is casting serious doubts on the effectiveness of the $85 million effort and should offer a cautionary note for proponents of expanded early education in other states, researchers say.

Children who had enrolled in Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K program, or TN-VPK, left prekindergarten showing strong signs of being ready for school.

But according to the most recent follow-up with these children, the students who didn’t go to pre-K had soon caught up to those who had enrolled in the program. By the end of 2nd grade and continuing on into 3rd, the children who had spent a year in TN-VPK were lagging behind their peers who didn’t go to prekindergarten at all.

The Vanderbilt University-based researchers who conducted the study said the results were both surprising and troubling.

“There’s a huge variation in what’s being called the same name—prekindergarten,” said Dale Farran, a co-principal investigator on the TN-VPK study and senior associate director of the Peabody Research Institute. “You can be sure you will not get the same result in all these variations.”

Standing Apart

The Tennessee prekindergarten study stands out from other early-education research because it is one of the few studies that have examined a contemporary program, followed the children for multiple years, and tracked the progress of a control group of children whose families tried to enroll them in the program, but were shut out because of space.

Because the parents needed to opt in to have their children tracked, the groups were not totally random.

The 2012 Head Start Impact Study, which tracked a group of children who enrolled in the federal program for disadvantaged children, also found that the children started off strong but by 3rd grade were indistinguishable academically from their peers. Unlike in the Tennessee study, however, the Head Start children that were part of the study did not start to fall behind the control group.

Other long-term studies of early education do not reflect today’s social and educational landscape. For example, long-term research on students who attended Perry Preschool in Ypsilanti, Mich., has shown that former students have positive benefits lasting into their 40s, such as less involvement with the police and higher monthly salaries.

But Perry Preschool was an intensive intervention that ran from 1962 to 1967. It “bears almost no resemblance to today’s pre-K programs,” Farran said. “And think about how things have changed for children in general in 50 years. We didn’t even have ‘Sesame Street’ when [Perry] started.” The “Sesame Street” television program came along seven years later.

Scrutinizing the Results

Farran and co-investigator Mark Lipsey, the director of the Peabody Research Institute at Vanderbilt, have offered a few hypotheses for the latest results, which Lipsey has told interviewers left him “stunned.”

One possibility is that the Tennessee prekindergarten program, overall, is not high-quality. In a separate report, Vanderbilt sent trained observers to spend at least four hours in a program. They saw a lot of variation in the classroom structure, but most of the observed time was spent in transitions, meals, and whole-group instruction, as opposed to at learning centers. Eighty-five percent of the classrooms observed scored less than “good” on a commonly used scale of early-childhood program quality.

TN-VPK launched in 1996, and by 2005 was serving 18,000 children in all of the state’s 95 counties. The program has met several benchmarks for quality that were developed by the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, but W. Steven Barnett, the director of NIERR, said those benchmarks often represent very minimal standards.

Another hypothesis: Children come in with gains that the early-elementary-grade teachers are not able to sustain. Many children in the study, from low-income families, went on to enroll in low-performing schools, the researchers note. Those schools may have high student mobility, fewer resources than more-affluent schools, and difficulty recruiting and retaining high-performing teachers.

“This study is another strong warning that producing substantive long-term gains with preschool programs require a relentless focus on quality in practice, the cornerstone of which is a good continuous improvement and accountability system. Other states whose programs have low to mediocre observed quality should take note and change course,” Barnett said in an email.

Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, a senior fellow at the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution, said he also found the results surprising. But Whitehurst has long argued that the push for prekindergarten has been based on studies of boutique programs, or studies that have methodological flaws.

“It could well be that some other type of curriculum that is not so much focused on pre-academic skills could do a better job for many children,” Whitehurst said in an interview. And also, “maybe we’re finding out that lots of kids really don’t need this. If you look at northern Europe, Finland, Scandinavia, those kids don’t start school until they’re 7.”

‘Magical Thinking’?

Greg J. Duncan, an economist at the University of California, Irvine, says the findings should puncture the “magical thinking” that has grown up around prekindergarten.

“It’s a sobering reminder that it’s not just a matter of putting some kind of prekindergarten in place,” said Duncan, who has studied the effects of early-childhood education on achievement gaps between children from high-income and low-income families. “The right lesson isn’t that pre-K can’t work. It’s that some pre-K’s can work, and we have to find the ingredients that go into that.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 08, 2015 edition of Education Week as Study Casts Fresh Doubts on Durability of Pre-K Gains

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