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.

All over the map

What do children need to know when they start kindergarten? You might be surprised.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

How many letters should kids recognize when they enter kindergarten? Should they be able to cut with scissors? How long should they be able to sit still?

Such basic questions seem like they should come with clear-cut answers, but parents and teachers — and even Colorado state standards — differ widely in their expectations for entering kindergarteners

Early childhood leaders in Larimer County discovered just how much variation exists after they surveyed 800 local parents, preschool teachers and kindergarten teachers in 2015.

“The answers were all over the map,” said Bev Thurber, executive director of the Early Childhood Council of Larimer County. “A lot of times it was way above what research says is developmentally appropriate.”

Such findings spotlight the lack of consensus about what it means to be ready for kindergarten. The survey found parents and preschool teachers generally had higher expectations for youngsters than kindergarten teachers or state standards, suggesting that some parents and preschool teachers may be focusing too much energy on teaching academic skills to young children.

“Our concern is not only do you have this variability, but also this pressure on the academic side … when that’s really not the most important thing, especially at this young age,” said Thurber.

To help parents sort it all out, Thurber and a team of early childhood teachers and advocates created a new eight-page parent guide called “Ready Set Kindergarten.” Available in English and Spanish, the whimsically illustrated booklet gives parents tips for building academic and social-emotional skills — things like simple counting, recognizing the letters in a child’s name, naming feelings and taking turns. It also includes a month-by-month schedule for the pre-kindergarten year highlighting logistical details like registration windows and meet-the-teacher opportunities.

All three Larimer County school districts, — Poudre, Thompson and Estes Park — have agreed to use the guide, which is being distributed through preschools, elementary schools, doctors’ offices and libraries.

But some experts say too much emphasis on getting children ready for kindergarten relieves schools of their obligation to serve students regardless of their background or experience.

“It’s critical for schools to take responsibility for being ready for children – not the other way around,” said Sherry Cleary, executive director of the New York Early Childhood Professional Development Institute at the City University of New York.

Cleary reviewed the guide and worried that it would create unneeded stress for families and set up teachers to have unrealistic expectations for kids.

Thurber said many teachers and parents already have unrealistic expectations for entering kindergarteners, according to survey results. The guide scales those back, she said, and offers a more reasonable list of activities that are based on state standards and Colorado’s early learning and development guidelines.

“This is what experts have said is developmentally appropriate,” Thurber said.

“I completely buy in that schools have to meet kids where they are at,” she said. ”However, within that, there is a certain anxiety among families when you have all these differing expectations.”

Karen Rattenborg, executive director of the Colorado State University Early Childhood Center and an assistant professor at the university, saw the disparity in expectations when she analyzed the survey data.

Take letters, for example. State standards say kids should recognize at least 10 letters when they start kindergarten, specifically the letters in their name. Survey results showed most parents and preschool teachers believed entering kindergarteners should recognize more than 20 letters. Kindergarten teachers opted for a lower 11-20 range.

The same dynamic held true for counting — about half of parents and preschool teachers thought kids should be able to count higher than 20 while state standards say 10 is enough.

In some cases, both preschool and kindergarten teachers placed a high value on tasks that state standards and other common benchmarks don’t mention. Both groups rated cutting with scissors as the second most important fine motor skill for entering kindergarteners, but state standards and the state’s early learning guidelines are silent about scissors.

“It’s things like that where we had these a-ha moments,” said Rattenborg.

In some cases, there was agreement. For instance, the vast majority of both preschool and kindergarten teachers said the ability to communicate needs and wants was the top communication skill kindergarteners need.

Rattenborg said the diversity of views made one thing clear.

“We realized having a common guide throughout Larimer County would be helpful for virtually everyone involved,” she said.

Diane Umbreit, a kindergarten teacher at Kruse Elementary School in Fort Collins and a member of the committee that conceived the guide, agreed.

Over the years, she’s seen plenty of confusion and anxiety among parents. Some push their kids hard to acquire new skills before kindergarten. Some want to do learning activities with their children, but aren’t sure where to start.

Others, she said, are “shocked that their child needs to know the letters in his name.”

Umbreit said of the new kindergarten guide, “Hopefully, it evens the playing field.”

Teaching teachers

How a Memphis pre-K giant is changing the way early childhood educators are taught

PHOTO: Porter-Leath
Porter-Leath's new training program places emphasis on early literacy.

Morgan Bradley thought that teaching children at her church’s Sunday school would have prepared her to work in early childhood education.

But the recent college graduate was shocked by all she learned at a recent training at Porter-Leath’s new Early Childhood Academy.

“I thought I knew how to work with little kids, but I didn’t know how much a child’s brain develops during those years before kindergarten,” said Bradley, who will be helping in a Head Start classroom through AmeriCorps. “I’m realizing now how necessary good teaching in pre-K is to getting a baby ready for kindergarten, especially when it comes to using my words to build a child’s vocabulary.”

Bradley is one of more than 500 educators who will go through Porter-Leath’s training this year in an effort to boost the quality of early education instruction in Memphis. Porter-Leath is the city’s largest provider of early childhood education and has a partnership with Shelby County Schools for Head Start and other services, including training.

The program comes as Tennessee grapples with a low literacy rate and mixed quality of early education programs. Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has emphasized the need for better early childhood education across the state for Tennessee to improve as a whole.

Porter-Leath’s trainings are held almost monthly and revolve around four tenets: socio-emotional learning; literacy; health; and STEAM, or science, technology, engineering, art and math.

The socio-emotional and literacy pieces are what make the program different from usual professional development for early educators, said Rafel Hart, vice president of teacher excellence for Porter-Leath and the training program’s leader.

“When we think about professional development in early childhood, we think about training on CPR and first aid,” he said. “That’s important, but Teacher Excellence focuses on classroom practices. How do we make our quality of instruction better?”

A Memphis organization since 1850, Porter-Leath serves about 6,000 children in its preschool program and employs 670 people. It serves students in some of Memphis’ poorest neighborhoods who may be dealing with the trauma of food or home insecurity at early ages. This makes training teachers in socioemotional learning especially crucial, said Hart.

Porter-Leath’s program draws from organizations like Acknowledge Alliance that trains teachers to help students regulate their emotions and learn self-awareness.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
AmeriCorps members who will work in Porter-Leath classrooms are among more than 500 educators to go through the training.

“I’ve been in early childhood for 25 years, and socioemotional learning is rarely used,” Hart said. “That’s a tragic mistake we’re correcting. Students can’t grow to develop strong academics if their emotional health isn’t growing first.”

All new Porter-Leath and Shelby County Schools early childhood educators will go through this training, but it’s also open to and encouraged for longtime teachers.

Kelly Thieme, a former literacy specialist and now Porter Leath instructional coach, is especially excited to see the focus on literacy.

“A lot of people don’t understand literacy starts from birth, and speaking to children makes reading and literacy easier,” she said. “We go through current research on how young children learn to read. To me, this helps us and others understand that we’re not just babysitters; it helps us professionalize our profession.”