The recently released results of a study of Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K program conducted by researchers at Vanderbilt has some Tennessee policymakers suggesting the state back off support for or expansion of the early education program.
The results of this study are similar to those of a study on Pre-K commissioned by the Comptroller’s office.
And here’s the secret: Both studies come to the same conclusion — Pre-K works.
That is, the state’s voluntary Pre-K program sends students to Kindergarten better prepared. And the effects of the program last through first grade. That’s right, one year of intervention yields two years of results as demonstrated by two different Tennessee-specific, longitudinal studies.
Here’s another secret: There are no silver bullets in education. Pre-K is one specific, targeted intervention. But Pre-K alone can’t solve the challenges faced by Tennessee’s low income students.
In fact, Jim Shelton in Education Week notes:
Second, there is no single moment or intervention in the life of a child that guarantees success. But research has identified several milestones on the path to adulthood that especially determine success at later stages. This is where evidence-based programs can have the greatest impact.
We know that a healthy and secure start in life is critical to the development of social and cognitive skills and other indicators of well-being. Entering school ready to learn is another vital marker. Parental education and access to high-quality preschool have been shown to improve a range of life outcomes, from earnings to crime. And kids who aren’t reading proficiently by 3rd grade are four times less likely to graduate from high school by age 19. Kids living in poor neighborhoods and not reading proficiently by 3rd grade are around nine times less likely to graduate on time.
Entering school ready to learn is one vital marker on the path toward closing achievement gaps and giving children from low income families a shot at succeeding in school and life. But it’s just ONE of the several ingredients in a system that would actually put kids first and move the needle on educational attainment.
Mark Lipsy, one of the researchers in the Vanderbilt study, says:
This study was meant to monitor the effectiveness of Tennessee’s voluntary pre-K program. But co-investigator Mark Lipsy says it really raises questions about early elementary grades.
“The biggest mystery here is what in the world is going on as these kids hit kindergarten, first, second, third grade, that is not building on what they seem to have come out of pre-K with?”
Raj Chetty, in a study of early grades education in Tennessee, offers some suggestions:
Chetty specifically points to improved teacher training, early career mentoring, and reducing class sizes as policies that could work to improve the overall quality of early (K-3) classrooms.
That is, it’s not enough to simply provide an intervention that sends kids to Kindergarten ready to learn and that has positive benefits through first grade, our state must also invest in the supports and resources necessary to allow early grade learning to build on the foundation established by Pre-K.
We know what works for our students. We know how to close the achievement gap. We know that quality Pre-K is one piece of the puzzle. And we know that two different longitudinal studies have shown that Tennessee’s Pre-K program is effective. The question is: Will we invest in expanding Pre-K and also providing the resources necessary to make not only the early grades, but all of school an environment where all children can thrive?
Are Tennessee policymakers looking for the elusive silver bullet, or do they really want to find comprehensive policy solutions that help break barriers and close achievement gaps? More importantly, are Tennessee policymakers willing to invest in educational excellence from Pre-K through college in ways that are proven to have the most significant impact?
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