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Want Preschool Benefits to Persist? Give Kids High-Rated Elementary Teachers

tennessee_preschool_reading.jpgAdvocates for early-childhood education have had to contend with the fact that many studies (such as of Head Start and of the Tennessee Voluntary Pre-K program) have shown that the cognitive benefits of preschool appear to fade out by the time the children reach 3rd grade. 

But those advocates argue that you can't just stop at preschool: The type of education that a child receives when he or she enters kindergarten matters, too. 

Now, some new research out of Tennessee backs up that contention, at least when it comes to 1st grade students. 

In the paper "Early Grade Teacher Effectiveness and Pre-K Effect Persistence," published late last year in the online journal AERA Open, researchers returned to the rich set of information that was gathered on students who attended the Tennessee preschool program—the same data set used to find fade-out effects for participants by 3rd grade. In this study, the researchers found that students who had attended a state-funded preschool and subsequently had a highly rated 1st grade teacher performed better than children who had a highly rated teacher, but did not attend a state-supported preschool. 

The state's five-point teacher rating system started in 2011-12, and some of the Tennessee children who were part of the research study were already in 1st grade by that point. For that reason, the paper looks primarily at 1st grade teacher effects. Kindergarten teacher ratings were not correlated with the persistence of pre-K benefits, but interestingly, nearly 90 percent of the kindergarten teachers that were part of this evaluation had top ratings of 4 or 5. 

Two possibilities may be driving these results, said Walker Swain, an advanced doctoral student at Vanderbilt University's Peabody College of Education and Human Development and the lead author on the study: One is that the highly rated teachers may be presenting more-advanced concepts to their young pupils. The children who participated in preschool may be able to master those concepts more quickly than children who didn't have that early boost. It also could be the case that the Tennessee preschool is preparing students, particularly those who come from a non-English speaking family or those who had early cognitive deficits, to benefit more from highly rated teachers. The correlation between attending preschool and better performance with a highly rated 1st grade teacher was particularly strong for those students. 

But moving highly rated teachers to kindergarten and 1st grade faces a policy barrier: Those early grades do not face state tests for accountability purposes, so from a principal's point of view, it makes more sense to put the best teachers in the most consequential grades.

The researchers plan to follow these children to see if these early results last or fade away. In light of these findings, Swain said that policymakers should start thinking about creating high-quality programs from preschool and through elementary school, in order to maximize the investment in early-childhoold education.

"I do think there's something to be said for thinking, 'how do we create some continuity here?'" he said. 

File photo: Preschoolers at Glenn School in Nashville, Tenn., practice reading in 2009.—Josh Anderson for Education Week


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