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Follow-Up to Tennessee Pre-K Study Raises Questions About Program's Effects

Last year, researchers at Vanderbilt University put a damper on the generally effervescent early-childhood field.

They released a study showing that not only did the children who attended Tennessee's state-funded prekindergarten program lose their early gains, but by 3rd grade they were performing worse on some academic and behavioral measures than those who did not enroll in state pre-K. 

At an early-childhood panel discussion Thursday held at the Brookings Institution, co-principal investigator Dale C. Farran offered an early look at more results that, although preliminary, are still sobering: On measures such as state test scores, attendance, behavioral infractions and grade retention, preliminary results show that children who attended the Tennessee pre-K program were performing the same as, or worse than, children who had not enrolled in the program. For example:

  • At the end of 3rd grade, reading scores between the two groups were about the same, but math and science scores for children who didn't attend Tennessee's pre-K were slightly higher by a statistically significant amount compared to children who did. 
  • By 2nd grade, there was a cumulative retention rate of 12 percent for kids who had attended state pre-K, compared to 10 percent of children who did not attend state pre-K.
  • By the end of 3rd grade, 20 percent of the children who attended state pre-K had been in special education, compared to 13 percent of children who had not. This can't be characterized as good or bad, Farran noted: The difference may indicate that children in state pre-K were receiving effective early-intervention services sooner than their peers. 
  • About 8 percent of children enrolled in Tennessee's pre-K program had a major or minor disciplinary offense by 3rd grade. That compares to 6.2 percent for children who were not in the state program. 

"I will argue to you forcefully we should not have any more expansion funding without adequate funding of an independent, rigorously supervised analysis of state data," said Farran, who also called for a closer look at other publicly-funded early-childhood programs. "We must not be wedded to a solution and forget the problem we were working on." 

The entire two-hour panel is linked below, but I have set the recording to play at the beginning of Farran's remarks.

What the Tennessee Findings Mean for Early Education

Early-ed proponents have said that the earlier report on Tennessee's program suggests that this is an unusually poor state-run prekindergarten, which Farran disputes. But not everyone at the panel shared Farran's pessimism. During the two-hour presentation, panelists talked about other studies that have shown positive effects of prekindergarten, as well as research that shows an economic upside to investing in early education. 

William T. Gormley, who has shown through his research the positive results of state pre-K in Tulsa, Okla., said the findings should be taken seriously, but that studies of public pre-K in other states shows that it has benefitted children. 

"I don't think that we should wait for a premature consensus on those definitional questions before taking advantage of what we do know, which is that high-quality pre-K actually works," Gormley said.

The Brookings Institution and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University have explored these issues and more in the latest issue of the journal The Future of Children.


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