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Good News on Pre-k in the Volunteer State

New research out of Tennessee documents the positive impacts of that state's voluntary pre-k program. Because more families want to participate in Tennessee's pre-k program than are able to be served in many districts, researchers were able to compare a sample of children who were randomly selected to participate in pre-k to a control group of those who were not. They found that children who participated in pre-k improved their vocabulary and comprehension skills over 100% more than children who did not participate. While gains from pre-k were greatest in early literacy, pre-k students also made greater gains in early math skills over the course of the year than did their non-pre-k peers. The researchers also compared a larger sample of children using a regression discontinuity design, and again found benefits to participating in pre-k programs. Researchers will continue collecting data over the next four years, which will help policymakers and the public learn whether or not these gains are sustained as children move into the public education system.

This research is important for several reasons: First, Tennessee has significantly expanded its pre-k enrollment over the past 5 years, and currently serves more than 20% of the state's youngsters in pre-k. It's important to know that this investment appears to be producing results, and that the rapid rate of growth of the program does not seem to have undermined quality or outcomes.

More broadly, this study adds to the body of research evidence showing that state pre-k programs can work to produce learning gains for participating students. A decade ago, most arguments for quality pre-k were based on a few studies--High Scope Perry Preschool and Abecedarian--that produced strong results for children but with very small sample sizes and in "boutique" settings that may not be scalable. This provided ammunition for pre-k skeptics. But today we now have research from several states--including Oklahoma, New Jersey, New Mexico, and now Tennessee--showing that large scale state-funded pre-k programs in these states are producing positive (and in the case of New Jersey, sustained) learning gains for children. We also know, from studies such as SWEEP and Multi-state that quality and outcomes in state pre-k programs are mixed--not all state pre-k is producing good results. But studies such as this one from Tennessee show us that it can be done--and is being done.

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