By Marta W. Aldrich
On the heels of a major five-year study questioning the long-term effectiveness of Tennessee’s publicly funded pre-kindergarten program, a new regional report calls on states to raise the quality of such programs and make early childhood development a priority.
The report, released Tuesday by the Southern Regional Education Board, said investments during a child’s critical first years can increase the likelihood of high school graduation, college attainment and workforce readiness.
“Economically, it’s a no-brainer,” said Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, who chaired the Early Childhood Commission that developed the report with national experts during a two-year project.
The commission’s work offers a counterpoint to a landmark study released in September by Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education, which upends conventional wisdom about the power of preschool. Vanderbilt researchers found that at-risk students who participated in Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K program showed significant gains initially, but by third grade performed worse than non-participants on both academic and behavior measures.
While the Vanderbilt data and a 2011 state comptroller’s report have some Tennessee lawmakers questioning the wisdom of more pre-K investments, state Rep. Mark White of Memphis said Monday that the bigger takeaway is that Tennessee must improve the quality of its early childhood programs.
“We don’t need to throw out the baby with the bathwater,” said White, one of three Tennessee lawmakers who served on the SREB commission. “Pre-K, done well and done appropriately, does help, especially in urban areas like Memphis where children face a lot of challenges.”
The commission recommends that its 16 member states boost the quality of both pre-K programs and teacher training — and align curricula from pre-K through third grade so that children’s learning builds over time.
Those are key messages for Tennessee leaders mulling over the Vanderbilt study, says Joan Lord, vice president of education data, policy research and programs for SREB.
“There’s a whole body of research that tells us that gains don’t fade away if you have a high-quality program that’s well-aligned from pre-K through the third grade,” Lord said on the eve of the report’s release.
She said pre-K teachers also must be trained to provide the kind of small-group interaction that can develop high-cognitive functioning in children.
“This is not a babysitting enterprise. It’s not child care,” Lord said. “It’s an educational enterprise. We need to understand what a high-functioning pre-K looks like.”
White, who represented Tennessee on the commission along with Rep. Harry Brooks (R-Knoxville) and Sen. Delores Gresham (R-Somerville), said the state should “slow down and examine the quality of our programs and level of teacher training.”
“A year ago, we looked at putting more money into pre-K but put everything on hold because we knew the Vanderbilt study was coming out. Now I think it’s time to move forward, but let’s not throw away the good just because it’s not perfect,” White said.
“In urban areas like Memphis, we have many children coming out of toxic environments and they need a jumpstart to be ready for kindergarten,” White said. “I have principals and teachers tell me that if it wasn’t for pre-K, these kids wouldn’t be ready. They are so far behind.”
Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K program, which was started in 2005 and cost about $86 million in 2013-14, serves about 18,000 children.