Arne Duncan wants more children to have access to taxpayer-financed early education programs.
During a stopover at Chattanooga’s Chambliss Center for Children on a three-state Southern swing, the U.S. secretary of education talked up pre-kindergarten as a key component of later student development. He said on the federal Department of Education blog that he was trekking through Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee to get a first-hand look at government-funded early-childhood-learning programs in action, and “discuss progress, promise and results.”
As in the past, Duncan praised reforms pushed by Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, who — on education at least — is among President Obama’s favorite Republican governors.
Duncan said he’d like to see Tennessee continue working to burnish its new national reputation for innovative thinking on education policy by working closely with the federal government on fresh policy initiatives — like the state did when it went all-in with the president’s Race to the Top program.
In particular, the nation’s education czar said he’s hopeful Tennessee will choose to compete for a portion of the $250 million in federal preschool-development grants the feds are holding out as an incentive to encourage states to sign more kids up for early education programs.
The application deadline is Oct. 14.
Should Tennessee submit a winning grant application, “it could mean as much as $70 million over the next four years,” said Duncan. And that could go a long way toward shortening the waiting lists kids face to get into good pre-K programs, Duncan told a town-hall-style gathering Tuesday.
“Too many children start kindergarten a year to 18 months behind,” he said.
The grants Duncan is pitching would help prepare states to participate in President Barack Obama’s proposed “Preschool for All” program, “a federal-state partnership that would promote access to full-day kindergarten and encourage the expansion of high-quality preschool programs for 4-year-olds from low- and middle-income families,” according to a U.S. Department of Education news release issued last month.
While Duncan urged those in attendance at the Chattanooga event to spread the word about the value of pre-K, he also noted that academic success for young people is never guaranteed without sustained involvement from moms and dads.
“Whether it’s early childhood centers, whether it’s elementary schools, whether it’s middle schools, whether it’s high schools, there are no successful educational schools or programs that don’t have a very serious parental engagement component,” Duncan said.
Because of the importance of parents in education, the preschool grant initiative will only invest in programs that are “very serious, very strategic, very intentional” about improving parental participation in their children’s schooling, Duncan added.
Former Democratic state senator Andy Berke, who is now mayor of Chattanooga, also spoke about the importance of starting the education process with younger children. Berke touted Chattanooga’s investment in “Baby University,” a program intended to teach new parents how to be better parents, as well as the city’s request for a “Head Start” expansion grant.
But there’s a contingent of Tennessee politicians, particularly in the Republican-dominated state General Assembly, who remain unconvinced of the merits of early education — and they can point to independent research that tends to back them them up.
“The evidence shows that pre-K does not deliver as promised, and I’d be very hesitant to take money from the federal government to start a program,” Knoxville state Rep. Bill Dunn told TNReport Wednesday.
For starters, Dunn, a member of the House Education Committee, worries that there’s never any guarantee federal dollars won’t start drying up down the road, after the state is already committed to a program and it develops constituencies that’ve come to expect its services. It’s a similar concern GOP lawmakers in Tennessee voice with respect to Washington, D.C.’s promises that it’ll be paying most of the tab for Medicaid expansion.
But beyond that, Dunn said there are clear indications pre-K isn’t the best place for the state to be targeting taxpayer resources so as to give Tennesseans the best “return on our investment.”
The state would be much better off spending money on improving the education environment and learning opportunities for older kids, like in kindergarten and first grade, said Dunn. The results are better, and with less cost, he said.
To back his claims that pre-K is proving less than effective, Dunn points to the preliminary results released about a year ago from an ongoing, long-term Vanderbilt study on how pre-K impacts student performance in later years.
Results from the Vanderbilt study released in August 2013 showed that “achievement measures observed at the end of the pre‐k year had greatly diminished by the end of the kindergarten year and the differences between participants and nonparticipants were no longer statistically significant.” Strikingly, the report also noted “a marginally significant difference” on reading comprehension “with nonparticipants showing higher scores at the end of the kindergarten year than (pre-K) participants.”
The report also noted “a significant difference that favored the nonparticipant group” on one of the study’s measures for “combined achievement in literacy, language, and math.”
In an interview with The Tennessean last year, Mark Lipsey, director of Vanderbilt’s Peabody Research Institute, which is conducting the pre-K investigation for the U.S. Department of Education, said that while “the whole story is not told yet,” there are indications from the ongoing study involving 3,000 children that “early achievement results have diminished considerably after the pre-K year, so that there is not a significant difference really between the kids who went to pre-K and the kids who didn’t.”
A multi-year study commissioned by the Tennessee Comptroller that was concluded in 2011 examined “whether there is evidence to suggest that Pre-K participation is associated with a positive effect on student performance in Grades K-5 relative to students who did not participate in pre-K.”
According to the pre-K effectiveness report summary submitted to the state comptroller, “no overall differences were found between Pre-K and non-Pre-K students in First Grade.”
The authors of that report wrote that children “who experience economic disadvantage tend to perform better than their non-Pre-K counterparts,” but also added that “this same pattern is not consistently observed for students who do not experience economic disadvantage, and the initial advantage attenuates and is largely diminished by the Second Grade.”
“Among students who do not experience economic disadvantage, the initial advantage of Pre-K is less evident, and the models suggest that they may experience slower academic growth over time,” according to the study.
Dunn said Tennessee education policymakers need to be taking note that studies appear to indicate that by some measures prekindergarten children aren’t just breaking essentially even with the non-preschool kids, “they actually scored worse.”
Gov. Haslam has indicated that he intends to keep funding the state’s preschool program at the same levels, and will consider any possible changes after the long-term study is complete, Dave Smith, Haslam’s spokesman, said in an e-mail. Those results are expected sometime in 2015.