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Vanderbilt Study May Strengthen Calls to Defund Pre-K

Critics in Legislature say research now clearly shows taxpayers shouldn’t be financing program

The General Assembly’s most vocal foe of Tennessee’s publicly funded prekindergarten initiative is hopeful the latest study calling into question the early childhood learning program’s effectiveness will spur conversations about doing away with it altogether.

State Rep. Bill Dunn, a Knoxville Republican, described the conclusions outlined in a research report released this week from Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College as “invaluable.” While discussion in the past has tended toward whether to expand the state’s $86 million or so a year pre-K program, Dunn argues that the most logical focus of debate now ought to be whether to downsize or eliminate it.

bill dunn 2015
Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville

“It is obvious we have spent a lot of money on this program, and the Vanderbilt study shows that in many cases the children who participate actually do worse,” Dunn, a member of the House Education Instruction & Programs Committee, told TNReport. “I think that in the private sector, if somebody were doing something and getting worse and worse results, they would quit doing it. I think if a private individual was spending a lot of money to get worse results, they would quit doing it.”

The Vanderbilt study — “A Randomized Control Trial of a Statewide Voluntary Prekindergarten Program on Children’s Skills and Behaviors through Third Grade” —was initiated in 2009 and funded by the U.S. Department of Education.

The study’s authors describe their “rigorous, independent evaluation of the state’s Voluntary Prekindergarten program” as a landmark analysis.

“It is the first prospective randomized control trial of a scaled up state‐funded, targeted pre‐kindergarten program that has been undertaken,” declared the executive summary of the study’s findings, released to the public on Monday.

The results left the pre-K study investigators like Peabody Research Institute Director Mark Lipsey “stunned” and asking “a lot of questions” about how such a highly touted education initiative could perform so seemingly poorly when put to statistical scrutiny.

Few lasting benefits could be identified for the lower-income children who participate in Tennessee’s more than 900 government-funded pre-K classrooms. Rather, in key assessments of performance and temperament, children who attended pre-K exhibited inferior development over time than their peers who entered kindergarten with no formal academic preparation.

The study did find that at the start of kindergarten, children who’d attended pre-K indeed rated “better prepared for kindergarten work.” They also displayed “better behaviors related to learning in the classroom” and were observed engaging in “more positive peer relations.”

But by the end of the year, kids who didn’t attended pre-K “had caught up to the (pre-K) children and there were no longer significant differences between them on any achievement measures,” researchers found.

By the time the children were in second grade, pre-K kids and the kids who didn’t attend pre-K “began to diverge.” According to the study, children who attended pre-K began “scoring lower…on most of the measures” than children who did not attend pre-K.

Similarly, the beneficial “behavioral effects” pre-K instilled in kids early on appeared to lag with passage of time — to the point that, “in the spring the first grade teachers reversed the fall kindergarten teacher ratings.”

vanderbilt pre-k study report sept 2015“First grade teachers rated (pre-K) children as less well prepared for school, having poorer work skills in the classrooms, and feeling more negative about school,” the study’s authors observed. “It is notable that these ratings preceded the downward achievement trend we found for (pre-K) children in second and third grades.”

By second and third grades both groups of children were rated by teachers as exhibiting similar “behaviors and feelings.”

“There was a marginally significant effect for positive peer relations favoring the (pre-K) children by third grade teachers,” the study determined.

During a panel discussion on pre-K in Nashville last week, one of the study’s primary researchers suggested that, in absence of any systematic analysis of student-performance data or consistent evaluation of individual programs, the promise of pre-K may have been oversold over the years.

Dale Farran, associate director of Vanderbilt University’s Peabody Research Institute

Undoubtedly, not all pre-K programs around the state, and for that matter the country, are of the same caliber, said Peabody Research Institute Senior Associate Director Dale Farran. From classroom to classroom, “teachers were doing vastly different things,” she said.

“We are pushing the benefits of pre-K without taking the time to define what we really mean and worse, to determine if what we implement has the outcomes we have promised,” said Farran. “It is time to take a step back and try and determine what it really is that we want to scale up…and then how we can take that vision and make it happen with consistency.”

Rep. Dunn agrees that taking a step back and re-evaluating the program ought to be a top priority over the coming months.

But he’s more of a mind to roll pre-K back than scale it up.

“If we are trying to get kids ready for kindergarten, then what does that really look like? If that is the goal, we should approach it in a different way,” he said. “I don’t think it takes a whole year to get ready for kindergarten. And in the past I have proposed that if we used the summer months before kindergarten for at-risk kids to get up to speed, you would probably get the same effect, at about two-thirds less of the cost.”

Dunn may have a powerful ally in Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey.

The Tennessee Senate’s presiding lawmaker has never expressed much regard for pre-K. Last year he described pre-K as “a liberal, feel-good program that’s not working.”

In an emailed statement to TNReport on Wednesday, Ramsey said the Vanderbilt study serves as confirmation that “pre-K’s effectiveness is marginal at best and all but disappears over the long term.”

“It is time to face the hard truth that, while well-intentioned, government funded pre-K is ultimately a misallocation of resources,” said the Blountville Republican. “Tennessee is one of the most-improved states in the nation in education and we must do what we can to remain so. We need to train our focus on those areas where we can affect the lives of our children and get results: K-12 and higher education.”

Dunn, too, proposes routing state taxpayer dollars that would otherwise be spent on pre-K back into K-12 education.

“I have always believed that putting great teachers in the classroom is important. Maybe we can have a conversation about teacher salaries, or something along those lines,” he told TNReport.

Jim Wrye, a spokesman and lobbyist for the Tennessee Education Association, said he’s heard talk like that from Dunn before. But even in wake of the Vanderbilt research report, Wrye doesn’t think it’s a very good suggestion.

“We would rather not take from one area in providing services to children and provide it to another,” he said. “Our position is that, overall, Tennessee education is woefully underfunded.”

Wrye added, “TEA has always been a supporter of early childhood education and believing that high-quality education with a teacher that is empowered to teach and grow the level of learning in the student is really critical to their future.”

Nevertheless, Wrye said the Vanderbilt study warrants close examination by everyone interested in education policy in Tennessee.

“Good lord, having a seven- or eight-year-old being burned out on education? We need to start asking ourselves, What are we demanding of our kids and how is it affecting the classroom and the joy of learning?” he said. “That is a really disconcerting outcome.”

Wrye suggested the study could in fact be interpreted as an indictment of high-pressure test-taking situations in early grade school.

“We think it is an incredibly bad policy idea, the idea of pushing such young children into that sort of memorization-regurgitation role,” he said. “The idea that you are going to gain meaningful data out of standardized tests for six-year-olds makes no sense to us whatsoever. So, policies that really drive high-stakes standardized testing can burn kids out, there is no doubt about it.”

Dunn’s view is that the Vanderbilt results — and results like it from previous studies, including an assessment commissioned several years ago by the Tennessee comptroller’s office — show that pushing kids into schoolroom settings too early can produce negative outcomes.

“I think what we are finding, and that people need to recognize is, maybe, just maybe, putting a bunch of four-year-olds in a classroom is not a good idea,” he said. “We have to remember that there are 19 other four-year-olds in the classroom influencing the children, too. And if they are a bad influence, that could lead to problems down the road.”

Gov. Bill Haslam, who for years has indicated he’ll rely heavily on the Vanderbilt study’s results to chart his administration’s long-rang thinking on pre-K, said earlier this week that he’s yet to fully examine the findings.

House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat from Ripley, quickly put out a statement after release of the Vanderbilt report Monday declaring his full support for continued taxpayer financing of pre-K.

“Students have better attitudes about school and are better prepared for classroom instruction when they have access to high-quality pre-K programs. Our challenge is to sustain that growth as students move to higher grade levels,” Fitzhugh said. “So the question is not does early childhood education work — it does. The question is whether Tennessee will invest in the education infrastructure necessary to support those gains long-term. That remains to be seen, but certainly is something of which I am in favor.”

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