April 7, 2016
University professors Samuel L. Odom, director of the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina, and Kenneth A. Dodge, director of the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University, discuss the findings from a recent study about Tennessee’s statewide, full-day pre-K programs, which has questioned the value of such programs. In the News & Observer op-ed, Odom and Dodge write that most research shows pre-K programs do have a positive impact, and that includes their research that finds pre-K programs in North Carolina have improved kindergarten readiness and allowed kindergarten teachers to teach at a higher level. Their research also found that pre-K has a positive outcome on special education placements and grade retention. The UNC and Duke studies are in agreement and sharply contrast the Tennessee findings.
Most states provide pre-kindergarten programs for 3- and/or 4-year-old children. The programs are often for children who might otherwise enter school behind their peers because of life circumstances such as poverty, not speaking English, or identified disability.
Evaluations of pre-K programs have found that they prepare children for success when they enter kindergarten and into later grades. A recent study, however, evaluated the impact of Tennessee’s pre-K program, called the Tennessee Voluntary Prekindergarten Program and did not find these positive outcomes. This study has been interpreted as calling into question the value of pre-K programs in general. The story in North Carolina has been quite different, but first the Tennessee story.
The Tennessee story: The TN-VPK provides full, class-day preschool program across a school year for mostly 4-year-old children who may be at-risk for doing poorly in kindergarten. These classes are taught primarily by certified teachers.
To evaluate the effects of TN-VPK, researchers from Vanderbilt University assessed progress for a group of children enrolled in TN-VPK and a group of children who did not participate in the program. The assessments (of literacy, math and social skills) happened at the beginning and end of the school year and then annually through the end of third grade.
The researchers found that the children who attended TN-VPK scored higher than the non-TN-VPK children on assessments at the end of the pre-K year and barely ahead at the end of the kindergarten year. By the end of third grade, there were few differences between the two groups, with the non-TN-VPK children actually scoring higher on two of the 10 measures collected. The researchers interpret this finding broadly, suggesting that pre-K everywhere is not achieving its goal of preparing children for school, and indeed in Tennessee that appears to be the case.