Children who attended Tennessee’s state-funded voluntary pre-K program during the 2009-10 and 2010-11 school years were doing worse than their peers by the end of sixth grade in academic achievement, discipline issues and special education referrals. The trend emerged by the end of third grade and was even more pronounced three years later.
These are the latest findings of a multi-year study that followed 2,990 children in Tennessee schools to look at the long-term impact of the state’s public pre-K program. The results, which were released earlier this month, could bring more scrutiny to public pre-Kindergarten programs and raise the question of whether they adequately set low-income children up for success.
“At least for poor children, it turns out that something is not better than nothing,” said Dale Farran, a professor in Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College, director of its Peabody Research Institute and one of the authors of the study. “The kinds of pre-K that our poor children are going into are not good for them long term.”
The latest study is part of a series of reports by Farran and fellow researchers at Vanderbilt University about Tennessee’s voluntary pre-K program. The team’s past findings surprised early childhood experts and advocates who herald high-quality pre-K as a necessity to help prepare children, especially those from low-income families, for kindergarten.
The first part of the study of Tennessee’s program was released by the Vanderbilt University researchers in 2015. The results, said Farran, were “alarming”: The positive effects of the state-funded pre-K program faded out by the end of kindergarten and turned “slightly negative” by the end of third grade.
Get important early childhood education news and analysis delivered straight to your inbox
In the most recent study, the researchers found that children who did not attend the program fared better down the road academically and behaviorally. They compared two cohorts of low-income children, including one group that had been selected to receive a spot, at random, from applicants for the state program and one group of children whose parents applied for a spot but did not receive one. Some of the children who did not receive a spot in the program attended Head Start, center-based child care or had home-based care.
By the end of sixth grade, the children in the study who had been randomly selected to attend the pre-K program were more likely to be referred to special education services than their peers who had not secured a spot. Students who attended state pre-K were more likely to have discipline issues than students who did not attend the program. The graduates of the state program also performed worse on state academic tests.
Previous research suggests that the quality of the teachers and elementary school that children attend after pre-K may boost or undermine long-term effects of pre-K. But pre-K graduates and students in the control group of this study experienced schools and teachers of similar quality, Farran said, which suggests school quality cannot explain the negative effects.
The latest findings “should be much more alarming” than previous studies on this cohort of children, Farran said, because the negative effects became much more pronounced as children aged. “We’re choosing to enact [pre-K] as a policy and if it’s not working, we need to think about, well, what do we need to do for poor families to support them and their children so they do better in school?”
Related: Preschool education: Go big or go home?
The quality of the state’s pre-K program could be partly responsible for the negative results. Although Tennessee meets 9 out of 10 quality benchmarks set by the National Institute of Early Education Research, Steven Barnett, director of the institute, has previously said those standards are minimum guidelines; in practice, all classrooms may not be meeting those standards. A 2014 study, for which Farran was a principal investigator, found that when classrooms across the state were evaluated using a widely accepted research tool, there was “great variation” in their quality scores. The vast majority, 85 percent of the classrooms studied, scored below the level of “good” quality.
In a 2015 article in The New York Times, Farran suggested Tennessee’s program lacks a “coherent vision” for pre-K, and leaves its teachers to “their own devices” to invent pre-K on their own, factors that may have contributed to the problems researchers discovered. The state has since taken measures to improve the quality of its program.
By the end of sixth grade, the children in the study who had been randomly selected to attend the state’s pre-K program were more likely to be referred to special education services than their peers who had not secured a spot in the program
During the 2020-21 school year, 44 states, the District of Columbia and Guam funded public pre-K programs. But most spend too little per child to support a high-quality, full-day pre-K program, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research.
READ the update
The recent Vanderbilt University findings add to the conflict in early education research over the benefit of state-funded pre-K. Many studies find that providing early learning opportunities for 4-year-olds has positive, long-term effects. Research that tracks children over longer periods of time has linked high-quality pre-K to better employment, education and health outcomes as adults, although some of the programs studied had unique aspects, like offering home visits and social services. But other studies have found pre-K to have miniscule or disappointing results on children’s outcomes.
Farran said much more research into state pre-K programs is needed. She urged other researchers to control for family characteristics, as she and her colleagues did. Other studies that look at long-term pre-K effects may simply compare children who go to pre-K with children who do not, Farran said, without looking at the effects of knowledgeable or motivated parents who are seeking out pre-K programs.
That parental factor could impact student achievement and outcomes.
“We would argue that parent motivation is a critical factor to look at in terms of trying to evaluate how effective your pre-K program is,” Farran said. “In our study, all the parents were similarly motivated because they all applied [for a pre-K spot].”
“The kinds of pre-K that our poor children are going into are not good for them long term.”Dale Farran, Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College
Despite the disappointing findings in Tennessee, Farran said there are some positive aspects of the state’s program, especially when it comes to supporting teachers. The program pays pre-K teachers the same rate as K-12 teachers and provides benefits like health insurance and a retirement plan, rarities for early education teachers outside the public school system.
However, the negative outcomes in Tennessee’s voluntary pre-K program suggest a need to rethink pre-K, Farran said. The lackluster results may be related to the way America approaches pre-K and educating young children.
Ideally, she said, pre-K should involve more play, with teachers frequently interacting with students and encouraging them to explore their interests. Based on years of observation and visits to classrooms, however, she worries that pre-K involves too much whole-group instruction, rigid behavioral controls, not enough time spent outside and too much time in which teachers are speaking, instead of listening to children.
“[We] have let ourselves get into the idea that what these children need is a lot more academic instruction.” Farran said. “And I would say, no, it’s just the opposite. What you would like to give poor children is a feeling of being cared for and being successful.”
Ariel Gilreath contributed reporting to this story.
This story about Tennessee’s voluntary pre-K program was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.