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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.

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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.

Related: New research finds “Magic 8” preschool classroom practices

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.”

We’ll explore more findings from this study and share takeaways from our interview with Dale Farran in next week’s Early Childhood newsletter. If you don’t already receive it, you can sign up here.

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.

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Letters to the Editor

16 Letters

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information.

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  1. I am a retired classroom teacher. For the past thirteen years I have been subbing in THE BRONX UPK public and private classrooms.
    I have observed many classrooms where whole group and rigid instruction were common, especially, in the poorest districts. Just the other day, I observed a teacher using a phonemic awareness program, approved by the district, WOW. Words were segmented for about 10 minutes as the entire class sat, listened and repeated the patterns. I did not observe teachers reading favorite books to small groups of children, engaging children in book talk and incorporating songs, poems and rhymes throughout the day.

  2. The key word is “quality” but there are wildly different ideas of what quality means. Are the kids given agency to make choices or is the primary goal to get kids to “listen” and follow rules? Are they given open ended play or is it just forcing academics before kindergarten? These are important questions to consider. Also, what about subconscious and unconscious bias on the part of the teachers that knew the children were poor in order to be included in the program? What a label to give young children. I’m sure that played into things.

  3. Why have we discounted the value of allowing children to be children? Many life lessons and skills are learned through play – sharing, following the rules, considering how others may feel, learning to cooperate.
    Instead of sitting 4 year olds at a table, take them to a garden and teach them about plants. Show them how to identify edible plants vs. inedible plants, how to plant and sustain a small home garden, how to compost, how to take care of the environment through conscientious plantings. Take them to a farm so that they understand food sources. Teach them to care for an animal. Students who learn to care for animals seldom become violent towards people; and having an animal dependent on you is one of the best ways to teach responsibility towards others. Take the children to museums, plays, libraries, reading groups, play groups, and restaurants.
    As a high school counselor in a poor school district, I taught many skills that society assumes everyone knows – how to shake hands properly, how to select the right fork, knife, or spoon when eating, how to dress appropriately for the occasion, how to speak in the appropriate voice – whisper vs. shout, how to be kind even when you do not like someone. And my students taught me many things – how to read the bus schedule, how to be aware that some words are received differently than intended, how to recognize distress in someone trying to hide their circumstances, how to accept without judgement, how to show them that I loved them and respected them for who they were.
    School is a long-haul proposition – let’s let the children play as long as we can! We are just harming our teachers and students by requiring all students to learn the same thing at the same rate at the same time, regardless of natural intellectual abilities or inclinations. Teach students the basics, and let the enrichment follow as desired or necessary. Calculating a budget does not require being able to find the area under the curve. And please, let’s stop trying to make legal adults, those age 17 or older, compulsorily attend secondary school – they should be done and out making their own life stories!

  4. The editor noted that some of the children who did not receive a spot in the Tennessee voluntary pre-k program we’re able to secure a spot in the Head Start Program; however, there was no mention of any assessed data for the children in the Head Start Program. If data was collected, what were the comparative results? If data was not collected from the group of participants in the Head Start Program who were not accepted by the Tennessee voluntary pre-k program, why not?

  5. I would be more concerned about the fact that most of the people that took a spot in the preschool program were low income from specific areas. With a statistically significant increase in referrals for special education, I would be concerned with what types of environmental toxins and stressors these families are suffering. Having a degree in both psychology and early childhood education, I can say that this opens a whole other door to research on what actually is happening here. What are other possible mediating factors? I do agree that the preschool should be quality but that is only one possible cause to the poor performance and nothing is ever that simple. Correlation doesn’t equal causation. Now these programs are going to have negative backlash despite the fact that they might not be the problem.

  6. The whole time that I was reading that article, I was thinking, “I wonder what the curriculum is like.” My question was answered in the last 2 paragraphs:

    “pre-K should involve more play, with teachers frequently interacting with students and encouraging them to explore their interests. 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” and “[We] have let ourselves get into the idea that what these children need is a lot more academic instruction.”

    It reinforced what I had been thinking all along. I have been in my own school districts preschool classroom and it is overly academic. It drives me crazy that there seems to be this mentality that says that play based is fine and good for those who are already developmentally on track to be ready for kindergarten, but if kids are in a position that puts them at risk of not being ready for kindergarten at age 5, we should put them in a classroom that stresses academic skills.

    I was bothered by the fact that most of the article talked about how the prek system wasn’t working and questioned whether or not we should be funding a system that isn’t producing the desired results. Instead, it should have focused, from the beginning, on saying that Tennessee needs to change the structure of prek classrooms to match what we know about about early childhood education so the system can produce the desired results.

  7. In the letter from me, Brenda Parker-Scott, the “we’re” in the text was meant to be “were”.
    Thanks for publishing my letter!
    Once upon a time, I was honored as a recipient of the Texas School Ready Certification during my tenure with a Head Start Program.
    Most appreciative of your service!

  8. Many Pre-K programs especially when housed in an elementary building are expected to follow the curriculum and behavioral expectations established by district administration. Many of those administrators have no experience working with Pre-K children. Teachers are evaluated with no consideration how best practices for Pre-K should look different. The focus is no longer on what is best for the students.

  9. These are sobering findings at a time when funding for expansion of universal PreK and birth-to-five childcare hangs in the political balance. Families, educators, and policy-makers have the right to expect that precious resources be invested in high-quality models that improve children’s lives both while they are in school and long after.

    Fortunately, there is a proven and growing early childhood approach that does exactly this: Montessori. Mistakenly seen as niche and accessible mostly to the elite, Montessori early childhood education is practiced in hundreds of publicly funded programs serving families of all incomes and is associated with a wide range of short- and long-term positive outcomes.

    A recent study out of the University of Virginia, published in the journal Frontiers in Science and highlighted in Forbes and Psychology Today, shows a strong association between as few as 2 years in Montessori education—public or private, regardless of race or socio-economic status—and adult wellbeing, including general wellbeing, engagement, social trust, and self-confidence.

    Previous studies have shown that public Montessori for early childhood reduced so-called academic “achievement gaps” across income levels, and increased academic achievement, social cognition, mastery orientation, and school enjoyment.

    The article here cites one of the original study’s authors, Dale Farran:

    “Ideally, she [Farran] said, pre-K should involve more play, with teachers frequently interacting with students and encouraging them to explore their interests. … 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.”

    As it happens, Montessori embodies the effective features of play-based programs: choice, open-ended exploration, and experimentation. It eschews whole-group instruction and rigid behavioral controls, promotes time outside, and prioritizes listening to children.

    More information about public Montessori generally and the exciting research supporting the model can be found at our website, public-montessori.org

    David Ayer
    Director of Communications
    National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector
    david.ayer@public-montessori.org

  10. I see the children faired well in Kindergarten. That being said why is preschool being blamed. Why not K and Primary school. I began teaching preschool special ed in 1975 when play was the essential learning tool. When I left it was all about ACADEMICS. Forcing preschoolers to lesrn their alphabet, their numerals, read 50 sight words and know how to read a calendar . I used to teach gradeschool 1966 -74. I taught alphabet, numerals, reading, writing etc. I also taught calendar in 3rd grade. Some countries in Europe do not begin teaching reading till age 7 when fine, gross motor and eye muscles have matured. Why do we think children who will live till age 80 must have 1st grade skills at age 4 but dont need to learn to do shape toys, puzzles,lacing, build with blocks, paint, draw, color, cut, learn to walk, run, hop, skip and jump? All these develop the spinal column which helps in academics.

  11. Supporting parents in providing nurturing and enriching experiences at home might be more effective. See the Math for Adults Foundation for a program that incorporates this.

  12. A key question, which isn’t clear in this article, is whether/ how they count children who were in the preschool and control group but failed one or more grades and were no longer in the sixth grade cohort. If these students were not counted ( I’ve seen this mistake in other studies) , it may turn the results on its head. If many more students n the control group didn’t make it to sixth grade as expected ( as has happened typically), then that is a key factor that must be addressed.

  13. I am just a mom of 4 kids in a poor area of Memphis and I have been really upset after reading about this latest research. I feel very strongly about this. I am feeling so sad for all the kids that were pushed through a system told to do this, don’t do that, don’t speak or question the people in charge. My entire life and for my kids life My main goal has and will be to raise individuals that can be honest and true to their own self. I want my kids to wonder why and how..daydream, play ,be curious about anything and everything. I truly hope that each human gets that right.. to be their own crazy fun curious little kid. Let them be 4 and play. Do not try to mold them into a box ..we are all different and free to be..just be.

  14. Children as you all know are on a real/concrete object level and playing with blocks, play people, sensory mediums and art materials, and song/music/reading, are ways to expand their thoughts, play experience and make connections with others, staff, and peers. “Play”, is a child’s most important work!! So, natural, why are we not able to foster that in our schools and homes.
    Maybe adults need the instruction on how to play!

  15. With the elimination of programs that have effectively followed the “learning through play” approach and the implementation of Universal Prek, inevitably, this trend will not be the only negative find. Districts are desperate to meet these new changes without considering developmentally appropriate practices, interaction with peers and adults, child inquiry, and, most importantly, families’ say in this process.

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