Children who attend pre-kindergarten in Tennessee are much better prepared for school, especially in literacy and math, according to early findings by researchers at Vanderbilt University Peabody Research Institute. The results show pre-k students (typically age 4) have gains over their peers in all subject areas as well as indicators that affect future school performance such as paying attention, love of learning, and following instructions.
“From the standpoint of what we see in research these were surprisingly large effects,” said to Dr. Mark Lipsey, professor of human and organizational development and Peabody Research Institute director.
“These programs have been studied a lot…” he added, ” but actual studies that look at the effects that were attributable, that were produced by these programs and the learning trajectories are surprisingly few.”
The findings are part of a long-term study that will track the children through at least third grade to determine if the gains continue. During the first phase, which began school year 2009-10, 23 public schools agreed to participate, and researchers began collecting data in the classrooms. They also interviewed parents and kindergarten teachers who work with these students when they move up.
The study is led by Lipsey and Dr. Dale Farran, professor of education and psychology at Peabody.
“What really excited me is that all the kindergarten teachers had a series of measures to rate about these children,” says Farran. “On issues like ‘Does he like to come to school?’ which all kindergarten children do, ‘Does he get along with friends?’ they didn’t rate them any different. But in terms of being prepared for kindergarten and having the learning dispositions that make a difference long-term, they rated them higher.”
“We have many programs for which there is no evidence at all; there’s just advocates and critics on one side or the other,” Lipsey said. “So I think that an important contribution here—however it’s used—is that we have evidence, and it’s credible evidence. We actually have two parallel studies that produce very similar results with different samples, so we’re pretty convinced that we’re seeing positive results here.”
What distinguishes the findings in the Peabody study from previous research is how large the gain is for students who attend pre-k students compared to their peers. The impact is very noticeable to some parents. Tiffany Kollicker of Lebanon, Tennessee, has two sons in public school. The oldest did not have pre-k and is now second grade; the youngest is currently enrolled in pre-k at an elementary school that is participating in the Peabody study.
“He knows what a sentence is and he knows how to form it and how to come up with the sounds,“ Kollicker said. “ My other son was no where near ready for that (when entering kindergarten). The whole pre-k program itself has been a great opportunity for us. We’re really fortunate to be chosen to get to come into that.”
Currently, pre-k is voluntary in Tennessee, funded by the state at a cost of $83-million per year. (Statistics available at Tennessee Department of Education Pre-K Office).
There are not enough pre-k slots to accept all students who apply. Each of the 23 schools participating in the Vanderbilt study received more applications than they could accept and randomly selected children to admit for pre-k.
The children admitted to the program are being compared to their peers who applied for pre-k but were not admitted. In the latter group, according to Lipsey, about half the students stayed home or did not attend any program; about one in five attended private daycare, though not necessarily offering an educational program; and about one in 10 attended Head Start, the federally funded early education program for low-income families.
The researchers point out the importance of not interpreting these early findings as suggesting pre-k is a “cure” for low student achievement.
“We’ve heard this described as The Washing Machine Model. You put them in, scrub them, they come out clean, and so on,” said Lipsey. “The analogy that we think works better is sort of like a relay race. Pre-k is run the first leg and really move these kids ahead. They pass the baton to the kindergarten teachers, who run the next leg with these children. And then to the first-grade teachers and to the second-grade teachers.”
Farran echoes the point and the need to follow the study participants.
“In Tennessee, maybe the South in general, if we are in fact getting children more prepared for school, we’re going to have to do something the kindergarten and the first-grade teachers so they have the skills to build on the skills that they’re getting.”