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Government, educators can work together

By Camilla Benbow

(Originally printed in The Tennessean on August 8, 2013)

Education for 3- and 4-year-olds remains a source of contention in the U.S., including here in Tennessee where policymakers have been closely watching a Vanderbilt study of the state’s voluntary pre-K program. The program serves more than 18,000 4-year-olds across the state.

Last week, the Peabody Research Institute, which is leading the study, published its most recent findings. Both those who support expanded preschool opportunities for at-risk children and those opposed to such efforts will find ammunition for their arguments.

Briefly, the researchers found that the academic gains they observed when voluntary pre-K participants entered kindergarten were largely diminished by the end of first grade. (Achievement was measured using Woodcock Johnson III scales, a widely accepted tool for assessing performance in literacy, language and math.) On the other hand, students who participated in voluntary pre-K were less likely to be held back at the end of kindergarten and had somewhat lower absenteeism in first grade. These findings are in keeping with other studies of preschool programs that also have observed a leveling of academic effects over time in the early elementary years.

Findings aside, the Tennessee Voluntary Pre-K Effectiveness Evaluation offers a wonderful example of how state government and higher education can partner to address important social issues. In this sense, it is not unlike the state’s landmark Project STAR of the 1980s, another partnership between the state and Tennessee universities, which continues to influence education policy nationwide through its findings on the benefits of smaller class sizes in the early grades. Led by professors Mark Lipsey and Dale Farran, the current Vanderbilt study — like Project STAR — has been praised for the high quality of its research design and implementation.

Farran emphasizes that the effort would not have been possible without the cooperation of the state, which facilitated carrying out the study on a statewide scale. The research includes more than 3,000 children in settings across Tennessee, with an intensive study of a sub-group of more than 1,000. This makes the Tennessee Pre-K Effectiveness Evaluation the largest preschool study conducted to date.

The Peabody researchers will continue to measure academic and behavioral indicators through third grade, comparing those who participated in voluntary pre-K with similar students who did not. A second aspect of the study involves conducting direct observations and interviews in 160 classrooms throughout Tennessee, results of which will have additional implications for state policy. My colleagues also are readying a proposal to follow these students even further out, from fourth through eighth grade.

Given the latest findings, researchers and observers are left with a number of questions: How can we keep achievement gains from diminishing? What would this mean for the organization of classrooms and schools? Are the non-academic benefits other studies have shown sufficient reason to invest in preschool? It seems achievement can be boosted but it’s not clear it can be kept up without heroic measures.

As Tennessee considers future directions in the education of its youngest learners, policymakers and advocates alike will benefit from sound research methods and credible results. Given the importance of the issue, it is critical to get the facts.

Camilla P. Benbow is Patricia and Rodes Hart Dean of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. Her column on education appears every other Thursday in The Tennessean Local section.