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We must invest in pre-K options

By Camilla Benbow

(Originally printed in The Tennessean on October 24, 2013)

I saw some interesting news bites coming out of the recent partial federal government shutdown. Among them were the decisions by several state governments, including Tennessee’s, to assume the costs of reopening closed national parks. Fall tourism and associated revenues in the Great Smoky Mountains were deemed an opportunity too important to lose out on.

Another item was the commitment of $10 million by a Houston couple, John and Laura Arnold, to fund Head Start programs in several states where programs had been forced to close suddenly, leaving thousands of disadvantaged students without preschool services. (Full disclosure: John Arnold is a member of the Vanderbilt Board of Trust.)

When certain functions are deemed important enough, some people are not as concerned about who shoulders the cost as they are concerned that things just get done.

I thought about that again on Monday, when I read that Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools is considering adding slots for preschool next year, even though the state has been reluctant to expand funding.

Schools Director Jesse Register is weighing the addition of 1,300 spaces to the approximately 2,500 spaces now available to low-income families. The additional hit to the MNPS budget would be about $6 million.

Expanding pre-K access in Nashville makes sense given findings just out from Stanford University that the vocabulary gap between children from affluent families and children from low-income families appears even earlier than educators thought. The gap is clearly identifiable by as early as 18 months into a child’s life. Quality pre-K, featuring vocabulary-rich conversations between teachers and children, is the best solution we have to make up this deficit.

As The New York Times mentioned in its coverage of the new research, Peabody’s David Dickinson has confirmed the predictive power of early vocabulary for later reading comprehension. Children who start out behind stay behind.

And preschool is about more than academics. It also is about fostering the behaviors that enable children to succeed. My colleagues at Peabody studying Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K Program have noted that participants learn how to regulate their behaviors, pay attention and stay on task. These skills will be rewarded as teachers and classes ask more of students in later grades.

In fact, several long-range studies have shown that children who attend a quality preschool are more likely to finish high school, attend college, earn higher pay and avoid problems such as incarceration.

Nashville is not alone in considering funding its own expanded pre-K. Seattle, Boston, Miami and San Antonio are also cited in a recent article in Education Week about San Francisco’s Preschool for All program, now in its ninth year. Along with gains in math and letter-word recognition, children in San Francisco showed improvements in self-regulation similar to those we are seeing in Tennessee.

A solid foundation of words and the social skills associated with self-regulation are so critical to long-term learning and life success. It is hard to overvalue an investment in quality pre-K education.

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.