Does pre-K work?

In recent years, a number of Idaho’s policymakers have been wrapped up in the notion that preschool does not work. These claims have relied heavily on a much-cited 2015 study of Tennessee’s voluntary pre-K program by Vanderbilt University researchers.

Beth Oppenheimer

It is no secret that there are preschool opponents who love nothing more than to finally see a study that supports their concerns. But let’s keep in mind that this is just one study, and there are many others that have found quite the opposite.

The main reason the Vanderbilt University study has received so much attention is because it conflicts with years of research that shows the benefits of investing in preschool education.

For those who have only read headlines and not the actual study, there are several important items to note. First, a major takeaway from the study is that quality matters.

As Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, says, “If your program isn’t very good, you can’t expect it to have long-term impact on kids.”

When Tennessee scaled its preschool program up to more than 900 classrooms across the state, it had no mechanism for quality control. In addition, the state was attempting to create and offer programs on the cheap.

As Dale Farran, one of the report’s authors, said, “It’s like saying spinach is really good for you but we can’t afford spinach. But here, I’ve got this Easter grass. Maybe that will be just as good.”

In short: You get what you pay for. Second, while the study revealed that children who attended the state pre-K program were more kindergarten-ready than their peers who didn’t, it also found that the children who did not attend the state pre-K program eventually caught up to their peer group.

The researchers theorized that this was because kindergarten teachers couldn’t adequately build upon the educational gains of the pre-K group. Instead, they had to attend to the control group that came into school behind.

Does this sound familiar? In Idaho, half of our children are entering kindergarten significantly behind their peers. And that’s hard on our teachers. Think about the kindergarten teacher whose classroom is split between students who already have the foundational skills they need to succeed and students who may never have held a book or used a crayon.

Those students who haven’t had the benefit of high-quality early education also don’t have the social-emotional skills to engage effectively in a kindergarten classroom.

And because they’re already behind, they will often get the most attention from teachers. Simply put, if more kids entered kindergarten ready to learn, our teachers could focus on helping them all continue to thrive. To say that study author Farran doesn’t believe in investing in high-quality early childhood education is simply not true. In fact, she took it upon herself to work toward solving some of the problems she found over the course of her research.

Knowing that quality matters, she and a team of Vanderbilt University researchers spent two years developing teacher actions that make a difference in the effectiveness of a preschool program – such as increasing the time teachers spend listening to children and promoting cooperation between children.

She has worked with Nashville’s early learning teachers, principals and teacher coaches over the past few years to further the practical application of those concepts.

As Idaho policymakers continue to struggle with the notion of preschool effectiveness, I suggest we pay attention to the fact that what we are doing now doesn’t work. There is more benefit than not in providing our children and families with opportunities to succeed from the start through high-quality preschool
programs. Let’s do what we know is right and help all children start school on equal ground.

Our kindergarten teachers will thank us.

Written by Beth Oppenheimer, executive director of the Idaho Association of the Education of Young Children. 

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