- Children attending Tennessee’s state-funded Voluntary Pre-K (VPK) program were more likely than those who didn’t attend the program to be receiving special education services and to get in trouble in school by 3rd grade, according to the latest results of an ongoing study by researchers at Vanderbilt University.
- The findings also show no differences in attendance rates between students who enrolled in the pre-K program and those who didn’t, and that pre-K students were no more likely to be retained by 3rd grade.
- The findings, the researchers write, reinforce the importance of strengthening the full pre-K-to-3rd-grade span. “One possible explanation for why the gains children made in VPK did not continue to advantage them afterwards is failure of kindergarten and later teachers to build on the skills those children bring from their pre-k experience,” they write. "It is doubtful that anything done in pre-k can have sustained effects if the gains made there are not supported and extended in the schooling that follows."
Tennessee’s VPK program began in 2005 under Gov. Phil Bredesen, and by 2012, almost every school district in the state was offering almost one full-day VPK classroom, according to NIEER’s annual pre-K “yearbook.” The program gives preference in enrollment to children from low-income homes and those who are homeless or in foster care.
Until NIEER revised its list of quality benchmarks in 2016, VPK was meeting nine out of 10 of the standards, including requiring teachers to have a bachelor’s degree and having early learning standards. But the program only meets five of the updated benchmarks, such as individual coaching for teachers and program improvement plans. NIEER’s profile of VPK notes that Vanderbilt researchers found that “the quality of pre-K programs across the state is inconsistent, and in some cases below expectations.”
W. Steven Barnett, the senior co-director of NIEER, notes that earlier quasi-experimental studies showed the higher rates of special education placement for VPK students as well as the fade out of positive effects in the primary grades — a finding that is certainly not unique to Tennessee’s program. He added that the study should not be used to make general statements about publicly funded preschool. “There is no basis for generalizing from Tennessee to other state pre-K programs for which nonexperimental research finds lasting positive effects,” he said in an email. Researchers following Oklahoma’s program, for example, are finding ongoing benefits through middle school, including higher math scores and enrollment in honors classes.
The researchers suggest that the higher rates of special education could indicate that when a child is identified for services in pre-K, that label stays with the child into the primary grades. “Once a child has received a special education designation, it is difficult to lose it,” they write.
Most of the services being provided were for speech and language issues, which varies significantly in 4-year-olds anyway, they add. Barnett added that the results suggest that the K-12 system treats children who attended pre-K differently, but he added that Tennessee should also identify districts in which positive gains continue and learn what they’re doing right.