According to a recently released study by Vanderbilt University, children from low-income families greatly benefit from the pre-kindergarten program in the state of Tennessee, but that the gains quickly fade — and long-term results may be even worse.
The five-year study, which cost $6 million, looked into the effectiveness of Tennessee's Voluntary Pre-K Program for low-income children. In the end, researchers found that the children who participated in the program eventually perform worse academically than their peers who did not attend the program.
The results come as the debate continues across the state whether the $85 million program should be cut back or eliminated altogether.
"If kids are doing worse, then why in the heck are they going to spend millions of dollars on it?" said Rep. Bill Dunn, a state representative from Knoxville who has argued for years against state-funded pre-K. "Anybody who really studied the issue would have seen that the emperor had no clothes."
As a joint effort between Vanderbilt's Peabody College of Education and Human Development and the Tennessee Department of Education, the study found that children who participated in the program for low-income families initially made gains over the students who did not attend, and were more prepared when they entered kindergarten. However, those children who did not participate caught up by the end of the kindergarten year.
By second grade, the results found among the two groups of children were evened out, and by third grade, the group of students who had not attended the pre-kindergarten program were outperforming those who had.
Previous research on the topic, including a study released from the state Comptroller's office, found a "negligible" difference between children who attended the program and those who did not by the time they reached the third grade. In addition, these studies suggested the program came with a number of benefits, including higher graduation rates, and a greater likelihood of owning a home by the time they reach their mid-twenties.
"These programs are necessary, and if they're not doing what we need them to do, we need to fix them. But we certainly need to keep them and we do need to expand them," said Lisa Wiltshire, executive director of the Tennessee Department of Education's Office of Early Learning at a panel discussion with Vanderbilt University researchers and early education experts last week.
Governor Bill Haslam has been waiting for the results of the current study to be released before announcing any decisions concerning what to do with the program. He recently told reporters that he took the report to mean that "quality pre-K with good follow-up can have an impact." However, he needs to weigh the research against the money spent on the program.
"I would like for us to put more dollars into [K-12]. We have to do that in context of the budget and in the context of where we'll get the best results," Haslam said.