Screen Shot 2015-10-08 at 10.39.40 AMIn 2009 Vanderbilt University began working with the Tennessee Department of Education to evaluate their Voluntary Pre-kindergarten program (TN-VPK). As more states begin pumping thousands of dollars into their early childhood education programs, evaluation of the effectiveness of such programs becomes absolutely essential for any legislature, who wishes to be good fiscal stewards of the people’s money, when considering the implementation, continuation or expansion of a statewide pre-school program. The findings of the 2 year study of 3,000 randomized participants, A Randomized Control Trial of a Statewide Voluntary Prekindergarten Program on Children’s Skills and Behaviors through Third Grade (September 2015, Mark W. Lipsey, Ph.D. Dale C. Farran, Ph.D. Kerry G. Hofer, Ph.D.), do not support the need for or effectiveness of a universal pre-kindergarten program. The study found virtually no long term effects for such programs and in fact saw a decline in performance as early as one year after the program.

The author’s conclude, “[I]t is not at all obvious that the rush to implement pre‐k programs widely without the necessary attention to the quality of the program provides worthwhile benefits to children living in those disadvantaged environments.”

The study looked at the following academic markers:

Letter‐Word Identification: Assesses the ability to identify and pronounce alphabet letters and read words.
Spelling: Assesses prewriting skills, such as drawing lines and tracing, writing letters, and spelling orally presented words.


Oral Comprehension: Assesses children’s ability to fill in a missing word in a spoken sentence based on semantic and syntactic cues.

Picture Vocabulary: Assesses early language and lexical knowledge by asking the child to name objects presented in pictures and point to the picture that goes with a word.

Passage Comprehension (not used in pre‐k): Assesses reading comprehension through matching picture or text representations with similar semantic properties.

Applied Problems: Assesses the ability to solve small numerical and spatial problems presented verbally with accompanying pictures of objects.
Quantitative Concepts: Assesses quantitative reasoning and math knowledge by asking the child to point to or state answers to questions on number identification, sequencing, shapes, symbols, and the like.

Calculation (not used in pre‐k): Assesses mathematical computation skills through the completion of visually‐presented numeric math problems.

WJ Composite

The scores on the above tests were summarized in two composite measures that averaged them together to create overall measures of children’s combined achievement in literacy, language, and math. One composite score combined the 6 tests given each year and the other also added the two tests given only in kindergarten and beyond.

The following behavioral assessments were also studied:

Work-related skills (The ability to work independently, listen to the teacher, remember and comply with instructions, complete tasks, function within designated time periods, and otherwise engage appropriately in classroom activities.)

Social behaviors (group activities, play, expression of feelings etc.)

Readiness for grade level work

Liking for school

Behavior problems (explosive or overactive behaviors,attention problems, physical or relational aggression, social withdrawal or anxiety,motor difficulties etc.)

Peer relations  (Whether other children in the classroom like the target child and how many close friends the target child has.)

Key Findings:

  • At the end of pre‐k, the TN‐VPK children had significantly higher achievement scores on all 6 of the subtests, with the largest effects on the two literacy outcomes.
  • By the end of kindergarten, the control children had caught up to the TN‐VPK children and there were no longer significant differences between them on any achievement measures. The same result was obtained at the end of first grade using both composite achievement measures
  • In second grade, the TN‐VPK children scored lower than the control children on most of the measures. The differences were significant on both achievement composite measures and on the math subtests. The moderating effects of ESL status and mothers’ education were no longer significant.
  • In the spring the first grade teachers reversed the fall kindergarten teacher ratings. First grade teachers rated the TN‐VPK children as less well prepared for school, having poorer work skills in the classrooms, and feeling more negative about school. It is notable that these ratings preceded the downward achievement trend we found for VPK children in second and third grades.
  • The second and third grade teachers rated the behaviors and feelings of children in the two groups as the same.
  • There was a marginally significant effect for positive peer relations favoring the TN‐VPK children by third grade teachers.

Two programs preceded this study which have been used to support the need for and effectiveness of early childhood education, the Perry Preschool program and the Chicago Child Parent Center program. The study’s authors noted that, to replicate the Perry program would cost $20,000/child in today’s dollars, far more than any state has to spend on universal pre-k. The Chicago program followed the children starting at 6 weeks, continued until kindergarten and provided full day care for 50 weeks of the year, again well beyond what most states can afford for preschool and, considering the results, of questionable benefit.

Missouri State Board of Education member Peter Herschend announced in the September board meeting that he believed the board “owed” the Missouri legislature a request for $500,000,000 for early childhood education and that such a request could be spread over 52 line items if need be.

It would be in the Board’s best interest to become familiar with the Vanderbilt study before having the audacity to request such a large sum of money for programs that show little impact beyond third grade, even for children from poor neighborhoods, whose mothers have low levels of education. In fact, they should pay special attention to the finding in the fourth bullet which warns that states may be shooting themselves in the foot with such programs, producing students who are even LESS interested in school than if we had done nothing.

Anne Gassel

Anne has been writing on MEW since 2012 and has been a citizen lobbyist on Common Core since 2013. Some day she would like to see a national Hippocratic oath for educators “I will remember that there is an art to teaching as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy and understanding are sometimes more important than policy or what the data say. My first priority is to do no harm to the children entrusted to my temporary care.”

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