in October, Vanderbilt University released a study on outcomes from Tennessee’s voluntary Pre-K program, which serves mainly at-risk children from low-income households. The results caused quite a stir, as they seemed to suggest that gains made in Pre-K “fade out” by the end of 1st grade.Dan Walters’ article in the Sacramento Bee offered this interpretation:
“…the efforts devoted to raising the academic achievement of low-income children went for naught. Other factors, such as poverty and familial and peer influences, prevailed.”
But is that the real truth? There is a vast evidence base which suggests otherwise – that QUALITY early education, done right, can have a transformative effect on young learners, particularly those from non-English-speaking or low-income households. But what is “quality”? How is it measured? And how does it fit into the larger education pipeline?
Some researchers divide quality of an early education program into two segments: process quality (children’s immediate experiences) and structural quality (environmental factors, like teacher : student ratios). Both aspects speak to a warm, safe environment where “serve and return” features are evident. “Serve and return” is the back-and-forth conversational exchange of sounds, words, or ideas between a young child and a caregiver. These interactions are crucial to building brain circuitry from birth forward.
Central to these aspects of quality is a large factor to be considered – the preparedness of the educator. Studies show that educators perform better when they are 1) equitably paid and 2) given opportunities for professional development – not so different than any other industry. With in-classroom support, both teacher and student will thrive.
In a recent New York Times article, the Vanderbilt study’s co-author said:
“Tennessee doesn’t have a coherent vision. Left to their own devices, each teacher is inventing pre-K on her own.”
The article goes on to cite positive student-level outcomes from Boston and New Jersey’s public preschool classrooms, where experiential learning is emphasized and early educators receive mentoring and coaching. Results from Tennessee point less to the question of whether pre-k is beneficial for young children and more to the question of how to ensure quality education throughout the educational continuum so that benefits can be sustained.