In the state of Tennessee, some children come to the pre-K classroom never having had a book read to them, never having seen their name in print, and never having had the opportunity to work cooperatively with others.
These children are at a great disadvantage when they enter kindergarten. They begin school behind and never seem to catch up. Throughout their elementary school years, they fall farther and farther behind in reading, writing and social skills. They are more likely to drop out of school after finding the educational process too difficult for them.
Children like these, who are “at risk” for academic failure, should have the opportunity to attend quality early childhood programs that will help prepare them for school and life.
Tennessee’s quality pre-K programs can make a difference for young children now and in the future. Tennessee’s program has included the elements that research has shown positively impacts quality: Their teachers are trained in early childhood education, there are identified standards for learning and a developmentally appropriate curriculum. Currently, 45 states have recognized the importance of pre-K and are providing these enriched experiences for young children.
In addition to short-term gains seen in pre-K programs, such as those identified by a recent Vanderbilt University study, long-term benefits also have been well documented. Longitudinal research studies, lasting for more than 50 years, have concluded that significantly fewer children who attended are retained in elementary grades, fewer are referred for special education services, and there is improved academic achievement. The long-term studies followed-up with adults, now over age 40, and found they are less likely to be involved in crime, more likely to be working, and less likely to require public assistance.
Analysis of economic costs and benefits of early childhood programs for low-income children have demonstrated long-term benefits to families as well as savings in public expenditures for grade retention, special education, welfare assistance and criminal justice.
The benefits of pre-K for the children of Tennessee, their families, and our community can be seen in both short-term and long-term gains. By accepting the $64.5 million in funding from the “Preschool for All” initiative, with the investment from Tennessee of only $6.4 million, the number of young children able to attend quality pre-K programs will double. This would make it possible for as many as 35,000 young children and their families to receive these educational benefits. Attending a quality pre-K program can provide a positive beginning for all these young children that will last a lifetime.
Dr. Rebecca Isbell is professor emerita of early childhood education at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Tenn.