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David Smith and Gov. Bill Haslam

NASHVILLE -- Children from low-income families benefit significantly at first from Tennessee's pre-kindergarten program, but their gains soon begin fading, according to the latest installment of Vanderbilt University's landmark, five-year study of Tennessee pre-K's effectiveness.

One of Vanderbilt Peabody College's investigators said researchers were surprised to discover that not only did students in a control group who had skipped pre-K quickly begin catching up to pre-K students within a year or two, but pre-K students themselves fell behind their peers by the end of third grade.

"We're pretty stunned looking at these data and have a lot of questions about what might be going on in the later grades," said co-chief investigator Mark Lipsey, director of the Peabody Research Institute, in a statement.

Among other things, the study raises questions about the consistency and quality of pre-K programs in Tennessee's 95 counties, researchers said. The Tennessee Voluntary Pre-K Program was introduced in 1996, expanded to 3,000 and then underwent a huge expansion in 2005 to serve 18,000 students in 935 classrooms in all 95 counties.

"Not all pre-K classrooms in Tennessee are alike," said Dale Farran, co-principal investigator at Peabody. "What might you get from the same pre-K program if you had a common vision and could push the quality up? These are among the questions we are raising in light of the findings of our study."

Vanderbilt researchers issued several caveats on the study's results. They also say pre-K has potential but is "not a panacea" for all problems facing struggling children from poor backgrounds. While challenges are big, the potential of pre-K to produce such positive impacts cited by proponents "cannot be entirely dismissed on the basis of this study," they say.

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Republican Gov. Bill Haslam told reporters earlier Monday he had just started looking at the study's latest installment. While noting he needs to "dig deeper" into the study, the governor said, "My sense is that quality pre-K with good followup can have an impact.

"But," Haslam added, "we have to balance that against all the other things that we could spend money on. [Pre-K] versus paying existing K-12 teachers more, investing in more technology. And you do that based on the results of whatever that investment is.

"It's been no secret," Haslam added. "I've said K-12 is an area that I would like for us to put more dollars into. We have to do that within context of the budget and in the context of where it will get the best results."

Vanderbilt's previous work has already given fodder to conservative state lawmakers who long have been opposed to public pre-kindergarten programs. The latest installment will likely increase the political pressure which has already stalled efforts to expand pre-K in Tennessee.

Lipsey noted that some pre-K classrooms produced "notably stronger outcomes for children. One question we have is whether those classrooms can provide models that teachers across the state can emulate to help improve the benefits for the participating children."

The study is billed as a first-of-its-kind randomized control trial of a scaled-up, state-funded pre-K program. It compares students whose parents applied to get their children into the program. Those who got in were compared with those who didn't. Pre-K students did better in kindergarten but results evened out by the end of first and second grade. Then the pre-K students fell behind.

Tennessee's $85 million-plus program targets the ever-growing population of "at-risk" preschoolers. Vanderbilt researchers said that high-quality pre-K could be a "vital part of the equation," but they note it is "unlikely to be sufficient by itself at even the highest-quality levels."

Researchers raise the issue that grade K-3 programs may in effect be dropping the ball because they're apparently not integrating pre-K gains very well into those grades.

"Pre-K is a good start, but without a more coherent vision and consistent implementation of that vision, we cannot realistically expect dramatic effects," said Farran. "Too much has been promised from one year of preschool intervention without the attention needed to the quality of experiences children have and what happens to them in K-12. There is much work to be done."

House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, a pre-K supporter, said in a statement that 120 other studies over four decades have shown "early childhood education works.

"Students have better attitudes about school and are better prepared for classroom instruction when they have access to high-quality pre-k programs. Our challenge is to sustain that growth as students move to higher grade levels. So the question is not does early childhood education work — it does. The question is whether Tennessee will invest in the education infrastructure necessary to support those gains long-term."

Andy Sher may be reached at 615-250-0550 or asher@timesfree press.com.

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