More on the Vanderbilt Preschool study and its fallout

  • April 21, 2017
  • /   Shannon Nickinson
  • /   early-learning

On April 17, the Brookings Institute hosted experts in early childhood education.

So what about the Vanderbilt study?

One of the things that loomed largest in the room at the Brookings Institute’s event April 17 on the state of research about prekindergarten’s impact on children’s learning was that question.

And two of the most qualified people to answer it were on hand.

The Vanderbilt study is a project that examined the effectiveness of Tennessee’s preschool program conducted by researchers at Vanderbilt University in the fall of 2015. The five-year, $6 million study found that poor children got a boost from the state’s voluntary Pre-K program, but the boost faded out by third grade.

But readers who stopped there missed some important things, according to two folks at Brookings: Mark Lipsey, one of the Vanderbilt researchers, and Candice McQueen, Commissioner of Education in Tennessee.

“Children who come in (to kindergarten) with basic skills may find redundancy that doesn’t engage them,” Lipsey said.

“The effects at the end of the Pre-K year were positive. Had we stopped there, we would have been Pre-K heroes,” Lipsey said. “We continued to follow those children up, by the end of second and third grade there was a convergence of social emotional and academic skills. By third grade, there was regression in Pre-K kids. This is not what we were supposed to find.”

There is, Lipsey said, sparse research about the long-term results of preschool. Quality varies. How programs are scaled up — and how they are funded — varies.

“Perry and Abecedarian give us proof of concept,” Lipsey said. “There are only 13 studies of long-term effects of state and district programs and the results vary, so it’s difficult to make sense of the different outcomes and methodologies.”

Perry and Abecedarian are the gold standard of studied preschool programs. Both were intensive, full-day programs with high quality teachers that included family supports. Research does show that graduates of those programs have better outcomes in education, jobs, social skills, even in health outcomes.

When the Vanderbilt team published their study in 2015, they noted the following factors that influence why the benefits of Pre-K might “fade out.”

From the original study:

— Poverty is a strong indicator for future academic disadvantage, and there is a pressing need to find ways to boost the academic performance of children in poverty. High quality Pre-K could be a vital part of the equation, but is unlikely to be sufficient by itself at even the highest quality levels.

— Tennessee has done the hard work of creating a Pre-K infrastructure involving large numbers of classrooms statewide and has commitment from parents and school administrators. It may be wise to work on improving the quality and consistency of the programs delivered through that infrastructure, and assessing their effects, before reaching any final conclusions about the benefits of VPK for Tennessee children. 

— Pre-K is not well integrated into the K-3 instructional sequence in many schools with the result that there is not always the continuity that might allow the gains made in pre-K to be sustained and further developed. For participating children, VPK is only one part of the critical K-3 learning period and greater attention may be needed to the challenge of supporting linked, cumulative learning throughout this period.

How K-12 system responded

McQueen was relatively new to her job when the Vanderbilt study was published and publicized. She said she spent those first 15 months meeting teachers, with particular Pre-K and kindergarten teachers.

“I saw a lot of redundancy. I saw letter of the week happening the same way in kindergarten as it was happening in the Pre-K classroom down the hall,” she said.

How did McQueen and the state respond to what they learned from the study and from their own footwork?

Addressing funding, attendance. At the time, the Pre-K program in Tennessee was 10 years old. McQueen and Lipsey said their teams worked together to come up with practical solutions to the problems the study identified.

“We are low-to mid-range in terms of funding,” McQueen said. “When we looked at who was in Pre-K we saw great variance. We saw children who were eligible, but we also had students who were not.”

McQueen said the state started a competitive grant process among school districts to help ensure the kids who needed it the most got enrolled.

“We don’t have mandatory attendance policy in Pre-K and we do in K-12,” McQueen said. After doing a study of absenteeism, “guess where we had the most students absent? Pre-K and kindergarten.”

Offering strong, aligned curriculum. McQueen said the state did not have “what we considered a robust curricula choices for our districts to match to VPK standards. We hadn’t done a lot as a state to train against those standards.” They changed that and lawmakers also funded a kindergarten inventory to better target work in Pre-K.

We didn’t have that as a state,” she said.

Linking teacher training, evaluation. State standardized testing in Tennessee begins with third grade, as does then teacher evaluation in relationship to that testing.

“We had some bad behaviors among our superintendents,” McQueen said. “They made some poor decisions about who they were putting in those K-2 classrooms, because we weren’t starting teacher evaluation until third grade. We now have a different model, associated with professional development.”

McQueen says that teachers for grades K-2 submit growth portfolios on their children using the standards to select student work that reflects them. From those have come growth measures “and then we monitor the growth of the teachers from the portfolios they submit each year,” she said.

Starting in the 2017-2018 school year, every district that receives state Pre-K funding will have to use the portfolio model for Pre-K, McQueen said.

Lack of language comprehension, vocabulary skills. When it came to Pre-K instruction, McQueen says the state found that children were spending more time on print, letter and phonological awareness (alphabet knowledge, recognizing letters in print, awareness of the sounds tied to those letters). There was less time spent on “unconstrained literacy skills” (vocabulary, comprehension). “We were doing kill-and-drill and not teaching (children) how to develop higher level skills,” McQueen said.

Professional development from Pre-K to Second Grade. “We haven’t always aligned Pre-K, kindergarten, first and second grades,” McQueen said. The state wanted to look at how professional development could be aligned and make sure curriculum choices were aligned around that. Now teachers in those grades do some joint professional development, and, for example, second grade teachers may rotate into Pre-K for a year.

Deborah Phillips, psychology professor at Georgetown, was part of the panel discussion on the Vanderbilt study and what it meant to Pre-K in Tennessee.

“Not all Pre-K programs are effective,” Phillips said. “We can’t declare victory and move on. The stakes are very high. These are children and the image they form of themselves as learners early on has great impacts.”

The need for strong professional development for preschool teachers was an issue that Phillips returned to in her remarks.

“It is rocket science paying attention to these children and creating and delivering differential levels of instruction,” Phillips said. “If we don’t support and reward that workforce and they turnover, then all of that work is lost and you have to do it over again.

“The military has one of the best childhood programs in the country,” Phillips said. “They do precisely the things we are recommending. And they match wages to qualifications.”