The Critical Need to Sustain Pre-K Gains by Closing the Educational Chasm

A diverse group of preschoolers in a classroom
A diverse group of preschoolers in a classroom

Over the past month or so, the ongoing debate about the efficacy of pre-K programming for children from low income backgrounds reared its ugly head again. The debate was precipitated by a new research study from Tennessee which showed that although youth in a statewide subsidized program had shown substantial progress while in pre-K those gains were not sustained.

An earlier study in Tennessee showed that the gains had actually disappeared by the end of kindergarten. This follow-up study tracking the same kids to the third grade revealed that there was no evidence of any cognitive benefit from the pre-K intervention.

This led some researchers to question whether pre-K makes a difference and others to question the Tennessee research and the quality of education there. We'll take a brief look at the Tennessee findings and the discussion surrounding them later in this blog.

At the outset, however, there are two much more important points to be made. First, based upon all of the research that we have seen, pre-K absolutely makes a difference in a child's performance at the point in time it takes place. Second, the real question that needs to be answered is not whether that difference endures over time but what can be done to sustain and enhance the gains made in pre-K.

To repeat, the evidence shows unequivocally that pre-K gives children from poor families an "early advantage". The critical question for our time must be how to make that advantage sustainable.

The reason that is the critical question is because the "education gap" between the rich in the poor in the United States of America is no longer a gap - it is a chasm. Stanford Professor Sean Reardon asserts that "achievements gaps are wider than ever before and states that the proficiency gap today between the "poor and the rich" is nearly twice as large as that between black and white children. As Eduardo Porter reports in a recent column, this is "a disparity that starts in pre-K, and just gets worse."

Education has always been the key to promoting economic progress and social mobility in this country. It reduces inequality. If the education lever no longer works, the promise of the American dream becomes a hollow one.

Solid recommendations are being put forward to solidify the gains made in pre-K by those from economically disadvantaged conditions. Before considering them, it is instructive to review the Tennessee pre-K study and other pre-K research that posit negative conclusions regarding pre-K interventions.

Dale C. Farran and Mark W. Lipsey of the Peabody Research Institute at Vanderbilt University that conducted the longitudinal pre-K study in Tennessee recently wrote a post for the Brookings Institution defending it. In that post, they comment as follows:

"Critics of our study have argued that the effects reflect the unusually poor quality of the TNVPK program. We demonstrate that measured classroom quality in the TNVPK classrooms was virtually identical to that in programs that have been lauded by pre-K advocates. We demonstrate that gains by children in the TNVPK program during the pre-K year were substantial relative to the control group and in keeping with the effect sizes obtain by programs that advocates have identified as successes and in other scaled up state programs. The evidence is simply inconsistent with the TNVPK program being unusually weak."

Near the opening of the piece, Farran and Lipsey observe, "Despite widespread claims about proven benefits from pre-K, there is actually strikingly little credible research about the effectiveness of public pre-K programs scaled for statewide implementation." Their opinion is one that dovetails with that of Grover J. "Russ" Whitehurst, a Brookings Institution Senior Fellow and former head of the Institute of Education Sciences in the U.S. Department of Education under the Bush Administration

Mr. Whitehurst reviewed some of the most recent pre-K programs research and presented the results of his analysis in a Brookings' post in February 2014. He found that, "Not one of the studies that has suggested long-term positive impacts of center-based early childhood programs has been based on a well-implemented and appropriately analyzed randomized trial, and nearly all have serious limitations in external validity." Based upon this he concludes, "... the best available evidence raises serious doubts that a large public investment in the expansion of pre-k for four-year-olds will have the long-term effects that advocates tout."

In his piece Mr. Whitehurst acknowledges that there are those who might disagree with his assessment. And, indeed there are.

For example, Whitehurst cites the Obama administration's advocacy for pre-K. The Center for Public Education, in a posting on its website, states "A large and growing body of research shows that investing in high quality, pre-kindergarten education yields benefits for children, schools and communities."

As noted earlier, there is considerable pushback on Tennessee's findings as well. The following commentary on NPR puts the whole debate into perspective:


"This isn't the first report to show no lasting benefit from pre-K, and it's likely that it won't be the last. But it doesn't contradict research ...that show high-quality preschool can work. The difference is, some of the biggest benefits have come from relatively small, expensive programs that reached children earlier and often provided more services.

The challenge for states is not figuring out what works. It's figuring out how to pay for what works."

That's our point precisely.

It seems to us that as these studies go on and on and on, they become more and more and more meaningless. There are too many researchers on the head on a pin when they need to find out what the entire pin looks like, how to improve it, and to use it to mend things that are in disrepair.

It takes us back to our graduate school days - oh, so long ago - when we were taught that if you don't ask the right questions it's impossible to get the right answers. We also learned that data in the aggregate conceals as much as it reveals.

Even the Tennessee study found that children in the pre-K classrooms "made initial strong gains and were perceived by their teachers at kindergarten entry as being better prepared." But, according to Ms. Farran's and Mr. Lipsey's summary, the study had the startling discovery that, "In second and third grades, the achievement trends crossed over, with academic achievement for the pre-K children becoming worse than for the control children."

Given those findings, the right questions for those interested in ensuring that a pre-K intervention makes a lasting difference include: Why did those gains disappear? What were the contributing factors? What was the root cause? What can be done in terms of corrective actions? Is there a critical path for ensuring pre-K success over the long term? What measurements should be put into place to ensure those actions (and a path if one is defined) are producing the desired results?

The answers to some of these questions may be in the Peabody Research Institute's
data. There may be also be good information about prior studies in Mr. Whitehurst's research data.

Consequently, we would encourage that this raw data and research information be shared with other researchers so that they can massage and drill down into it to enhance and contribute to pre-K problem-solving, continuous improvement, and knowledge development. In the interim, we believe there is a fairly good body of data that can be utilized to structure sustainable high quality pre-K interventions.

David Kirp, Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and senior fellow at the Learning Policy Institute, provides an excellent summary of this information in a recent op-ed piece for The New York Times. He describes and draws upon a variety of "successful pre-K programs" in places such as Boston, New Jersey, North Carolina, Michigan and Tulsa, OK.

Some of the success factors that Kirp identifies include: "well-educated, experienced teachers, small classes, and one-on-one coaching." The Center for Public Education also sets forth additional criteria for success on its web site.

Even with this solid baseline, we believe there is still more research that needs to be done and demonstration projects to be run in order to build the highest quality complete continuum and holistic approach for those kids who need assistance in order to be given an equal educational opportunity.

They don't need safety nets. They need success ladders built to enable them to climb out of the educational chasm - and, the rungs on that ladder must include school, family, peers and community. (See our blog on this topic written last year.)

The American educational system is being put to the test. This is a test that must be passed. If it is not, millions of poor American children will be sentenced to lives of failure.

That is a sentence they don't deserve. As concerned citizens, we need to do all we can to ensure they don't receive it. For their sakes and ours, we must close the educational chasm.