From NYC Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio’s pledge to provide universal preschool to bipartisan legislation proposing federally funded preschool grants, we have witnessed in 2013 new momentum toward expanding access to early-childhood programs. Yet this evaluation of Tennessee’s Voluntary Prekindergarten program (TN-VPK)—the second in a series conducted by Vanderbilt’s Peabody Research Institute and the Tennessee Department of Education—may cause some second thoughts. TN-VPK is a full-day, one-year, voluntary preschool program aimed at improving the school readiness of the state’s most disadvantaged four-year-olds. The initial evaluation found that the program succeeds in that mission: by the end of the preschool year, participating students made significant cognitive achievement gains when compared to eligible students who applied to TN-VPK but were not accepted (due to space limitations). The new study, however, which sought to evaluate the program’s long-term effects in both cognitive and non-cognitive domains, found that achievement gains made in preschool essentially disappeared when measured at the end of Kindergarten and again at the end of first grade. Though surely disappointing, these findings accord with many earlier studies of preschool effects (most conspicuously a raft of HeadStart evaluations), most of which indicate that cognitive gains made by disadvantaged preschool students are not sustained once in school. The news is not all glum, however: the study found some worthwhile non-cognitive benefits, such as improved attendance rates and lower Kindergarten retention rates, which compelling research indicates also contribute to longer-term education success. Nor has the final chapter been written on preschool. The present series of studies evaluates the effect of a single year of preschool on children’s educational outcomes, which may argue for starting younger with longer-lasting and more intensive programs for those who need them most. That is, however, a far cry from the universal approach so much discussed today. And surely it argues for further efforts to repair the often-dismal primary schools that these kids enter after pre-K. (For another perspective on this report, see Russ Whitehurst’s take.)

SOURCE: Mark W. Lipsey, et al., Evaluation of the Tennessee Voluntary Prekindergarten Program: Kindergarten and First Grade Follow‐Up Results from the Randomized Control Design (Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University, Peabody Research Institute, August 2013).

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