By Richard Locker
Originally published 02:31 p.m., February 24, 2011
Updated 10:44 p.m., February 24, 2011
NASHVILLE — A new Vanderbilt University study found that children who attended Tennessee’s public prekindergarten gained an average of 82 percent more on early literacy and math skills than comparable children who did not attend.
The study released Thursday by Vanderbilt’s Peabody Research Institute compared the performance of 303 children — pupils randomly admitted to state-funded pre-K classes in 23 schools and others who applied but were not admitted due to space limits.
Assessments at the beginning and end of the pre-K year found that pre-K children had a 98 percent greater gain in literacy skills than those who didn’t attend, a 145 percent greater gain in vocabulary and a 109 percent greater gain in comprehension. They also made strong but more moderate gains in early math skills (33 percent to 63 percent greater gains).
The average gain across the board was 82 percent.
The initial results are from the first rigorous longitudinal study of the effects of public pre-K attendance on a statewide scale. They are likely to fuel debate among Tennessee policymakers about the state’s $85 million-a-year voluntary pre-K program that now serves more than 18,000 children in 934 classes.
“This research is difficult to do but critically important to evaluating the effects of Tennessee’s investment in pre-K,” Vanderbilt professors Mark Lipsey and Dale Farran said. “Such evidence is especially important in the context of the current budgetary constraints.”
The Vanderbilt researchers conducted a second study that corroborated the first. It compared 682 children who attended 36 pre-K classes in rural and urban Middle Tennessee to 676 children who entered a year later because of the birth date cutoff.
The second study also found that children enrolled in state pre-K scored significantly higher on literacy and math assessments than the children who had not yet attended once the age difference was accounted for. The strongest differences were again in the areas of literacy and language skills, with more modest gains in math skills, Vanderbilt reported.
Both studies will continue collecting data for the next four years as the children advance through the elementary grades.
Legislators who want to cut the program have argued that gains by children who attended pre-K fade after about the second or third grade. But Lipsey said some earlier studies were flawed.
“The prime objective of Tennessee pre-K is to improve the readiness of economically disadvantaged children to enter kindergarten with better emergent literacy and math skills than they would have otherwise,” he said. “Our results so far indicate this is happening. The idea that the disadvantages these children have can be ‘cured’ by one year in pre-K and they will forever after do as well as their more advantaged peers is questionable. Their academic progress as they move forward will depend in large part to the experiences they have in kindergarten, first grade, and so on…”
Bobbi Lussier, assistant state education commissioner, said the study “confirms the increased importance of maintaining high standards in our Pre-K program” and the department will use the results to improve student learning.
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