Vanderbilt University, Middle Tennessee schools part of landmark national study to determine effectiveness of preschool programs

September 4, 2002

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Vanderbilt University researchers working with 36 preschool classrooms in seven school districts in Coffee, Franklin, Lawrence, Maury, Rutherford and Wayne counties in Tennessee are part of a landmark national study that will for the first time help determine which preschool programs work best for which children.

The four-year research project is part of the U.S. Department of Education’s efforts to strengthen preschool education, and the study’s use of randomized clinical trials – normally associated with medical research – reflects a major shift in how the department’s research is conducted.

The trials are designed to evaluate eight selected preschool curricula used around the country with the goal of helping school districts make informed choices of curricula for early childhood programs.

“Most of the evidence for the effectiveness of preschool curricula for at-risk students comes from 1960s data. Also the evaluations of these programs were often by the people who developed the curricula and therefore not as objective,” said Dale Farran, professor at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of education, who serves as project director for the Tennessee portion of the study.

“School systems all over the country are creating prekindergarten programs, some statewide, but they have little guidance to tell them what curriculum to choose for these classrooms. The U.S. Department of Education decided to fund a rigorous, systematic evaluation of the curriculum alternatives to evaluate which ones prepare children to be more successful in school,” Farran said.

In Tennessee, Vanderbilt researchers are contrasting two curricula – “The Creative Curriculum,” which was developed in the 1970s and focuses on overall child development including social and learning skills, and “Bright Beginnings,” a curriculum that focuses on key literacy and numeracy skills, developed in the 1990s by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School System in North Carolina.

Classrooms in the seven Tennessee school districts have been randomly assigned either to Creative Curriculum, Bright Beginnings or to a control group that will continue with the schools’ previous preschool instruction. Teachers in the classrooms using the curricula were given $2,500 to buy the materials necessary to help them fully implement the programs.

The districts selected for the study meet three criteria – they have classrooms funded by the Tennessee Early Childhood Education Program implemented by the state in 1999, a specified preschool curriculum was not in use, and each preschool classroom has an early childhood education certified teacher, education assistant and up to 20 students.

“This study has come at good time because Tennessee is just now moving forward with expanding preschool education. We need more preschool classrooms with good instruction that could help stem problems down the road such as dropout rates,” said Rita Collins, supervisor of technology and special projects with the Franklin County Board of Education, who oversees preschool programs in the county.

During the study, Vanderbilt graduate students will visit the classrooms four times a year to determine how well the curricula have been implemented. Each month, researchers in the Tennessee project will measure students’ progress and meet with teachers. Students will be evaluated in a number of areas including oral language skills, narrative comprehension, vocabulary, number concepts, child engagement and students’ feelings about school. Teacher ratings of student performance, attendance records and teachers’ beliefs about the curricula will also be considered.

“I’m anxious to see the outcome of the study. We are really setting a precedent because we did not have anything concrete from the state as far as how we should structure preschool education,” said Beth Blasingame-Cook, a preschool teacher at Hobgood Elementary School in Murfreesboro, who is using Creative Curriculum.

Next summer researchers will provide preliminary findings to the schools and train the control group to use the curriculum that has emerged as being the more effective of the two tested in Tennessee.

Students participating in the study will be followed through first grade with the project’s final year being used to compare national results and produce a final report on the findings.

The U.S. Department of Education awarded more than $12 million to fund the four-year study. Vanderbilt’s grant award totals $1.3 million.

The other participating universities are the University of California, Berkeley; Purdue University; University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston; University of North Carolina at Charlotte; University of North Florida and the University of New Hampshire. The universities are coordinating with the Research Triangle Institute in North Carolina, which has been hired as the national evaluator. They will collect the same data on children, families and classrooms in all of the funded projects.

Vanderbilt and the University of Texas are the only universities contrasting two curricula. The other universities are evaluating one curricula and one control group.

Contact: Princine Lewis, 615-322-NEWS,

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