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Research News at Vanderbilt

Tennessee pre-k students see 82 percent gain over peers

by | Feb. 24, 2011, 10:00 AM | Want more research news? Subscribe to our weekly newsletter »

(iStock photo)

(iStock Photo)

Children who attended state-funded prekindergarten classes gained an average of 82 percent more on early literacy and math skills than comparable children who did not attend,
researchers from the Peabody Research Institute at Vanderbilt University have found.

Mark Lipsey

Mark Lipsey (Vanderbilt)

The initial results are from the first rigorous longitudinal study that has been conducted on the effects of public prekindergarten attendance on a statewide scale.

“This research is difficult to do but critically important to evaluating the effects of Tennessee’s investment in pre-k,” study leaders Mark Lipsey and Dale Farran said. “Such evidence is especially important in the context of the current budgetary constraints in Tennessee and other states that have made commitments to pre-k education.”

For the study, 23 schools in 14 Tennessee school districts randomly admitted children to their pre-k program. All of the schools received applications from more students than they could accommodate. The children admitted to pre-k were then compared to the children whose families applied but were not admitted. A total of 303 children were involved in this phase of the study.

Assessments at the beginning and end of the prekindergarten year found that the pre-k children had a 98 percent greater gain in literacy skills than children who did not attend a state pre-k program, 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). Overall, the average gain across the board was 82 percent more than for the children who did not attend state pre-k.

Dale Farrar

Dale Farran (Vanderbilt)

Results from a second parallel study corroborated these findings. That study compared 682 children who attended 36 pre-k classes in rural and urban middle Tennessee schools to 676 children who had to enter a year later because of the birth date cutoff for pre-k eligibility.

The second study also found that children enrolled in state-funded pre-k classes scored significantly higher on emergent literacy and math assessments than the children who had not yet attended pre-k 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.

Both studies will continue collecting data for the next four years. The second study will continue collecting data in waves across the state until every region is represented.

“These studies were possible only because of a strong partnership with the Division of School Readiness and Early Learning in the Tennessee Department of Education and the commitment of school districts across the state to learning about the effects of pre-k,” Lipsey said.

The studies are led by Lipsey, research professor of human and organizational development and Peabody Research Institute director, and Dale Farran, professor of education and psychology. Carol Bilbrey, research associate at the Peabody Research Institute, directed data collection.

The research is funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences.

The researchers will report on these and other findings March 4 at the annual meeting of the Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness in Washington, D.C.

Media Inquiries:
Melanie Moran, (615) 322-NEWS

  • D Tolliver

    I swell with pride at the thought of exceptional progress in our state’s pre-k community!nNow lets continue the trend in our state’s middle schools. May God bless the teachers!

  • TC

    The most definitive study of preschool, the Head Start Impact Study and Follow-up, 2000u20132011 showed virtually all academic effects disappear by the end of 1st grade. Government funded preschool is a waste of taxpayer dollars, especially when the funds could be used to help at risk students or in other more impactful ways.

    • Mark Lipsey

      Tennessee public pre-k is different from Head Start in many ways, so there is no reason to believe that the Head Start findings automatically apply to it as well. In addition, our study found much larger effects at the end of pre-k than the Head Start study did, so there is more potential for some of the effects to be sustained– we won’t know until the follow-up data are collected. If relatively large pre-k effects are not sustained, there is still a question as to whether the problem is with pre-k or with what happens (or doesn’t) in later grades to maintain the pre-k momentum. There’s no basis in the evidence so far to judge TN pre-k ineffective no matter what the Head Start study found.nM. Lipsey

      • Head Start Teacher

        Keep in mind that “the Head Start fade-out” is not found when Head Start child matriculate into high quality primary schools.

      • TC

        Some preschool programs may provide some (most likely short term) gains for some children and if money grew on trees we would all happily agree to provide it for all TN children, however as that is not the case we need to use our limited funds to support programs that provide a more lasting and measurable impact, such as services/programs which help children get up to grade level, prevent them from dropping out, help troubled or at risk youth or better prepare students for college level work (so they don’t drop out of college) rather than fund a questionable program that happens to have powerful or noisy sponsors.

        • pre-k teacher

          Do we know of a program that provides a more lasting and measureable impact? Aren’t many students who drop out struggling readers? PreK helps children start school with a strong foundation for reading. The early years are the best time to address reading problems. Let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water. PreK provides at-risk children with opportunities that many other children get from other sources.


    how sad, children just cant be children anymore… its all about test scores even when they are mere preschoolers.. did you catch that “PRE” schoolers.. that means before school age – please america let our children BE CHILDREN and not a notch on your academic belt.

  • D Tolliver

    To SAVERECESS: I see your point, however children must develop & grow, those in preschool and into adulthood. Unfortunately, much of the learning has been laxed in American education (specifically in Tennessee). Right now, the system doesn’t even have pants, let-alone a belt to “notch”.nNo need to worry if the children will “BE CHILDREN”, there’s enough stimulus to bombard both them and their parents- outside a classroom!nKeep up the good work Vandy.

  • DC

    State Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey of Blountville:n”We do not need universal pre-K in Tennessee. Every dime we spend on pre-K is a dime we take away from K-12 education where it’s really needed,” Ramsey said. “You won’t see an expansion of pre-K when I’m governor.”nnGuess we can be grateful he’s not.

  • Franklin Mom

    Just curious, do these gains also come from private pre-k programs? I understand that each program will be different (obviously).nThe day care my child is in has a pre-k program and I’m wondering if the same will hold true for their program. He loves his day care – as do I – so this would be a bonus for us!

  • chris

    What happened to the kids not accepted into the state preks? Did they stay home or go to private preschools for prek?

    • Chris, the researchers report that of those children in the control group:nn11% attended a Head Start programn22% attended a private childcare centern51% stayed home with parent

  • curious canadian

    what were the relative gains against baseline? Did the non pre-k kids go up 5% and the enrolled kids go up 9%? Will these results/were these results broken out by demographics? Did the relatively “affluent” self-select themselves out of the study by not applying for these spots?

  • J. Ray

    I am curious about the “randomly admitted” student population. Were these at risk families or were these more affluent families? Unfortunately, couldn’t we make the argument that if the majority, or even a significant percentage of the families were more affluent, that those children would have scored well anyway, and PreK may or may not have been relevant to their success? I’d like to see a study specifically around high stress families, or where ever the TN achievement gap exists.