Research News

Op-ed: Prekindergarten research can help chart best way to help impoverished kids

Dale Farran (Vanderbilt)

This opinion piece originally ran in The Tennessean Aug. 9, 2013.

I am one of the lead researchers on the Vanderbilt study of the effectiveness of Tennessee’s prekindergarten program (TN-VPK) currently underway. But I am not an advocate for pre-K; I am an advocate for children.

For 40 years, I have been focused on the terrible problem in the United States of young children growing up in poverty.

Stress associated with economic deprivation takes its greatest toll on the youngest. Poverty experienced before age 6 is known to be associated with differences in brain function and stress regulation well into adolescence. The same degree of poverty experienced later in life has fewer effects.

How can children be protected from these long-term effects? One widely promoted approach is early childhood education for children from low-income homes. This strategy addresses one of the effects of poverty — that children will have developed fewer of the skills to be successful in school. Early childhood education should enable children to enter kindergarten better able to learn and less likely to fall behind more-advantaged peers.

As early as 1965, with the passage of Head Start, the argument in favor of early childhood education was couched in terms of the lifelong impacts desired.

In remarks on Head Start in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson said, “This program this year means that 30 million man-years — the combined life span of these youngsters — will be spent productively and rewardingly, rather than wasted in tax-supported institutions or in welfare-supported lethargy.”

The goal of a better life in the future for young poor children is important. The means to accomplish it are less certain. This is where research comes in. Or it should.

Tennessee adopted the TN-VPK program as a strategy for changing the lives of its poorest children. Once a strategy has been selected, research is an invaluable tool for helping lawmakers know if the program is effective in reaching the goal.

Attainment of long-term life-changing goals is challenging to research in the short term. We use proxy measures such as school-readiness skills, hoping they provide early indicators of longer-term success.

The immediate effects of TN-VPK on school readiness at kindergarten entry were positive. Children gained academic and behavioral skills in the classrooms, gaining more than comparable children who wanted to attend but for whom there wasn’t space.

While those advantages over the comparison children in academic skills were not sustained in kindergarten and first grade, the TN-VPK children showed some behavioral advantages. They were not retained in kindergarten as often as the children who had not had the program.

The results from our study of the TN-VPK program are similar to the results of other studies of preschool. While the cognitive advantages diminish, important noncognitive skills remain. Smaller studies that have followed poor children who had preschool intervention into adulthood have found that they were retained less often and were more likely to graduate from high school, attend college and be employed. In some studies, they were actually less likely to be arrested and go to jail.

Whether those outcomes occur for Tennessee’s children cannot be known for many years. What Tennessee can do now is try to make TN-VPK the strongest program possible. One large part of the study involves daylong observations of representative classrooms across the state.

These forthcoming results will provide the state with information about aspects of the classrooms linked to gains for children, those most important to emphasize to achieve the strongest effects.

If Tennessee is committed to the future for its youngest, most vulnerable children, research such as that in the Vanderbilt study will provide important guidance.

Dale C. Farran is a professor of education and psychology and senior associate director of the Peabody Research Institute, Vanderbilt University. Research reports from the TN-VPK program and more are available on the PRI website.