Lesson for Texas in the Tennessee Pre-k Study: Focus on Boosting Quality

Last week, Vanderbilt University released a study on Tennessee’s state pre-k program that provides valuable food-for-thought as we work to raise the quality of the Texas pre-k program.

The Vanderbilt study served up both good news and bad news. The good news first: the children enrolled in the state pre-k program were more Kindergarten-ready than their control group peers not served by state pre-k. Now the bad news: those educational gains did not continue beyond Kindergarten.

One theory offered by one the researchers is that Kindergarten teachers couldn’t adequately attend to the students with pre-k experience because they were so busy trying to address the significant needs of students who missed out on pre-k. In that case, part of the solution is increasing pre-k enrollment.

Perhaps the clearest message from the report, however, is that quality matters.

The Tennessee program receives high marks for establishing basic statewide standards, meeting nine out of NIEER’s 10 benchmarks, but pre-k quality varies widely across the state. The state has not invested, for example, in monitoring how pre-k programs vary from classroom to classroom and school district to school district.

As the report’s author said, "It's like saying spinach is really good for you, but we can't afford spinach. But here, I've got this Easter grass. Maybe that will be just as good."

So what does this mean for Texas?

It means that Governor Abbott is right that we need to focus on improving the quality of pre-k so that we get the most for our money and we give more children a chance to succeed in school. And it means that we have more work to do on this front.

Texas only meets two of those 10 NIEER benchmarks, and our rating won’t improve under HB 4. A good place to start improving pre-k quality is by setting a limit on pre-k class sizes and student-teacher ratios. The state should also help more districts expand pre-k to full day to increase the amount of time spent on activities geared towards both academic and social-emotional development.

But the Tennessee example shows that statewide standards alone will not ensure high-quality pre-k. We will also need strong local monitoring, teacher training, and evaluation efforts.

Fortunately, some Texas school districts have already rolled up their sleeves to improve their pre-k programs. After Dallas ISD improved training for pre-k teachers, provided a teacher’s aide for pre-k classrooms, and took other steps to improve quality, they saw a big jump in student performance. The trick for state policymakers is to ensure the every district is providing high-quality programs and serving as responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars.

As author David Kirp noted after the release of the Tennessee study, what we do know from decades of solid academic research and state pre-k program evaluations is that high quality pre-k can achieve both short- and long-term positive outcomes, including increased educational achievement, reduced need for special education and remedial education, boosts in graduation rates, and college attainment.

For example, a study of Tulsa’s Pre-K program found that children who attended Tulsa’s pre-k program demonstrated persistent education gains, better retention rates, and less absenteeism. North Carolina, Georgia, Arkansas and New Jersey also have high-quality programs that have shown lasting educational gains.

The truth is, in terms of pre-k, we already know what works. The Vanderbilt study now gives Tennessee additional data so it can redouble its efforts to improve its program quality.

Here in Texas, only by investing in high-quality pre-k programs can we ensure that Texas achieves the short- and long-term outcomes we expect from our state’s program. Our children, and the taxpayers supporting the state’s investment in pre-k, deserve nothing less.