Dr. Dale Farran and her colleagues from Vanderbilt University recently completed a multi-year study on the effectiveness of Tennessee’s public school preschool program. The study followed children from preschool through middle school to see how preschool affected the children’s long-term learning.

Tennessee does not offer universal pre-Kindergarten, but instead they focus their public school preschool program on children considered “at-risk” due to factors like living in poverty. Tennessee used full-day preschool that aligned with the same hours and calendar as the rest of the public school system. Since there were not available pre-K spots for every child in Tennessee that was eligible for pre-K, this study was able to look at the group of students enrolled in their public school program as well as a control group of those who had to make other arrangements.

When Dr. Farran and her team studied the results, they found several key distinctions between the two groups of students:

  • The students who attended pre-K initially scored higher in Kindergarten and 1st grade.
  • By 3rd grade, the control group surpassed the students who attended pre-K, and they continued to surpass them in 5th and 6th grade.
  • Students who attended pre-K had more behavioral problems in 3rd to 6th grade than the control group.

Since there is consistent data that high-quality preschool can benefit children for years to come, the Tennessee research team immediately began to wonder if their state pre-K program was not demonstrating high-quality characteristics. Programs in Georgia and in San Antonio showed positive outcomes in similar studies, so why was Tennessee’s program different?

Was Tennessee’s program too academic?

  • Teaching young children to memorize numbers and letters will help them score ahead of their peers for a year or two, but those are skills that do not have long-term benefits. In a quality early childhood classroom, children learn how to interact with other children, regulate their emotions, develop language skills, problem solve, and explore. Curiosity and self-regulation will continue to help children in the classroom for years to come.

Did Tennessee teachers have the child development training necessary to teach pre-K?

  • The Tennessee teacher’s certificate for young children includes teaching children from preschool through fifth grade. Elementary school classrooms focus on having children sit in desks and listen to teachers talk, but that is not how a preschool (or Kindergarten) classroom should look. If the higher education system trains the future teachers to lead classrooms with children sitting in seats all day, then the teachers are not learning the skills that they need to properly maintain a quality pre-K classroom.

Was there too much direct instruction?

  • Farran estimated that the research observations showed most of the learning in the pre-K classrooms came from large group instruction where teachers talked 70% of the time and students were asked to listen. The average attention span of a young child is two minutes times the child’s age. This means that a child in pre-K has the potential to pay attention in a large group for 8 minutes, and typical whole group instruction lasts much longer than that. Whole group instruction also assumes that every child in the classroom is ready to learn the same information without accommodations. Developmentally appropriate instruction in preschool would include free play in the classroom where children can freely explore, supplemented by small group and individual lessons.

Was there enough funding per child?

  • The Tennessee preschool research study showed that the state spent approximately $4,524 per child enrolled in the program in 2009. Other states with more successful preschool programs, like New Jersey, at that time were spending closer to $15,000 per child. For full-day instruction, was $4,524 enough to provide the necessary quality environment needed?

Were the following years of Kindergarten to 3rd grade high-quality?

  • Although the study is focusing on the impact of pre-K on long-term development, it is possible that the level of instruction in Kindergarten through 3rd grade did not continue to support the children’s development in order to support children that were at-risk of learning difficulty.

Based on the Results of Tennessee’s Research Study: What Does Kentucky need to know?

Developmentally appropriate preschool can have a huge impact.

  • Although academic skills like letter and number identification are important, those skills are taught in Kindergarten and 1st grade also. The focus in pre-K needs to be on language skills, social and emotional development, and unstructured learning. Giving the children the opportunity to explore and find out what they enjoy will be motivation that lasts for many years to come. Child-centered learning can help children develop their attention spans instead of shortening their attention spans by listening to a teacher talk for extended periods of time.

Play and exploration are key factors for early learning.

  • Kentucky works hard to implement play and exploration into pre-K classrooms. Free play is incorporated into the daily classroom schedules and teachers are encouraged not to use photocopied pages for rote memory learning. Even handwriting curricula like Handwriting Without Tears use manipulatives and exploration to help children learn, instead of putting pencil to paper at a young age.

Pre-K is not elementary school for four-year-olds, so the structure must be different.

  • When the teacher has a classroom full of four-year-olds with an 8-minute attention span, then there have to be multiple activities each day. Those activities need to involve moving around the classroom and interacting with friends, instead of sitting at a desk. That means that the teacher must know how to set-up the classroom and what the children are interested in learning. Teachers must know their students, and they must spend time working on the classroom instead of simply talking to the children in large group each day.

Teachers must be properly trained in order to teach in an early childhood classroom.

  • In Kentucky, the early childhood teacher’s certificate is for birth through Kindergarten. Teachers are trained on child development and how to pair that development with curriculum. All early childhood educators receive training on special education so that they understand that every child develops differently, which helps them to learn at their own pace. Early childhood curriculum classes at Kentucky training programs focus on the child’s whole development, instead of just academics.

Kentucky is at an advantage because it has already been trying to set a standard for play-based classroom environments and trained teachers. Of course, there is still hard work ahead to make sure that all of our children receive the early childhood classroom they need to be as successful as possible.