Dana Eckman, who directs Nashville's pre-K program, says she sees the Vanderbilt University study as a chance to improve instruction
Dana Eckman, who directs Nashville's pre-K program, says she sees the Vanderbilt University study as a chance to improve instruction - 
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Sending the neediest kids to preschool at 4 years old would seem to give them an automatic boost later on. But the more researchers look at a large state-funded pre-kindergarten program in Tennessee, the more they’re scratching their heads.

A couple of professors at Vanderbilt University in Nashville were slack-jawed to find that some students who get pre-K even start falling behind those who don’t.

“It’s awkward to provide that message,” co-author Mark Lipsey said. “But isn’t it better to say this needs a second look, rather than trundle along thinking you’re doing great work and not know that that’s not true?”

The question is whether this extra year is worth the time and money.

There’s been a stack of research from Boston to Tulsa, Oklahoma, that says it is. But that’s not what Lipsey and co-author Dale Farran found, at least in Tennessee. And it kills them to put this out there. 

“We will be criticized, crucified, possibly,” Farran said.

Tennessee is one of several states experimenting with pre-K in a big way. For the last decade, the state has paid for 18,000 children from low-income families to get the jump-start. Some want that opportunity for everyone.

Others call pre-K a waste. And the Vanderbilt study gives the critics new ammunition. On the whole, the study found that students who attended pre-Kindergarten began to lag behind those who sat out. 

“The stunning part is that we had no real basis for expecting that the kids who had not been in pre-K into second and third grade would actually start performing somewhat better — not hugely better — but somewhat better than the kids who had been in pre-K,” Lipsey said.

This is worth repeating: by third grade, the children who didn’t go to pre-K started outperforming those who did. And these are very comparable families. All the students came from economically disadvantaged households. And their parents all wanted them to go to preschool. There just wasn’t enough space.

Farran now feels obliged to study further and find out why. Her first hunch is a little glimmer of something the study found at the end of first grade. The pre-K students were measurably less excited about school.

“I wonder if part of what happens is if pre-K doesn’t have a better vision for itself than trying to be a junior kindergarten; if by the end of first, the children have sort of had it — had the same thing for three years in a row — and it’s too much,” she said. 

Quality is the likely culprit, Farran said. And the issue may be that they’re getting too much old-school academic time drilling letters and numbers, not too little. Researchers are finding 4-year-olds need instruction that looks a lot like playtime.

At Ross Early Learning Center in Nashville, Dana Eckman knelt beside students playing with crayons and Play-Doh. She directs Nashville’s pre-K program and said she’s learned that too much “seat work” is a problem.

“It has to be a balanced approach,” she said. “They have to be able to get up and move their bodies to learn and be actively engaged.”

The Vanderbilt study, which began just a few years after the launch of Tennessee's pre-K program in 2005, doesn’t reflect these best practices, Eckman said. So she’s waiting for the next study.

“When they come back, when we do another research project on this, when we look at third grade, I think the outcome is going to be very different,” Eckman said.

University of Chicago economist James Heckman sharply criticized the Vanderbilt study this week. In an online blog post, Heckman said Tennessee did not put much into its pre-K program.

“Low-quality programs produce weak and even sometimes harmful results,” he said.

Heckman also challenged the study's methodology, calling it “flawed.” Heckman, a Nobel prize-winning economist, has done his own research into early childhood development and said there is “strong evidence” that high-quality preschool programs more than pay for themselves. 

But the Vanderbilt research is already being used to figure out if pre-K is worth the cost, especially in Tennessee. Gov. Bill Haslam told reporters he still believes high-quality pre-K is valuable.

“We’ll take this as data to evaluate its effectiveness verses other things that we might do — increasing technology, paying teachers more, other investments that we want to make in K-12 education,” he said when asked to respond to the Vanderbilt study.

Tennessee spends $86 million a year on pre-K.