Educators, researchers grapple with future of pre-kindergarten in Tennessee

PHOTO: G. Tatter
Pre-kindergarten students play last year at Ross Early Learning Center, one of Metro Nashville Public School's "model" pre-K centers. The principal of Ross testified in favor of a bill for high-quality pre-K Wednesday.

Creating and maintaining high-quality pre-kindergarten programs that prepare students for school and shrink achievement gaps is doable — but will take time and resources, say educators and researchers from Nashville and Memphis, two cities where pre-K expansion is a topic of growing interest.

In addition, pre-K teachers must receive more support through professional development and coaching, and there must be a stronger relationship between policy and what research says works.

Such was the consensus of participants in a roundtable discussion in Nashville on Thursday, just days before the anticipated release of a study that could impact state funding of public pre-kindergarten programs.

“We have got to have the resources in place to support quality. Otherwise, we’re really quite frankly just tiptoeing around the edges,” said Lisa Wiltshire, executive director of the Tennessee Department of Education’s office of early learning.

Many education leaders believe public preschool classes are critical to narrowing a stubborn achievement gap in Tennessee, confounded by stagnant reading scores and grappling with the realities that cause many poor children to start kindergarten without basic literacy skills.

But whether funding for expansion comes from the state depends on the results of a study due out next week from researchers at the Vanderbilt Peabody College of Education. Gov. Bill Haslam has said he will not increase state pre-K spending until he sees the results of the six-year study on the efficacy of the state’s program.

Four years ago, a comptroller’s report suggested that Tennessee’s current pre-K program wasn’t boosting achievement throughout elementary school. Early results from the soon-to-be-released Vanderbilt study suggest the program does not have a lasting impact on academics, but does have positive impacts on behaviors such as paying attention in class.

Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K program, which was started about a decade ago and cost about $86 million in 2013-14, serves about 18,000 children.

Last year, Haslam applied for and received a $70 million pre-K grant from the U.S. Department of Education for five Tennessee districts — but only after debating whether the funding would provide academic benefits.

Researchers agree there’s no reason to spend money on programs that don’t work. They say policymakers should ask what does work in order to help children be prepared for kindergarten.

“We are pushing the benefits of pre-K … without taking the time to define what we really mean, and worse, to determine if what we implement has the outcomes to what we have promised,” said Dale Farran, a Vanderbilt Peabody professor and the study’s lead researcher. “It is time to take a step back and determine what we really need to scale up … and how we can take that vision and make it happen with consistency.”

DeAnna McClendon, director of early childhood programs for Shelby County Schools, said her district has come to terms with the fact that many of its pre-K classes have been sub-par. Of 800 students tracked by the district after leaving pre-K and entering kindergarten, less than half had the skills necessary for kindergarten. Thus, simply offering a pre-K program isn’t enough.

McClendon said the Memphis district has taken “a hard look” at its programs and what their most effective teachers do. It has made changes, connecting more teachers with coaches and thinking more critically about what pre-K should look like. Now, McClendon reports, about 72 percent of children who attended the Shelby County programs demonstrate some early literacy skills, such as vocabulary recognition, knowing the alphabet, and writing their names.

“Those things might not sound important, but to a kindergarten teacher or a principal who has a lot riding on the line with those third-grade scores, they’re important,” McClendon said.

The state Department of Education has made similar arguments in pushing early literacy as a key part of its plan to boost test scores.

McClendon said a common theme among Shelby County’s reward schools — those improving at a faster rate than 95 percent of schools in the state — is pre-K availability.

One factor to success, she said, is for teachers to remember that 4-year-olds learn differently than older students. In fact, teachers of slightly older students should be looking at the techniques used by effective pre-K teachers. “Sometimes we think we’ve cornered the market on small groups and other early learning market strategies. But those are the same strategies we should be using in kindergarten, first and second grades,” McClendon said.

Farran agreed that developmentally appropriate kindergarten programs are key. “We are having difficulty preventing elementary school expectations to ratchet down to 4-year-olds,” she said.

In addition to the federal grant, Metro Nashville Public Schools has made a commitment to “universal pre-K” — available public programs for all 4-year-olds — by 2018, with considerable financial support from the city. Incoming Mayor Megan Barry has pledged even more support for pre-K. In Shelby County, however, calls for local pre-K funding have floundered.

Billed as a discussion of issues surrounding pre-K expansion, the roundtable was co-sponsored by the Vanderbilt Center for Nashville Studies, Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education, and the Nashville Public Library.

Audience members included Haslam’s education analyst and several state representatives, including Rep. Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville), a high-profile skeptic of pre-K programs.

Early investment

Foundations put $50 million behind effort to improve lives of young Detroit children

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
The heads of the Kresge and W.K. Kellogg foundations, Rip Rapson and La June Montgomery announce a $50 million investment to support the new Hope Starts Here framework.

The two major foundations behind the creation of a ten-year plan to improve the lives of Detroit’s youngest children are putting up $50 million to help put the plan into action.

As they unveiled the new Hope Starts Here framework Friday morning, the Kellogg and Kresge foundations announced they would each spend $25 million in the next few years to improve the health and education of children aged birth to 8 in the city.

The money will go toward upgrading early childhood education centers, including a new Kresge-funded comprehensive child care center that the foundation says it hopes to break ground on next year at a location that has not yet been identified.

Other foundation dollars will go toward a just-launched centralized data system that will keep track of a range of statistics on the health and welfare of young children, and more training and support for early childhood educators.

The announcement at Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History drew dozens of parents, educators and community leaders. Among them was Detroit Schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti who said one of the major impediments to improving conditions for young children has been divisions between the various government and nonprofit entities that run schools, daycares and health facilities for young kids.

Vitti said the district would do its part to “to break down the walls of territorialism that has prevented this work from happening” in the past.

Watch the video of of the announcement here.

Detroit's future

In a city where 60 percent of young children live in poverty, a ten-year plan aims to improve conditions for kids

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn/Chalkbeat

A coalition of community groups led by two major foundations has a plan to change the fortunes of Detroit’s youngest citizens.

The Hope Starts Here early childhood partnership is a ten-year effort to tackle a list of bleak statistics about young children in Detroit:

  • More than 60% of Detroit’s children 0-5 live in poverty — more than in any of the country’s 50 largest cities;
  • 13% of Detroit babies are born too early, compared to nine percent nationally;
  • 13% of Detroit babies are born too small, compared to eight percent nationally;
  • Detroit has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the country;
  • Nearly 30,000 of eligible young Detroiters have no access to high-quality early learning or child care options.
  • That translates to learning problems later on, including the 86.5% of Detroit third graders who aren’t reading at grade level.

Hope Starts Here spells out a plan to change that. While it doesn’t identify specific new funding sources or propose a dramatic restructuring of current programs, the effort led by the Kresge Foundation and the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, names six “imperatives” to improving children’s lives.

Among them: Promoting the health, development and wellbeing of Detroit children; supporting their parents and caregivers; increasing the overall quality of early childhood programs and improving coordination between organizations that work with young kids. The framework calls for more funding to support these efforts through the combined investments of governments, philanthropic organizations and corporations.

Read the full framework here: