Tennessee Pre-K: Boosting School Readiness

May 18, 2011

By Stephanie Schmit

Quality pre-kindergarten is a key component of a comprehensive early childhood education system that prepares children to succeed in school and life.  In Tennessee, young children are getting a boost from the Tennessee Voluntary Pre-K program, as evidenced in two new studies completed by the Peabody Research Institute at Vanderbilt University in partnership with the Division of School Readiness and Early Learning at the Tennessee State Department of Education. Overall, children enrolled in the Pre-K program were found to have 37 to 176 percent greater early literacy, language and math skills than children not enrolled in Pre-K.

Tennessee Pre-K is a statewide, voluntary pre-kindergarten program serving more than 18,000 4-year-olds in 934 classrooms. While all 4-year-olds are eligible, current funding does not provide enough slots for all interested families to enroll in the program. Priority is given to children who are eligible for free or reduced price lunch, then to students with disabilities, English language learners (ELLs) and children who are otherwise at-risk.

Administered by the Division of School Readiness and Early Learning in the Tennessee Department of Education, Tennessee Pre-K is a full school day and has high program standards, including: a certified teacher with a Pre-K endorsement, a maximum adult-student ratio of 1:10 and class size of 20, and an approved, age-appropriate curriculum. In FY 2010-2011, Tennessee invested $85 million in the program, which is funded through general revenue and the state lottery. Tennessee Pre-K operates through competitive grants to local school systems. School districts may use a "mixed-delivery model" where they collaborate with community-based child care or Head Start programs. Through Pre-K collaborations, child care centers are able to provide higher quality services to children served through the Pre-K program, who otherwise might not have been reached because of limited center funding or staffing. Pre-K offered in child care settings helps working families meet their need for wrap-around child care and can also boost child care quality. In the 2006-2007 school year, 91 of the state's 677 state-funded pre-K classrooms were made possible through collaborations with Head Start programs.  Additionally, all school districts are required to create and facilitate a Community Pre-K Advisory Council, which includes a diverse group of community representatives who collectively develop a pre-kindergarten implementation plan.

The two recent studies were the result of a 2009 grant from the U.S. Department of Education Institute of Education Science to evaluate the effectiveness of the Pre-K program. They used randomized control trial (RCT) and regression discontinuity designs (RDD) to compare children who participated in Pre-K with their peers who did not, and to compare children at the end of pre-kindergarten with children just beginning the pre-kindergarten year.

Ratings from kindergarten teachers, as part of the RCT, also found positive and significant effects on their assessment of the children's preparedness for kindergarten. This study is in its beginning stages and further analysis and follow-up is important. Meanwhile, the evaluations show that Tennessee's low-income families are benefiting from state pre-kindergarten.

 

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