Comments on “A Randomized Control Trial of the Effects of a Statewide Voluntary Prekindergarten Program on Children’s Skills and Behaviors through Third Grade” by Lipsey, Farran, and Hofer

PERSPECTIVES – News and Comments1

 Comments on “A Randomized Control Trial of the Effects of a Statewide Voluntary Prekindergarten Program on Children’s Skills and Behaviors through Third Grade” by Lipsey, Farran, and Hofer

Brian D. Ray

National Home Education Research Institute, Salem, Oregon, USA, bray@nheri.org

 

For many decades, education experts, researchers, and policymakers have offered more techniques and programs to try to enhance the learning of children at the pre-Kindergarten level. They hope to increase these children’s learning readiness, cognitive skills, and social skills that will advance learning throughout their lives. Politicians, parents, and taxpayers in general keep hoping for the big breakthrough from the education experts, but it does not appear to emerge.

Researchers Lipsey, Farran, and Hofer (2015) recently finished a rigorous, independent evaluation of Tennessee’s Voluntary Prekindergarten program (TNVPK). TN‐VPK is a very special program designed by education experts. It is a full‐day prekindergarten program for four‐year‐old children who are expected to enter kindergarten the following school year. The program in each school that participates must meet standards set by the State Board of Education. These require each classroom to have a teacher with a license in early childhood development and education. The student-to-teacher ratio must be low, of no more than 10:1, and there must be a maximum class size of 20. They must also use an expert- and government-approved age‐appropriate curriculum. TN‐VPK is an optional program that focuses on the neediest children in the state. Many people had high hopes for the effects of the special program called TN-VPK.

This federally funded evaluation, by scholars Lipsey, Harran, and Hofer (2015), of the TN-VPK

… was designed to determine whether the children who participate in the TN‐VPK program make greater academic and behavioral gains in areas that prepare them for later schooling than comparable children who do not participate in the program. It is the first prospective randomized control trial of a scaled up state‐funded, targeted pre‐kindergarten program that has been undertaken. (p. 1)

The researchers present findings that summarize the longitudinal effects of TN‐VPK on pre‐kindergarten through third grade achievement. They also report on behavioral outcomes of these children. The data are from an Intensive Substudy Sample of 1076 children, of which 773 were randomly assigned to attend TN‐VPK classrooms and 303 were not admitted. The program followed both groups since the beginning of their pre‐K year.

 

Methods

 

The TN-VPK process involved “… more than 3000 randomly assigned children. Both the children who participated in TN‐VPK and those who did not are being tracked through the state education database, and information on various aspects of their academic performance and status is being collected each year” (p. 2). Also, a total of 1076 children in the Intensive Substudy were directly assessed by the research team.

Education experts and the public want to know the effects of the TN-VPK program. There were two groups of outcome measures that are used to assess the effects of TN‐VPK. “One group consisted of measures of achievement in the areas of emergent literacy, language, and math. The second group included measures of student behavior other than academic achievement that is often referred to as non‐cognitive outcomes” (p. 2). The researchers noted that this second group is especially relevant for assessing the longer‐term effects of the TN‐VPK program “… because other longitudinal studies of early childhood education programs have found that effects on cognitive outcomes often fade after the end of the program while cumulative effects on non‐cognitive outcomes emerge over time” (p. 2).

 

Findings

 

What did the investigators conducting the evaluation find? Their first question regarding evaluation concerned the effectiveness of the TN‐VPK program at preparing children for kindergarten entry. On that note, at “… the end of pre‐k, the TN‐VPK children had significantly higher achievement scores on all 6 of the subtests, with the largest effects on the two literacy outcomes. The effect size on the composite achievement measure was .32” (p. 4).

Those hopeful for pre-K programs are expectedly happy about this. It is a notable positive effect size. It suggests that something of good value is happening among these young students. Further, Lipsey and his colleagues Hofer note that this effect is of the same magnitude as other researchers have “… reported for end of treatment effects for all pre‐k programs and larger than the average of programs enacted since the 1980s” (p. 4).

Also, at “… the beginning of kindergarten, the teachers rated the TN‐VPK children as being better prepared for kindergarten work, as having better behaviors related to learning in the classroom and as having more positive peer relations. They did not view the children as having more [or less] behavior problems and both groups of children were rated as being highly positive about school” (p. 4). Again, those who are hopeful for pre-K programs will be glad about these findings.

The next portion of the evaluation report is where many hopes are dashed. The researchers then addressed the sustainability of effects on achievement and behavior beyond kindergarten entry. The children were followed and reassessed in the spring every year. “By the end of kindergarten, the control children had caught up to the TN‐VPK children and there were no longer significant differences between them on any achievement measures. The same result was obtained at the end of first grade using both composite achievement measures” (p. 4-5).

After first grade, things took an even more negative turn in a direction no one would want for children. The researchers report it the following way:

In second grade, however, the groups began to diverge with the TN‐VPK children scoring lower than the control children on most of the measures. The differences were significant on both achievement composite measures and on the math subtests. The moderating effects of ESL status and mothers’ education were no longer significant, but it is interesting to note that whether or not ESL children experienced TN‐VPK, by the end of third grade, their achievement was greater than either of the native English speaking groups of children.

That is to say, the children in the special pre-K program were doing worse than the others in terms of academic achievement, the cognitive outcome.

For those advocating more pre-K programs designed by more education experts and researchers, the evaluators found even more discouraging results. Here is how they put it:

In terms of behavioral effects, in the spring the first grade teachers reversed the fall kindergarten teacher ratings. First grade teachers rated the TN‐ VPK children as less well prepared for school, having poorer work skills in the classrooms, and feeling more negative about school. It is notable that these ratings preceded the downward achievement trend we found for VPK children in second and third grades. The second and third grade teachers rated the behaviors and feelings of children in the two groups as the same; there was a marginally significant effect for positive peer relations favoring the TN‐VPK children by third grade teachers. (p. 5)

In other words, children in the special pre-K program were doing worse than other students by the end of first grade in terms of their behavioral traits.

 

Conclusions

 

The evaluation researchers wrap up by stating that the structural support exists in Tennessee to continue to explore pre‐K as a way to prepare children for success in school, “… but we need to think carefully about what the next steps should be. It is apparent that the term pre‐k or even “high‐quality” pre-k does not convey actionable information about what the critical elements of the program should be” (p. 5). That is to say, the education experts, university professors, and educational researchers – after many decades of trying – do not seem to know what “high-quality” means if it is going to translate into significant and long-term benefits for young children who become older students.

Lipsey, Harran, and Hofer also conservatively note the following:

Now is the time to pay careful attention to the challenge of serving the country’s youngest and most vulnerable children well in the pre‐k programs like TN‐VPK that have been developed and promoted with their needs in mind. (p. 5).

 

The researchers wisely note that their findings are consistent with those of others that have shown that the long-term benefits of other pre-K programs (e.g., Head Start) are absent or very weak and very limited. Even more wisely, the evaluators point out that when evaluation findings turn out not to support current policy or popular view, they tend to be ignored or, worse, even purposely misinterpreted (p. 38-39).

This author offers two points in conclusion. First, how much more time, energy, and taxpayer money do education experts, educational researchers, legislators, and policymakers think they need to spend to maybe – potentially – create some institutional program that is run by government-certified teachers and experts that will cause young children to learn better and have eager learning habits through their K-12 years and into adulthood?

Second, could it be that researchers Tizard, Hughes, Carmichael, and Pinkerton (1983) and Tizard and Hughes (1984) found the answer back in the early 1980s when they reported that preschool children are cognitively better off at home with their mums than in preschool run by education specialists, and that working class (less privileged) children are actually educationally harmed by being in preschool rather than at home with their mums? And, might it be that this is what the body of research on the modern homeschooling community – that consistently finds, on average, higher academic achievement associated with homeschooling than with institutional public schooling (Murphy, 2012; Ray, 2013)  – is also suggesting to the experts and the general public?

 

References

 

Lipsey, Mark W.; Farran, Dale C.; & Hofer, Kerry G. (2015). A randomized control trial of the effects of a statewide voluntary prekindergarten program on children’s skills and behaviors through third grade (Research Report). Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University, Peabody Research Institute. Retrieved October 15, 2015 from  http://peabody.vanderbilt.edu/research/pri/VPKthrough3rd_final_withcover.pdf.

Murphy, Joseph. (2012). Homeschooling in America: Capturing and assessing the movement. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, a Sage Company.

Ray, Brian D. (2013). Homeschooling associated with beneficial learner and societal outcomes but educators do not promote it. Peabody Journal of Education, 88(3), 324-341.

Tizard, Barbara, & Hughes, Martin. (1984). Young children learning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Tizard, Barbara, Hughes, M., Carmichael, H., & Pinkerton, G. (1983). Language and social class: Is verbal deprivation a myth?  Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 24(4), 533-542.

 

 

Endnote

 

  1. The “Perspectives – News and Comments” section of this journal consists of articles that have not undergone peer review.