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Getting Ahead With Early Ed? Proving Preschool With Performance

By Annie Gilbertson | Published 18 Mar 2013 06:49am | comments

JACKSON, Miss., and NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Pre-Kindergarten education is hot topic. In his State of the Union address, President Obama made it a priority- then took to the road, touring the south to sell the idea. "I proposed working with states like Georgia to make high quality preschool available to every child in America," says Obama. "Every child!"

But skeptics abound, including Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who says ,"We have 1.4 billion dollars going into publicly funded early childhood education. Yet we have very little idea what kind of quality we are getting with those dollars."

Kindergarten teachers say they don’t need scientific proof that pre-k makes a difference by the time children start school. Joni Wells is a public school Pre-K Teacher  in Nashville.

  “You can tell who’s never been in pre-k before," says Wells. "And it puts the kindergarten teachers at a deficit when you have children who have never picked up a crayon, who’ve never held scissors, who’ve never used glue.”

Pre-kindergarten programs are voluntary in many southern states, and only a few—like Tennessee—provide funding for public school pre-k, and there’s always a waiting list.

A scientific study by Vanderbilt University’s Peabody Institute shows it’s worth the wait - and cost. Researchers are wrapping up a 5-year study that follows Tennessee children who attended public school pre-kindergarten through third grade. Early results show those students are 80-percent better prepared for school than their peers-- especially in literacy and math.  Vanderbilt Peabody researchers Dr. Mark Lipsey and Dr. Dale Farran say that’s significant.

"From the standpoint of what we see in research these were surprisingly large effects," says Lipsey.

"In terms of being prepared for kindergarten and having the learning dispositions that make a different long-term, they them higher," adds Farren.

The burning question is whether those pre-k effects last throughout a child’s education. Lipsey says the Vanderbilt research is one of few studies seeking hard scientific evidence to provide some answers.

"It would be wonderful if we find that these effects sustain all the way through 3rd grade and beyond," says Lipsey. "That would be a very find demonstration for pre-k. But somewhere in the mix you have to take into account what kind of classrooms and what kind of situations they’re going into later grades."

While the Vanderbilt studies do show a wide gap between the skills of disadvantaged kids that attend preschool and those that don't - a study of the federally funded Head Start program shows that by the time 3rd grade comes around... the kids that attended pre-k have lost whatever edge they gained in preschool.

Forrest Thigpen of the MississippiCenter for Public Policy, a conservative lobbying group, says that should cause lawmakers to pause and rethink support for pre-k.

"Especially for something that is not proven to work over time," says Thigpen. "Pre-k can help kids in the early grades, but the benefits fade out."

It's what's known as the pre-K fade.

"It’s such a fascinating name – the pre-k fade," says Doug Imig, a researcher with the Urban Child Institute in Memphis, Tenn. "It sounds like it’s pre-k’s fault. We never call it the second grade fade."

Imig says what the Head Start data really shows is that disadvantaged students don’t get the same quality of instruction in later grades and begin to lose the advantage they gained in preschool.

"Let’s make sure that kids that get the start in prekindergarten, that are put on a pathway to thrive, that pathway doesn’t stop," says Imig.

Kids such as 11-year old Shaleria Thomas in Jackson, Mississippi. She says, it makes no sense to try to pin her 5th-grade struggles with dividing decimals on preschool.

"Went to preschool. They teach you some stuff, but they don’t teach you the big stuff you need as you go on to other grades," says Thomas.

Preschool helped Thomas when she was four, but to maintain her edge, five days a week she goes to after school tutoring for disadvantaged kids. Thomas says while she is not four anymore, she still needs a helping hand.

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