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A study suggesting the benefits of pre-K may not be long-lasting has sparked debate in Tennessee, where proposals for state-funded, universal programs are an issue in this year's governor's race. What’s behind the finding, and what are the keys to quality early education? John Yang reports from Memphis.
Roughly 1.5 million American children attend state and federally funded pre-kindergarten in 43 states and Washington, D.C., but research shows quality and access vary across states, even from one classroom to the next.
A number of states want to improve the quality of pre-K classes, and that's been playing out in Tennessee.
John Yang is back with this report he filed from Memphis for our weekly segment Making the Grade.
In Deanna Raynor's pre-K classroom in Memphis, the lessons go beyond just the ABCs.
I really want them to know how to get along, socialize well, you know, learn how to problem-solve, learning how to stay in control, understanding themselves, understanding that other people have feelings just like they do.
For Raynor's students, that means learning to settle my glitter.
Settle my glitter, what does that mean?
That's just like when I'm just all out of whack and I'm just like, oh, my goodness. And so, you know — so, when you're settling your glitter is just calming down.
In order for the children to really do well in school, in society, at home as a whole, that, you know, we need to be rooted and grounded socially and emotionally.
Porter-Leath, a nonprofit group, designed this state-of-the art early childhood academy to not only teach children, but also teach teachers, hoping to improve pre-K education across the area.
Here, social-emotional skills are an essential part of learning, skills, educators say, that will help children in kindergarten, elementary school and throughout life.
In Tennessee, debate over pre-K has been sparked by a study that suggests the benefits may not be lasting.
Mark Lipsey, a professor at Vanderbilt University's Peabody College of Education, studied children the state's voluntary pre-K program, which targets low-income families
The kids who didn't go to pre-K actually are doing better than the kids who did go to pre-K on the state achievement tests, for example. In third grade, there are significant differences favoring the group that didn't go to pre-K on the math and science measures.
Lipsey says more research is needed to figure out why that is, are pre-K programs lacking, or are elementary schools not reinforcing the benefits of pre-K?
Experts say the expectations for long-term effects from pre-K come from two model programs in the 1960s and '70s. Studies found that, as adults, participants had higher graduation rates, better wages and more stable marriages.
But Lipsey says those programs served a small number of children beginning at infancy. He says nine months of pre-K on such a large scale today are unlikely to have similar results.
I frankly don't think we're going to see the life-changing kinds of long-term outcomes. There's just no real evidence of — no real convincing evidence of that for contemporary pre-K programs.
Early education advocates say that doesn't mean pre-K programs have no value.
We don't have teachers who are just babysitting children.
Karen Harrell is vice president at Porter-Leath, which educates children from low-income families who are heading to first grade in Shelby County Public Schools. It is not part of the state pre-K program.
They're actually teaching children and they're challenging children. They're helping to grow our children, so that they can in turn be productive citizens.
DeAnna McClendon is director of early childhood programs for public schools in Shelby County, where 47 percent of the children live in poverty. She says, in her district, students who had pre-K outperform those who didn't through the third grade.
Without the nine months in pre-K, I think that our children and our families in this community almost never catch up.
And so nine months can be a deal-breaker for the children and families in our community. They can either make you or break you.
Tennessee's voluntary pre-K program began in 2005. Now almost every school district in the state has at least one full-day pre-K classroom.
Enrollment is more than 18,000. Tennessee ranks in the middle of state pre-K programs on most measures, including per child spending and access.
Proposals for state-funded universal pre-K are an issue in this year's Tennessee governor's race. Opponents are citing the Vanderbilt study.
Current pre-K does have mixed results, the data shows.
As at this candidates forum earlier this year.
They need to be high-quality programs, not just baby-sitting.
Improving quality is the idea behind Porter-Leath's teacher training project, the first in the state for pre-K instructors.
Some classrooms are set up for monitoring. Playgrounds aren't just for children to play. They're places for teachers to observe. Porter-Leath, which is funded by federal Head Start money and private donations, not only trains its own teachers and classroom assistants; it offers training for others, including those in public schools, free of charge.
And Porter-Leath takes a holistic approach. Family case workers help parents with housing, jobs and their own education.
County School administrator DeAnna McClendon:
This is a way for single parents, working moms, families who are trying to get themselves established, and they're young families. I think this is a way of supporting them as a family.
The Vanderbilt looked at standardized test scores as the measure of math and language skills. But what about the kind of social-emotional skills that Deanna Raynor teaches?
Is there an easy way to measure the other part, the getting along, the behaving, the sort of knowing how to interact and all work together?
As far as measuring it, we have had children who first came in who were very feisty, you know, I'm with my hands, you know, I'm using my hands inappropriately, my words inappropriately. So, now, when I'm getting upset, you know, I feel — you know, I'm keeping myself together. I'm not reaching out.
We go over those rules.
You talk about helping the whole child. Do standardized test scores miss something?
I think it absolutely misses something. We need to be in a position to whereas we're educating our children on, how do I self- regulate? How do I calm myself down when I have a situation or a conflict comes up?
If children cannot listen, if they cannot follow instructions, then they're not going to be able to learn.
All important skills, early education advocates say, for a child's long-term education.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang in Memphis.
So important to follow these education stories.
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John Yang is a correspondent for the PBS NewsHour. He covered the first year of the Trump administration and is currently reporting on major national issues from Washington, DC, and across the country.
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