The Tennessee Pre-K Debate: Spinach Vs. Easter Grass : NPR Ed A new Vanderbilt University study found that Tennessee's Voluntary Pre-K for low-income children has no lasting benefits, stirring up an age-old debate in education circles.

The Tennessee Pre-K Debate: Spinach Vs. Easter Grass

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For years, teachers, parents and politicians have been trying to answer this question - how important is preschool? A new study out of Vanderbilt University in Nashville has an answer that is as clear as it is controversial. Cory Turner of the NPR Ed team explains.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Tennessee's Voluntary Pre-K program is state-funded preschool on a grander scale. It serves 18,000 of the state's poorest children, costs about $86 million a year and is built on one big assumption - that preschool will make a difference in the lives of these kids. And it did, says Vanderbilt researcher Dale Farran.

DALE FARRAN: The children who'd had the Voluntary Pre-K program were much better prepared for kindergarten by all of our achievement measures - significantly so.

TURNER: Farran and her colleagues followed nearly 800 children through the program, along with a control group of kids, most of whom got no pre-K. And here's where the controversy starts - by the end of kindergarten, Farran noticed something odd in the data.

FARRAN: The children who had not had pre-K caught up.

TURNER: Keep in mind, all of the kids in the study are low-income, which makes the team's next headline even stranger.

FARRAN: By the end of second grade, the children who'd had state pre-K were underperforming the control children and that continued in third grade.

TURNER: Let me repeat that - Farran and her colleagues found that the kids who'd gotten no pre-K started doing better than the kids who got state-funded pre-K. Now, that kind of return on investment would make any politician queasy. Here's Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam yesterday.

BILL HASLAM: We'll take this as data to evaluate its effectiveness versus other things that we might do - again, increasing technology, paying teachers more, other investments that want to make in K-12 education.

TURNER: Though, Haslam also said this - that he still believes quality pre-K can have an impact. And that one word - quality - is the secret decoder ring you need to understand this study and its remarkable findings.

STEVEN BARNETT: If your program isn't very good, you can't expect it to have long-term impacts on kids.

TURNER: Steven Barnett is director of the National Institute for Early Education Research. He helped create the benchmarks that many states use to decide is their pre-K good enough? Barnett says Tennessee's program looks good - on paper. But when the state scaled it up to more than 900 classrooms across 95 counties, he says it made a few key mistakes. First, it created no mechanism for quality control to make sure teachers were following best practices from one end of the state to the other. Also Barnett says the state underfunded the program, and that's why Vanderbilt's Dale Farran says her research is not a failing grade for all preschool.

FARRAN: It's like saying spinach is really good for you, but we can't afford spinach. But here, I've got this Easter grass. Maybe that will be just as good.

TURNER: As in that shiny plastic stuff you layer into an Easter basket. This isn't the first report to show no lasting benefit from pre-K and it likely won't be the last. But it doesn't contradict the research that shows high-quality preschool can work. The difference is some of the biggest benefits have come from relatively small, expensive programs that reach children earlier and often provided more services. The challenge for states is not figuring out what works. It's figuring out how to pay for what works and then make it stretch across a state without turning spinach into plastic. Cory Turner, NPR News, Washington.

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