- Associated Press - Monday, September 28, 2015

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Gov. Bill Haslam said Monday that he’s still supportive of Tennessee’s pre-kindergarten program despite a study that shows academic gains made by some of the children enrolled fade in early elementary grades.

The five-year study, a coordinated effort between Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development and the Tennessee Department of Education, found that children in the state program made greater gains on a range of early achievement measures than comparable peers who did not attend pre-K.

However, by the end of kindergarten, the study found that children who were not in the program had caught up and there were no longer significant differences between the two groups. By second grade, the academic performance of both groups of children had flattened out and began to lag below national norms, according to the study. The latest round of results shows that this trend has continued through the third grade.

“We’re pretty stunned looking at these data and have a lot of questions about what might be going on in the later grades that doesn’t seem to be maintaining, if not accelerating, the positive gains the … attendees made in pre-K,” said Mark Lipsey, director of the Peabody Research Institute, and a professor in the Department of Human and Organizational Development at Peabody.

Haslam told reporters following an event in Nashville Monday morning that he hasn’t had a chance to thoroughly examine the data, but that “K-12 is an area that I would like for us to put more dollars into.”

“We have to do that in context to the budget and in context to where it will get the best results,” said the Republican governor. “We’ll take this as data to evaluate its effectiveness, versus other things that we might do. My sense is quality pre-K, with good follow up, can have an impact.”

The study also noted the variability in the quality of Tennessee’s pre-K classrooms. The program was introduced in Tennessee in 1996 as a way to provide academic enhancement to economically disadvantaged children. It expanded in 2005 to serve 18,000 Tennessee children in 935 classrooms across all 95 counties. But the quality, practices, and curriculum vary widely from site to site, the study found.

“What might you get from the same pre-K program if you had a common vision and could push the quality up?” said Dale Farran, co-principal investigator and the Antonio M. and Anita S. Gotto Professor of Teaching and Learning at Peabody. “These are among the questions we are raising in light of the findings of our study.”

State House Democratic leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley, a longtime supporter of pre-K, said in a statement that “early childhood education works” and the “challenge is to sustain … growth as students move to higher grade levels.”

“So the question is not does early childhood education work - it does,” Fitzhugh said. “The question is whether Tennessee will invest in the education infrastructure necessary to support those gains long-term. That remains to be seen.”

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