The evidence of the value of high-quality pre-k has always far exceeded reports that pre-k is not effective. That trend continues with the release of a study by Nobel Prize-winning economist, James Heckman, detailing the benefits of high-quality pre-k that extend into adulthood. And because high-quality is essential to sustained pre-k benefits, Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-k program is continuing to improve and school districts, both urban and rural, are adding pre-k classrooms. Below, you can take a look at the Heckman study and the state preschool report from the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER).
“High quality pre-k works – students who are enrolled in quality programs have a measurable advantage over their peers who do not attend pre-k. The 2016 reforms approved by the Tennessee General Assembly, including the introduction of competitive grants for VPK funding, elevated quality standards across the state for truer consistency of quality. Tennessee should continue to demand that pre-k programs receiving state investment meet the highest quality standards. The next step is to expand pre-k access for all disadvantaged Tennessee 4-year-olds and commit to a program of higher quality in grades K-3 so that pre-k gains are sustained through 3rd grade.
The fact that almost two-thirds of Tennessee school students are not proficient in English or math in third grade underscores an urgent need for change and a focus on improving early education from birth to third grade. We must be fully committed to improving the quality of children’s early learning as a fundamental strategy to improving Tennessee’ entire public education system.
That’s a policy direction and investment that Tennesseans stand behind, according to a statewide survey conducted for TQEE in fall 2018. Eighty-six percent believe that early grades form the building blocks for all learning, and 94 percent support expansion of pre-k to all 4-year-old Tennesseans.”
With recent news that the State of Tennessee Department of Education (TNDOE) has granted funding for Voluntary Pre-K (VPK) classrooms in 138 school districts, it’s important to underscore that investment in high quality Pre-K is vital if Tennessee is going to improve our public schools.
The immediate priority is to improve the percentage of third grade students reading on grade-level from 34 percent in 2016 to 75 percent by 2025 – a fundamental goal of the TNDOE’s strategic plan, Tennessee Succeeds.
Pre-K plays a central role in improving third grade achievement for all students, and especially underserved groups of children, including children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and those with special needs. Students who fall behind in the early years rarely catch up in later grades when remediation efforts are costlier and less likely to succeed, which is why a strong foundation of early education is an imperative.
In Pre-K – as in all grades – quality in teaching and curriculum is essential. And quality has been a big focus of Tennesseans for Quality Early Education (TQEE) and other statewide advocates for a stronger system of early education.
In 2016, the Tennessee General Assembly approved the Pre-K Quality Act, which for the first time since Tennessee premiered Pre-K in 2005, defined program quality, standards and student performance measures. An added boost emerged from the Gates Foundation through a partnership with the Ounce of Prevention Fund and Alliance for Early Success, titled the Partnership for Pre-K Improvement (PPI). Tennessee was one four states chosen in 2016 to participate in the PPI national cohort of states leading the charge to make pre-k high quality and impactful.
The confluence of these efforts has resulted in numerous positive changes to the state’s Pre-K program, including those outlined below.
- Pre-k quality has been defined. For the first time since the VPK program was founded, Pre-K quality has been defined in a clear, coherent and evidenced-based definition. All Pre-K improvement efforts are aligned to the new definition to ensure consistency in quality.
- Pre-K, K, and 1st through 3rd grade standards have been revised. TN’s K-12 Academic Standards and Early Learning Developmental Standards have been revised and aligned in English Language Arts and Math. Standards were implemented in 2017-18.
- Pre-K funding is dependent on demonstrated progress towards high quality. Prior to 2016, districts received VPK funds based on formulas largely unchanged since VPK’s founding a decade prior. In 2016-17, TNDOE instituted a competitive grant process aligned to quality benchmarks. The grant application set a high bar for programs to meet to ensure their programs are funded.
The VPK competitive grant application and process have been continuously improved each year, based on district feedback and data, and in 2018-19 the department experienced the most successful grant administration to date.
- Pre-K and kindergarten teachers now have a way to monitor student learning. In 2017-18, TNDOE instituted a new pre-k and kindergarten student growth portfolio model that helps teachers track and monitor student learning aligned to priority literacy and math standards.
- New curriculum has been adopted. The TNDOE reduced the number of state-approved Pre-K curricula from 37 options to only 3 evidenced-based, high-quality curricula. The department invested in training and materials for VPK districts to implement the new high-quality curricula in 2018-19. The department is piloting a coaching initiative in 2019-20 to further supports districts in quality curriculum implementation.
- Data is being collected on the efficacy of VPK classrooms. For the first time since the VPK program was scaled in 2008-9, and was evaluated by Vanderbilt in 2009-10, statewide data has been collected using the CLASS tool to provide a baseline measure to assess quality improvement efforts, including instructional quality and teacher-student interactions.
Ensuring access and quality for students in pre-k programs statewide is challenging. To build on the success of the initiatives outlined above, it is important for Tennessee to prioritize early learning and further focus Pre-K improvement efforts, particularly in the following areas:
- Data collection. To continuously assess progress of the state’s Pre-K improvement efforts, the department will need to collect data from CLASS, ECERS or other tools. Key to continued success is selection of the right metrics aligned to the department’s definition of quality, adequate resources dedicated to data collection and analysis, and successful implementation of assessment.
- Funding that reflects the cost of quality. The amount of VPK funding a district receives per classroom has not changed in a decade, despite increases in teacher salaries and other programming costs, leaving districts to make up for any resulting shortfall of funds if they choose to maintain and/or expand their capacity. Additional investment in the VPK program should factor in the actual cost of quality per classroom, based on the state’s definition of quality and the actual costs to maintain a quality program.
- Professional development and monitoring. Currently, there is one administrator at the department to lead, manage, monitor, and assess Tennessee’s VPK program statewide. Successful Pre-K programs in benchmark states that have seen long-term positive impact ensure adequate resources are provided to support and monitor district pre-k programs. To build district capacity to effectively support teachers, focus should be placed on targeted professional learning and monitoring for districts.
- A systems approach to access. Demand is high in many regions for quality Pre-K programs, and Tennessee families overwhelmingly want more access for all children, but expansion is a challenge due to state budget constraints, quality issues that must be problem-solved, and the potential negative impact of Pre-K expansion on child care in Tennessee. To ensure access and quality, Tennessee must develop a systems-approach to Pre-K, potentially including blended funding, coordinated enrollment through multiple providers, and better alignment between the policies, governance structure and practices of the department of education and department of human services, which leads and manages child care in the state.
Early education advocates across Tennessee are cheering results of the 2019 Tennessee legislative session that include a slate of approved policy proposals aimed at boosting learning prior to third grade as a strategy to improve Tennessee’s public education system.
Highlights include a new pilot to create a network of early grades literacy and math coaches to help teachers in the state’s lowest performing schools, an increase in funding for evidence-based home visiting (EBHV) programs, and ongoing funding and more robust training and improvements for Pre-K and kindergarten teachers who use the portfolio model to measure academic growth. And the Tennessee General Assembly formed a bipartisan House and Senate caucus to provide exclusive focus on early education policy.
Altogether, approval of these policies delivers a successful outcome to an agenda of the state’s leading early education advocates, said Mike Carpenter, executive director of Tennesseans for Quality Early Education (TQEE).
“This was a very successful legislative session for our youngest students and an indication that Tennessee is committed to building a stronger early education system,” Carpenter said. “All Tennesseans want better education outcomes. The policies supported by the General Assembly and Lee administration move Tennessee in the right direction of building a more robust system of quality education for children from birth to third grade and to accelerate progress that helps Tennessee kids get a smart start in life. This legislative session was a necessary step to address the unacceptable condition of our student’s proficiency scores and begin to build a foundation that produces better outcomes.”
While in the past decade Tennessee made strides as one of the most improved states in education outcomes, it still ranks in the bottom half of all states. Most Tennessee students in grades 3-12 are not proficient in math or English; by the third grade, most Tennessee students are behind and remain there.
TQEE was formed to address poor proficiency and advocate for strong early education programs that can help students get a strong start that ensures they are proficient before they enter third grade. TQEE achieved success on its 2019 policy agenda, which included the coaching pilot program, maintaining the state’s commitment to voluntary Pre-K and EBHV programs.
Governor Bill Lee’s administration increased financial support to create a coaching pilot to support early grades teachers in low performing schools and the General Assembly provided additional funding to support EBHV programs that help connect parents with community resources to assist parenting, health, development and learning of their young children.
Creation of the coaching pilot is a strategic approach to provide early grades teachers with greater support as the state works toward a goal to increase the percentage of third graders who are reading, writing and doing math on grade level from about 37 percent today to 75 percent by 2025. Embedding instructional coaches in schools to support teachers is proven to be a successful tool to improve teaching and student outcomes.
EBHV is a nationally proven programming that is successfully applied in many Tennessee communities to assist young parents, improve their parenting skills, reduce abuse and neglect, improve health of babies and ready children for learning. Studies demonstrate that EBHV has an impressive $5.70 return for every $1 of public investment through reduction of costs for remedial education, public financial support, criminal justice and other societal impacts. “TQEE thanks Governor Lee, Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn, Senate Education Chairman Dolores Gresham, House Education Chairman White, Senator Steve Dickerson and Representative Bill Dunn, and the legislature for supporting strong early education,” Carpenter said.
Let’s face it, parenting can be difficult and getting a child prepared to attend school can be a challenge, even under perfect circumstances. For these Oak Ridge families, pre-K was a valuable advantage in getting their kids ready to be learners.
Within this group, impediments to speech and hearing compounded the usual challenges of early-years education.
For Jerry and Jerri Amonette’s daughter, it meant helping young Ciara overcome a hearing deficiency and learn to function with new implants.
“She was more silent,” Jerry says. “So, until the cochlear implants, she couldn’t follow what was going on when it came to playing and things with the other kids. So they encouraged a lot more interaction and was just really a good experience.”
A Vanderbilt study in 2015 confirmed what Tennessee Pre-K teachers had been seeing for years: Tennessee’s high quality Pre-K programs get children ready for kindergarten. Ciara, now in middle school, would eventually become a straight-A student just like James and John Brown.
Teresa Brown says her boys got the social skills necessary to succeed from their time in pre-K.
“They really were kind of attached to each other and that gave them the opportunity to actually have other friends and do other things, not just together, but to branch out and to learn separately,” Teresa says. “They made a lot of friends. The teacher was really, really good with them to the point where when she got married they came to her wedding and actually danced with her at her wedding.”
The curriculum built throughout their year, introducing the boys to everything from letters and colors to core concepts they would carry into Kindergarten.
“I still have the portfolio because they put so much together,” Teresa says. “They took pictures all year round so that you see the progress that the child did. You actually see where they were maybe not being able to do ABCs to the end that they were naturals at ABCs or they have accomplished their colors, or learned their address. And it makes a big difference. When you can see the progress at the end, you can see where your child began and where the child has learned and has elevated.”
Fabiola Macias and her family moved to Oak Ridge from Chicago to be near family. Her son Sergio, the challenge of learning English was compounded by the fact that he needed surgery to fix a birth defect on his tongue that threatened his speaking ability.
“It was just Spanish at home, and when he started preschool all the teachers were so worried about it and, willing to learn a few of the words for him,” Fabiola says. “After his surgery, he caught up on English like nobody else. He was just fine, and you know me trying to learn the language too, it was just like, they were so supportive of him and before he got to kindergarten he got the experience of, exposed to letters and sounds and all the colors and shapes.”
She says that Sergio’s older brother spent a couple of years playing catch-up with the language where Sergio was ready for kindergarten.
“The difference is that my oldest didn’t have the opportunity to be in a pre-K program. We had just moved to Tennessee and he was just in a kind of daycare-like program. So, it was not the same curriculum, it was mostly like a daycare,” Fabiola says. “Even the teachers in the parent-teacher conference told me they were afraid that he might fail kindergarten because, being bilingual and never being exposed to any other program, he was getting really behind.”
Like many areas, Oak Ridge has an application process for pre-K, and Fabiola wishes it were available to help more kids.
“It’s a shame that you have to qualify for it,” Fabiola says. “It would be awesome if everybody else has the same opportunity, not just because we have low income, or we have special needs. I wish all kids who want it could be able to be part of these kind of programs, because they have extremely huge impact on the kids when they move to kindergarten. In our case, my son needed surgery. By the first month of preschool, he was barely saying three full words in Spanish, and nothing in English. After the surgery, he was enrolled in the program and began to speak English (very easily).”
A TQEE poll in September found that 93 percent of parents think voluntary pre-K should be made available to all four-year-olds.
How does Pre-K impact the lives of the children and families that participate? A group of Wilson County parents recently wrote letters to Lebanon Special School District leaders with their enthusiastic description of how the experience has advanced their children’s development and prepared their children to succeed when they attend kindergarten.
“My kids attending her class drastically impacted every part of [our twins’] lives and it is even more evident now that they are in Kindergarten,” wrote one parent. “They are both in the top percentages in their class and in the advanced reading groups. We are beyond grateful that our children were able to attend Pre-K and the positive influence from Mrs. Mandy (Pittman) on their education is immeasurable.”
This Lebanon parent, in a note to the Castle Heights school, said that Pre-K helped children overcome the separation anxiety that can come from being a twin.
High quality early education has been repeatedly shown to help children, especially economically disadvantaged children, close skill gaps and become “kindergarten ready,” both academically and emotionally.
Kristen Griffin, whose daughter attends Coles Ferry, echoed this sentiment regarding her daughter, Raegan.
“Raegan would come home most days bragging with excitement about what new project they were working on, the new sounds and shapes she recognized and all the fun activities they had done to make learning fun,” Griffin wrote to Lebanon School District officials. “She went in a great kid but came out an even greater kid with more confidence than ever and a passion for learning in the classroom. Going into kindergarten this year, she is reading above average and is excelling in math. We couldn’t be happier with our pre-K experience.”
Dr. Penny Thompson is instructional coordinator and director of Pre-K for Lebanon Special School District. She’s thrilled with the accolades from parents as they affirm the district’s high quality early education program.
“This response speaks highly of our teachers and program,” Thompson said. “We have teachers working effectively with students and their families so that children are successful in their educational career. Our program supports teachers, students and families. That approach facilities the excellent education that these students are getting.”
A Vanderbilt study in 2015 confirmed what Tennessee Pre-K teachers had been seeing for years: children are better prepared for kindergarten by attending Pre-K, academically and emotionally.
“Before Pre-K, my daughter was not used to being around children her age,” wrote Alejandra Vega-Rojas. “Being in pre-K with children her age taught her how to express her feelings, sharing and caring for others. It taught her how to be more independent. Most importantly, it prepared her for Kindergarten. My daughter attending pre-K was such an important start for her education.”
Tennessee’s voluntary Pre-K program serves approximately 18,000 children — roughly 42 percent of disadvantaged four-year olds — a number which has remained stagnant since 2007-8, even as wait lists in some districts continue to grow. Parents understand the value. A TQEE poll in September found that 94 percent of parents think voluntary Pre-K should be made available to all four-year-olds.
Kelly Norton’s children have seen the benefits, too.
“I started working with him when he was three years old because it was recommended for him to attend a pre-K program. He was behind, developmentally, and his pediatrician thought pre-K would be the best course of action,” Norton wrote. “I could tell my son was making progress, but at some point, something just clicked with him. He started to communicate with everyone at home better. He would tell me what he wanted. He would tell me about his day. He would tell me about his classmates, he even went so far as asking to go to birthday parties and friends’ houses. I believe that my son being in the pre-K program has a lot to do with his progress.”
And now that her second is in the same program, she’s experiencing the same results.
“My daughter has been attending pre-K for three months now. Since she started, I have noticed her verbal skills getting better and her making friends. This was a big deal to me as she has always been very shy and timid,” Norton wrote. “I believe this program is a wonderful thing for young children. On an educational level, this is such a phenomenal program, as they do the testing to make sure kids are developmentally on track and then address any issues a student may have. This pre-K program is the best foundation for any child.”
About two minutes into a conversation with Lenoir City Schools teacher and Preschool Program Director Melody Hobbs, you start to realize how much she has invested in learning how preschoolers work.
“I love the four-year-old mind. I mean, it’s not three and it’s not five. Right?” Hobbs says with a laugh. “I mean, it’s just so … four. They’re naturally inquisitive, they’re curious and they want to learn more. It’s such an explosive time for child development. All those early years are, so I say that in the context of what is exploding when children are four, but they’re beginning to put ideas together in their play, in their writing. They are being able to think about things they’re reading about and living them out, and building relationships, problem solving. They have a wonder about the world around them.”
Hobbs has immersed herself in the four-year-old mind for almost a quarter of a century now. As part of a pioneering Lenoir City Schools program that began serving pre-K children in the early 1990s, she has seen first hand what works and what doesn’t. She knows that having the preschool program in the same building as the elementary helps kids transition into a school setting. She knows how it aligns the kids with the kindergarten program, even though it’s a different environment. And she knows that play can be a powerful gateway into learning.
“Of course, we all know that environmental print is everywhere around and kids are so susceptible to be able to quickly identify, ‘That’s McDonald’s and that’s Burger King and that’s a Wendy’s logo,’ right? I mean that’s all this kind of environmental print,” Hobbs says. “What we’re hoping to really establish with young children is that they have ideas that can be written down and that those ideas can be written down in a way that can be read by other people. Children need to practice scribbling or painting big strokes on an easel to get those muscles ready to write those letters or also to begin to make letter-like formations that are mock letters. That would be a next step. Then maybe scribble marks.
“I have one of these great artifacts that this child — and it’s like three scribble marks on a piece of paper, okay — he came to me and he was like, ‘Alright ma’am, I see you ordered a sausage and pepperoni pizza and you wanted it delivered to this house.’ In his play he was writing down an order and an address and then going back and reading it, right? So, all of those kinds of ideas. We know all of that needs to take place in order to establish a firm foundation for what we would consider conventional reading and writing.”
Through this play, he is building early literacy skills by representing letters, words and ideas in print. At this stage, it does not matter what the print looks like as much as the use of print in an appropriate activity. This is the first step to becoming a proficient writer.
Kindergarten teachers see the benefit. Whether it’s the social/emotional component or just kids being able to concentrate on what the teacher wants them to do, preschoolers are able to be more “settled in their surroundings,” Hobbs says.
When kindergarten teachers spend less time acclimating students to school, being in a group, and engaging in a classroom, they get to spend more time teaching valuable skills aligned to important learning standards.
“I think what we, as a whole preschool, really provide for kids is the curiosity and the wonder of learning, to be a learner and to wonder and to question and to think. We were hoping that preschool is providing kids with problem solving abilities, to think outside the box, to see from someone else’s lens. I mean, all of these are kind of soft-skill social-emotional skills that are so critical for 4-year-old children, but yet are really those learning dispositions that we hope children tend again to acquire.” We know that critical thinking and problem solving are essential skills not only for success in school but also in work and life. These carry children through on whatever path they choose.
And sometimes that means just expanding on the playground.
“Certainly environments do matter and teaching does matter, but back in the day we used to have this old saying called ‘follow the child’s lead.’ What that meant was, whatever the child was interested in I would follow it,” Hobbs says. “The kids came with their hands cupped, you know about 10 kids around that found this daddy-long-legs spider, ‘Look what we found!’ Well, we’re talking about environment. Okay, and we’re talking about how plants and trees and animals and insects and people and land forms all make up environment. ‘Look what we found in our environment,’ they were saying that. Oh this is lovely, now we’ve got some language that we’re using, right? A big word, environment. What is it? Why, it’s a spider! Yes, it is a spider. Let’s look at this spider. Let’s look at his body parts. Let’s look at how many legs he has, how many legs, what makes him a spider and how is a spider different then from other insects? So, that whole opportunity, in the moment, following children’s leads, that’s good teaching.”
Through this play, children are not only nurturing their inherent sense of curiosity – vital to all learning – they are mastering critical literacy and science standards. They are acquiring new vocabulary words and discovering the multiple phases of the biological life cycle. When children are able to develop these concepts through meaningful experiences they not only retain the knowledge longer, they are also able to apply it to multiple contexts and situations. That is how standards are mastered and extended!
When in doubt, follow the four-year-olds.
Thanks for showing us how, Melody!
Mike, Lisa and the TQEE team
Explaining what the Voluntary Pre-K program in Kingsport City Schools means to my son Samuel and me is a “where do I begin” task. My son Samuel has many health issues that have the potential to interfere with his education. He requires extra attention to the health issues, yet needs to be encouraged to be more independent. The amount of experience and knowledge that I have encountered has made the process not only easier, but so exciting for me and my son. The entire staff has always seen just Samuel, to the point that I was allowed to be a “normal” nervous mom initially. Every need, medically, socially, and emotionally has been met in such an appropriate, and discreet way, that Samuel has flourished into a confident and independent little boy. He has met academic goals that my older son, who was not able to attend pre-k, struggled with throughout Kindergarten. As a mother, I am so excited about how ready he is for kindergarten!! Forever, we will be indebted to the amount of love, professionalism, and knowledge that our Voluntary Pre-K program has provided us!!
Charles Lampkin, a father of five, suddenly found himself as the sole parent of his five sons, with four of the them under the age of five. “I moved to Memphis from New York for a job and I did not anticipate being a single father, but those things happen and wound up with a 3 year old, a 2 year old, a 1 year old and one infant,” Lampkin recalls. “I was in trouble and looking for a daycare but a friend of mine suggested Porter-Leath instead because they are a school.”
Porter-Leath of Memphis, TN was founded in 1850 as orphanage. Over 100 years later, Porter-Leath switched its focus to children in foster care in the later stages of childhood. But far too often, interventions for these children focused on providing services well after problems started to arise. In 1999, Porter-Leath made a proactive approach to serve children at the beginning stages of childhood in order to lay a solid foundation for a child’s future.
As the sole grantee for Early Head Start, current contractor for all Head Start services in Shelby County, and a Pre-K provider for several municipal and charter schools in the Memphis metropolitan area, Porter-Leath serves over 6,000 low-income children and their families from birth to age five with high quality preschool services. Porter-Leath works with an extensive and growing list of qualified partners to provide comprehensive early childhood services that meet the full range of needs of children and families. These services prepare young children for success in school and provide their families with a full range of integrated and intensive support services to help them develop new futures.
Four of Lampkin’s sons attended Early Head Start and Head Start at Porter-Leath. “Porter-Leath was different for me because of the educational environment while a daycare would have provided just the basic needs for my children,” said Lampkin. Porter-Leath’s Preschool program strives to achieve measurable academic goals to insure students are ready for kindergarten on day one – academically, socially, and developmentally. To meet these goals, Porter-Leath uses a robust evidence-based curriculum and offers a dynamic array of health, disability, and nutrition services, all facilitated by the best-trained team of educators and family service providers.
“Porter-Leath was foundational for me because I saw what my children received and how that has prepared them for kindergarten. Now my second grader reads on a third grade level, my first grader reads on a second grade level, and my kindergartener reads on first grade level, that’s an achievement and I’m very proud of these guys.”
All Porter-Leath centers are accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and are three-star facilities as evaluated by the Tennessee Department of Human Services. For reference, there are currently 34 NAEYC accredited sites in Shelby County; Porter-Leath has eight of those. When asked who he credits to his children’s early academic success, Lampkin says, “Half has to do with daddy, but half has to do with the foundation that came from Porter-Leath. Porter-Leath (also) teaches them socially how to get along with friends, friends that look like you and friends that look different from you.” One of his boys learned how to speak Spanish from his classmate while another learned advanced math skills. “He might not have had that lesson from me at home if we were doing the basic learning at home because I wouldn’t have thought of that.”
Lampkin is happy that the Porter-Leath staff and leadership is committed to the mission of quality early education. “I believe that these educators here set out to hire good quality educators and are committed to these young people to see them get it one step at a time. My children have benefited tremendously from that. My kindergartener recently wrote a letter back to his Head Start teacher to say thank her and tell her that he was ready for kindergarten.” Lampkin smiled saying, “He’s ahead of the game, he is ready, his grades are indicative of that he is ready!”