Report indicates Pre-K program an educational hoax
Greg Johnson

A sacred cow of the educational intelligentsia was gored last week, while this week a newborn educational reform idea, still taking its wobbly first steps, was threatened by the unfortunate comments of the vice-chairwoman of the Knox County Board of Education.

A report commissioned by the state comptroller's office during the administration of former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen found that Tennessee's Pre-K program has little or no long-term impact on student achievement. The study found "an initial near-term advantage associated with Pre-K participation in kindergarten and first grade-primarily for students who received Free/Reduced Price Lunch (FRPL) or are considered 'at-risk' due to socioeconomic status."

Two previous longitudinal analyses found "a slight advantage of Pre-K participation appears to be maintained among economically disadvantaged students through the second grade." But after second grade, any gains given by Pre-K disappear. Strategic Research Group, which conducted the study for the state, wrote, "For students in grades 3-5, analyses have found either no significant effect of Pre-K participation on assessment scores, or, in some cases, have found that students who attended Pre-K, on average, score lower than their non-Pre-K counterparts on some assessments."

With no observable irony, SRG concluded, "These results provide evidence that the objective of Tennessee's Pre-K program - school readiness - is being met."

But Knoxville Republican state Rep. Bill Dunn doesn't agree.

"This report should serve as a revelation for individuals who still believe Pre-K is some sort of answer for long-term achievement in education," said Dunn in a statement released by the House Republican Caucus. "The fact is, it just isn't. (Pre-K) may be the largest hoax ever perpetrated on the people of Tennessee." Your concerned columnist concurs.

Government can't solve every problem, and the ephemeral advantage of Pre-K, to this humble scribe, proves once again that until parental involvement - not just in PTA meetings and bake sales and such - improves for at-risk kids, they will revert to their pre-Pre-K performance patterns. Until reformers acknowledge that parents are key and devise strategies to provoke their engagement, no amount of money or time or effort will improve at-risk outcomes.

Like those who sell Pre-K as a panacea, Knox County school board Vice Chairwoman Karen Carson got it exactly wrong when she criticized Superintendent Jim McIntyre's strategic compensation plan released earlier this week. Carson fretted that by paying teachers based on performance and making the names of those excellent teachers public, Knox County would make it "easier for other districts to cherry-pick (Knox's) best teachers."

No, no, no, no! Carson has it all wrong. By implementing a bonus structure for educators who are "model teachers" or "exemplary teachers," Knox County is sending a message to teachers in East Tennessee, the state, the nation and the world who are committed to excellence that Knox County will reward them for doing their jobs well. This should not been seen as a "retention strategy," as Carson said, but as a recruitment tool.

When recent graduates and experienced teachers learn they can earn a $1,500 bonus for being a model teacher or $2,000 for being an exemplary teacher in Knox County, methinks many motivated, ambitious teachers will give Knox County Schools a second look due to the innovative pay structure. McIntyre's proposal even suggests that, if the incentive plan works well, the old model of paying teachers based only on longevity and degrees earned could be on the way out.

Should that sacred cow get skewered, Knox County would have a shot at the best and brightest teachers due to McIntyre's red-meat reforms.