Study sparks debate about pre-K success

Author: Tommy Millsaps
Source: The Monroe County Advocate

The debate over the effectiveness of the state’s preschool (pre-K) program is heating up.

State Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, is touting a recent study that contends gains made by students enrolled in the state’s voluntary pre-K program are gone by the time the students enter the second grade.

Dunn and others question if the money spent on pre-K would be better spent elsewhere for education.
“We have limited resources, so let’s spend them on something where we can see real results,” Dunn said in the Knoxville News Sentinel.

Others agree. “I think people can point to this study and that study,” said Mike Bell, who represents in the eastern portion of Monroe County and all of McMinn County in the Tennessee House.

But Bell said two studies paid for by the state support Dunn’s assertions that pre-K is not delivering the results promised. “I think its kind of hard to refute those studies,” he said.

Gov. Phil Bredesen kicked off his voluntary preschool program for at-risk 4-year-olds in 2005 with funding to add more than 300 preschool classrooms in Tennessee the first year.

The state again funded additional pre-K classrooms in 2006 and 2007, with both local school systems gaining pre-K classrooms, before a tight budget in 2008 froze the growth in number of classrooms.

But Bell believes the government is trying to take over doing things that parents used to do. He wants to see pre-K money spent on K-12 education programs.

Supporters of pre-K say students from disadvantage backgrounds need the extra help before they enter kindergarten.“I personally support pre-K because I feel it helps our children get a jump start on their educational experience and helps them learn to relate to other children and how to get along with others socially,” Director of Monroe County Schools Mike Lowry said.

Lowry said the biggest advantage is that pre-K students are introduced to books, reading material, and the alphabet, they learn at an early age how to associate letters and words and learn to read. “Of all the things we do in early elementary school, reading is by far the most important.  We must be successful readers to be successful in all other content areas,” he said.

The Sweetwater City School System has a long history with pre-K education.Sweetwater City has had a pre-K program well before Bredesen’s recent push.

Pre-K teacher Dee Dee Moore said her preschool classroom that started in 1989 was the first of its kind in the state and she is still teaching preschool children today.

Like Lowry, Moore said some 4-year-olds need the socialization and extra preparation to enter kindergarten.

Current Director of Sweetwater City Schools Dr. Keith Hickey was principal at Sweetwater Elementary when its first preschool classroom opened nearly 20 years ago.

The city school system now has three regular pre-K classrooms and a special education pre-K classroom that all total serve about 65 to 70 students, Hickey said.

That means nearly one-third of the city school system’s current kindergarten students have attended a preschool before entering kindergarten.

Hickey said many parents obviously believe placing their children in a pre-K helps.

He said there is still a waiting list of parents wanting to get their children in a pre-K classroom.

Hickey points out parents are willing to drive their children to school because bus service is not provided for the preschool pupils.

As you might expect, Dunn’s comments and the report he, Bell and other cite drew criticism from some state education officials.

Bobbi Lussier, executive director for the Office of Early Learning, said 95 percent of the data in the study is from the pilot pre-K program that began in 1998, not the new pre-K classrooms began in 2005.

Of the 6,265 pre-K students included in the “pre-K” group data, only 160 students were tested in all three years for grades K-2,” Lussier said.  This equates to only 2 percent of all pre-K students being included in this data, Lussier noted.

“Probably the most glaring flaw of this report is the design of the study. To accurately conduct a comparison study you must have baseline data to determine where these students started out. No baseline data exists, as we do not administer a standardized test in pre-K or collect data on programs attended by other 4 year-olds not in a state pre-K,” Lussier said in response to the report sent to school districts across the state.

But the future expansion of Bredesen’s pre-K program seems in jeopardy at least for now with the recent study and tight revenue clouding the picture.

The governor himself cut out funding for additional pre-K classrooms when the 2008-09 state budget was hammered out.

“If we are light on money, I guarantee you will not see the program grow,” Bell said, looking ahead to the 2009-10 fiscal year.