Ten-year Tennessee study shows preschool associated with poorer student performance

Friday, February 11, 2022

A preschool in Seattle, Washington.
Image: Seattle City Council.

A team led by Dale Ferran disputed the idea that prekindergarten benefits children in the long term in a paper recently given advanced publication in Developmental Psychology.

The team followed 2990 low-income children from Tennessee, United States, who applied to attend the state's free public preschools. The study was a natural experiment, as entry is decided through a lottery, rather than merit-based system. Scientists then recorded the students' academic and personal achievements as they left preschool for kindergarten through sixth grade nearly ten years later.

Results showed while pre-K graduates initially appeared better prepared for school, their peers who had not caught up with them. By the time students finished second grade, those who hadn't attended preschool were outperforming the ones who had. The gap widened: sixth graders who had not attended preschool had fewer disciplinary issues, a lower rate of absenteeism, and were less likely to require special education services. There was no disparity for dropping out between the groups.

In 2015, Bill Haslam, then Governor of Tennessee, asked if quality of the preschool classes was the issue. Steven Barnett of Rutgers University's National Institute for Early Education Research agreed, identifying several mistakes the state had made in establishing new preschools, notably the lack of quality control, meant there was no way to tell what the teachers were doing in class.

All preschool classes in the study were taught by licensed teachers in the same buildings as public schools for older children.

A similar study on Boston, Massachusetts schoolchildren published in 2021 showed that preschool was associated with better academic and disciplinary outcomes, contradicting Farran's conclusion.

Farran speculated the abnormal results in her study were due to the level of control and discipline among teachers. Most of the Tennessee preschool teachers had been certified for pre-K through fifth or eighth grade, meaning only a fraction of their training had been specifically for students aged under five. Because the preschools were part of greater public school buildings, students spent much of the day being escorted or herded from their own classrooms to bathrooms or cafeterias, where their movement and sound levels were controlled.

In 2022, World Population Review ranked Tennessee at 38 out of the 50 US states for quality of K-12 education.

President Joe Biden's Build Back Better Plan includes greater funding for early child education.