Special Events: Peter. H Rossi Award: Roiling the Waters: Controversy over the First Longitudinal Randomized Study of a State Pre-K Program

Friday, November 9, 2018: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Lincoln 4 - Exhibit Level (Marriott Wardman Park)
Speakers:  Mark W. Lipsey, Vanderbilt University, Douglas Besharov, University of Maryland, College Park, Eric Hanushek, Stanford University, Rebecca Maynard, University of Pennsylvania and Larry Orr, Johns Hopkins University

The initial results of the Tennessee Pre-K study, showing positive effects on a range of school readiness outcomes at the end of the pre-k year, were not controversial. It was the follow-up that stirred up pre-k advocates and researchers. By end of kindergarten, the pre-k advantage was gone and the control group had caught up on every outcome. By third grade, pre-k participants were doing no better on some outcomes and worse on others, including the state achievement tests. The contrast with prior studies of the sustained effects of state pre-k were sharp: The research design was stronger, but the results were far less positive. This contrast raised immediate criticism of the credibility of these results but, alternatively, threw into relief the methodologically weak and/or over-generalized nature of much of the research that has driven state pre-k policy.


Our research team has continued to follow a subsample into the later grades, as well as further probing the earlier results. These continuing investigations have demonstrated that TN pre-k is not atypical of other state pre-k programs on a range of quality indicators. They have identified positive findings for children in concentrated poverty neighborhoods and ambiguous findings for children with K-3 exposure to higher quality teachers and schools. State achievement test, retention, special education, and disciplinary outcomes are now available through 6th grade along with data from student, parent, and teacher interviews on soft skills and behaviors that may have been influenced by pre-k experience.


Perhaps the most important outcome of the TN Pre-K study has been the questions the findings have raised for policy and research, and the associated discussion of such matters. Among these are questions about what is realistic to expect from scaled-up state pre-k programs, how children's experiences in K-3 interact with their pre-k gains, the influence of varying counterfactual conditions, and whether research has focused on the outcomes most influential for long-term positive development. Broader questions relate to the relative advantages and disadvantages of having state-funded pre-k in schools versus in community-based organizations, and the most constructive role for pre-k programs in a continuum of supportive services for disadvantaged children over the prenatal to preschool period.

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