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Tennessee pre-K study doesn’t tell the whole story – Reuters

In January, a team of researchers from Vanderbilt University published a study that appeared to be a serious setback to promoting universal pre-K programs nationwide. The study found that children who enrolled in a Tennessee pre-kindergarten program in 2009 and 2010 had lower test and behavioral scores in sixth grade than children who did not. The study was touted by pre-K critics as another blow to President Biden’s Build Back Better bill, but the ramifications were even greater. The Media and Pundits Asked: Is Pre-K Really Bad?

The Tennessee study was carefully designed, comparing nearly 3,000 randomly selected low-income children from a group of test takers to a similar control group that was not selected. But pre-K isn’t bad, and studying isn’t the problem. This is how the language and techniques of academic research are mistranslated into the way education policy is understood by the public and policy makers.

Pre-K has been offered in various states and municipalities for decades, producing dozens of college studies. Most found positive effects on children. Less than a week after the Tennessee study was published, new research from Indiana has found positive results for pre-K on third- and fourth-grade test scores. As in Tennessee, the program is aimed at low-income families. We’ve all learned to stay focused on poll averages in tracking political contests, because even well-designed polls will sometimes yield inaccurate results. Research results should be treated the same way, and the equivalent of researching the average of the polls for pre-K – looking at multiple studies rather than just one – remains consistent and robust.

Yet negative results demand attention. One explanation for the poor results is that pre-K education in Tennessee around 2009 and 2010 was not as good as it should have been. Although childcare is, in itself, an important benefit for working parents, it is not enough, academically, just opening up a room for little kids to stay in all day. A good pre-K classroom has well-trained teachers who know how to structure the environment to encourage the development of language and cognitive skills. That doesn’t mean rigid instruction, but rather plenty of well-designed opportunities for enrichment and play.

The study authors offer evidence that the Tennessee program was of comparable quality to other states. But there’s reason to believe the overall quality still wasn’t as good. Between 2009 and 2012, researchers, including two of the new study’s co-authors, assessed a sample of 160 pre-K classrooms in Tennessee with a widely used survey instrument called the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale (ECERS), which assesses classroom design, environment, curricula, discipline, and the strategies teachers use to promote language and literacy. Only 15% of classrooms scored “good” or higher. Eleven classrooms scored below “minimum” quality.

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The Tennessee Legislature then passed the Pre-K Quality Act of 2016, which was designed to improve school curricula, provide training for pre-K teachers, and strengthen coordination with elementary schools.

While the negative results from the Tennessee study were highly unusual, the finding of diminishing returns was not. A number of other studies have shown that the academic benefits of pre-kindergarten sometimes fade over time. The authors question whether some pre-kindergarten classes might have been too focused on discrete, measurable goals like “knowing your ABCs” at the expense of broader literacy and executive functioning skills that will matter later. It’s a good question.

But the Tennessee study and the resulting blowback also illustrate a broader problem, which goes beyond education, in how research methods define complex systems and how the media portrays these results.

Research on what works is important, but it has its limits

The negative effects of pre-kindergarten in the Tennessee study were “statistically significant.” In common parlance, “significant” means “substantial” or “not insignificant”. In statistics, “significant” means something else: “a difference that is most likely not random”.

Imagine throwing a liter of white paint on a football field. Statistical significance means that “the field is, overall, unambiguously less green and whiter than it was before you dropped the paint.” It does not mean “a substantial part of the field is now white”. An effect can be statistically significant and practically insignificant at the same time.

The Tennessee study found that children who attended pre-K had an attendance rate of 97.1 percent in sixth grade, while children who did not attend pre-K had an attendance rate of 97. 5%; there were no significant differences in attendance between grades 1 and 5. This finding was reported in New York magazine because “pre-kindergarten attendees were also significantly more likely to miss class.” Which they were, in statistical terms – but what it ultimately refers to is a difference of 0.4 percentage points year in six. (The same observation can be made about some of the much larger numbers pre-K results: they are statistically significant but not particularly important.)

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The much larger debate over whether pre-K is worth the kind of huge national investment proposed by President Biden is often ill-served by the vocabulary and practice of modern social science, especially those that lead to journal articles and tenure promotions.

President Joe Biden visits the Capitol Child Development Center in Hartford, Connecticut in October 2021 to promote his Build Back Better plan.
Evan Vucci/AP

The Tennessee study uses powerful statistical techniques designed to find meaning in a fog of information. In a world awash with personal stories, anecdotes and ideologies, these methods, which have been greatly refined and improved over time, are extremely important. They help distinguish causation from correlation, pattern from chance, truth from fiction.

But they also impose a very specific mental model on everything they examine. Studies are designed to latch onto a discrete action and determine what happened next as a result of that event, and that event alone. They’re perfect for evaluating something we’re all now all too familiar with: vaccines. FDA trials randomly assign people to one of two groups. One receives the drug, the other a placebo. They wait a while and see if the people who received the medicine are less sick. It’s no coincidence that the authors of the Tennessee study describe pre-kindergarten as “treatment,” standard social science language.

The problem is that pre-K isn’t really like a vaccine. Raising a child is more like building a house. Nobody thinks of walls, windows and roofs as inconspicuous interventions designed to keep people warm and dry. They are components of a larger whole. If the roof leaks, you’re wet. If the windows break, you get wet. Cracked foundation? Wet. All the parts must work together at the same time.

Many early education initiatives, such as Head Start and the Tennessee program, have been offered to children living in impoverished and sometimes traumatic environments. Public schools in their neighborhoods are often underfunded and underperforming. Jobs and health care are scarce. Giving them pre-K can be like helping a homeless person by building a single wall on a vacant lot. A wall is better than no walls, but they’re still exposed to the elements above and on three sides.

Some of the most effective early learning programs offered a range of social, parenting, and health supports beyond education. (The Biden plan, which includes funding for early child care, a child tax credit, better health care coverage, community college, and more, follows a similar path.) Some of the least effective rested implicitly on the hope that an extra year of schooling could protect children from the risk of school failure, saving policy makers the pain and expense of improving the next 13 years. If the initial consistent benefits of early education sometimes fade, we should focus on the schools and years where earnings decline.

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The distinction between components and structure helps explain a long-standing conundrum in educational research. At the level of nations, populations and individuals, the benefits of education are enormous. Highly educated people do better on almost all economic and social measures: income, health, longevity, etc.

But researchers have so far struggled to isolate the effects of specific parts of the educational package. It’s absolutely impossible to write an article like “Effects of a Statewide Pre-Kindergarten Program on Children’s Achievement and Behavior through Sixth Grade” and publish it in a journal. peer-reviewed university without at least 20 years of formal education. But the statistical techniques you learn along the way aren’t quite up to the job of explaining exactly why.

The pre-K debate is also subject to larger misconceptions. Popular economist and blogger Noah Smith offered a fair and thorough summary of pre-K research in his newsletter Substack, concluding that while pre-K may offer more benefits to disadvantaged children who lack ‘a nurturing and stable home environment,’ there are many children who will likely be hurt by forcing them into universal pre-K programs. But no universal pre-K curriculum is mandatory; in the vast majority of states, even kindergarten is not compulsory. In Tennessee, only 22% of 4-year-olds in the state are enrolled.

There is an important place for research like the Tennessee study in driving education policy. This can help educators understand what works best and how to improve.

But for more existential questions — like whether universal pre-K should exist in the United States — it helps to start with what the privileged give their own children. The Capitol Hill neighborhood in Washington, DC, for example, is home to many highly skilled staff, lobbyists and legislators who will help determine the ultimate fate of Build Back Better. Where do their 3 and 4 year olds go to school? Many are in pre-kindergarten in tuition-free public schools. Sometimes counterintuitive search results are that way for a reason.

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