Shannon Nickinson: Kids need more than pre-K to overcome poverty's obstacles

Researchers at Vanderbilt University have found that poor children benefited from the academic boost that the state voluntary prekindergarten program gave them.

But the benefit didn’t last when they moved through elementary school.

The researchers who conducted the five-year $6 million study had conclusions about why poor kids who got a boost from VPK didn’t sustain the gains they made.

The researchers concluded that TN-VPK clearly is not producing the positive effects on academic achievement in the later grades that its advocates and sponsors expected, despite relatively strong gains during the pre-k year. Though the challenges are great, the potential of pre-k to produce such effects cannot be entirely dismissed on the basis of this study. Some of the relevant considerations the researchers suggest be taken into account include:

  • Poverty is a strong indicator for future academic disadvantage, and there is a pressing need to find ways to boost the academic performance of children in poverty. High-quality pre-K could be a vital part of the equation, but is unlikely to be sufficient by itself at even the highest quality levels.
  • Tennessee has done the hard work of creating a pre-K infrastructure involving large numbers of classrooms statewide and has commitment from parents and school administrators. It may be wise to work on improving the quality and consistency of the programs delivered through that infrastructure, and assessing their effects, before reaching any final conclusions about the benefits of VPK for Tennessee children.
  • Pre-K is not well integrated into the K-3 instructional sequence in many schools with the result that there is not always the continuity that might allow the gains made in pre-K to be sustained and further developed. For participating children, VPK is only one part of the critical K-3 learning period and greater attention may be needed to the challenge of supporting linked, cumulative learning throughout this period.

“Pre-K is a good start, but without a more coherent vision and consistent implementation of that vision, we cannot realistically expect dramatic effects,” said Dale Farran, on of the Vanderbilt study team. “Too much has been promised from one year of preschool intervention without the attention needed to the quality of experiences children have and what happens to them in K-12. There is much work to be done.”

In Escambia County, 66 percent of our 5-year-olds are ready for kindergarten. And based on data for this school year, 66 percent of our public schoolchildren are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, a measure that reflects the level of poverty in a community.

Both of those are metrics on the Studer Community Institute’s Dashboard, a set of 16 measures used to gauge the social, economic and educational well-being of our community.

Studying the effects of pre-K is all the rage. Given the focus on the system being rolled out in public schools in New York City, Tennessee and elsewhere, more and more stories are reporting about the effect that a strong early education program can have, especially for children from low-income families.

This is also a critical issue for the Pensacola Metro area, not only for the children who need a strong educational foundation, but also for the community that we hope they will enter as productive, employable residents at the end of their educational train.

And while the lead of the story about the Vanderbilt study is focused on that the fact that the gains that pre-K can give poor kids don’t seem to last through third grade, if we stop reading there, we’re missing the point.

It’s the why in this story that’s worth a second look.

Poverty is a powerful force that adversely affects a child’s ability to learn, even a child as young as 3 or 4. But it can be overcome.

Consistency is key to that: consistency of curriculum, consistency of teacher quality, and a consistent link between what preschoolers are taught and how it will apply and evolve in kindergarten through third grade.

Consistency isn’t a problem just in Tennessee.

Florida has had voluntary prekindergarten for every 4-year-old since 2005. But the system that oversees those programs has changed more times than Charlie Crist’s political affiliation.

The Office of Early Learning used to be its own entity. Until it was put under the Department of Education in 2013.

Bruce Watson, the executive director of Escambia’s Early Learning Coalition notes that the state cut $9 million out of the overall VPK budget this year. Watson’s budget for VPK is about $5,420,650: $2,360 per child.

But state funding has declined every year since 2007, he says.

“Our lawmakers are failing to understand the impact of their decisions, when we’re paying (providers) less today than we did eight years ago and expect the same results,” Watson said this year.

Last year the state announced that the test to assess kindergarten readiness wouldn’t be given because of problems with the system that overwhelmed the system. Read the gory details of that here.  The test was administered by kindergarten teachers and used to assess the effectiveness of the VPK providers, as well as the readiness of children for school.

There is a new evaluation tool for VPK providers to use this year, but it won’t be given until the spring. So it won’t reflect where the children were at the beginning of preschool.

For the 2016-2017 school year, providers will assess their VPK students three times in the year. The data would be compiled and analyzed through the fall of 2017, which means the earliest we would have a readiness rate for VPK again that is statistically meaningful is by the end of 2017 or in January 2018.

I think even Thomas the Train can see that’s no way to run a railroad.

Shannon Nickinson is the editor of, a news and commentary website in Pensacola, Florida. Follow her on Twitter Column courtesy of Context Florida.  

Shannon Nickinson


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