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November 17, 2009

Pre-K in Tennessee Makes the Grade

Tennessee Comptroller Justin Wilson commissioned a report highlighted in the Memphis Daily News on the effectiveness of its state funded pre-k program. The study found that the effects of pre-k diminished by second grade. While I found the report to be informative, it raised more questions for me regarding how well Tennessee's schools are educating their Pre-K - 3 students.
If the state has a history of under-preparing their students, then it seems understandable why the positive effects of a pre-kindergarten education would be shredded by the 2nd or 3rd grade. Although national studies have shown that pre-k positively affects student achievement, most notably in the longitudinal ECLS studies, the "fade out effect" is cited when pre-k goes under the microscope of a political opponent to public pre-k. The mythological "fade effect" beast continues to survive, mostly due to sensational reporting, despite the presence of numerous studies that support the idea that high quality pre-k supports student achievement even through 5th grade. The Tennessee researchers might not necessarily agree with the article in the Memphis Daily either. In the report they write, "Although the effects of Pre-K on long-term academic achievement are not evident in the present study, the lack of a statistically significant difference in measures of student achievement in the long term cannot logically be attributed to an ineffective Pre-K intervention."

I decided to do  a little research into Tennessee's academic record and found some ideas that should be considered whenever pre-k is attacked by that mythological monster the "fade effect". You can read the report yourself on the EdWeek Quality Counts page, but I'll share some important caveats to consider. EdWeek's Chance for Success indicator - a combination of early childhood services, school performance and educational and economic opportunities for adults, was a C-. How did this happen when the state has an A- in early childhood education transition and alignment? The State's pre-k program, meeting 9 out of 10 of NIEER's Quality Benchmarks, catapulted Tennessee's score above the D mark. It was mostly K-12 that made Tennessee's grade so low. I know there are likely incredible teachers in Tennessee just like every where else, but it is where the buck hits the blackboard that many state school systems fail. Essentially, we have a high quality pre-k program feeding into a low quality K-12 system. Here is the breakdown:

Rep. John Deberry's reply really captures my initial reaction, “This report says that we have been successful with pre-K. We need to ask ourselves why, and then why can’t we be equally successful in the second, third, fourth and fifth grades.”


Quite insightful. Excellent pre-K followed by so-so K-12 was not the first reason I thought for the fade effect.

A question for you. I'm a mom of two who has recently shipped to novel children's games that give reading practice.

The games are ItzaBitza and ItzaZoo (https://SabiGames.com)

I've been told the games would be great for pre-K. I have alot of "eye witness" data based on observation of pre-K children playing the game, but I'd like a candid/formal evaluation. What would you recommend?
Margaret (CEO, Sabi and mom of two)

The evaluation of Tennessee's Pre-K program commissioned by the Comptroller's Office is widely cited as finding that Pre-K has no lasting impact (Oct. 29, 2009, "Report: Tennessee pre-K not effective after 2nd grade"). Those making this claim might want to actually read the report. The authors themselves conclude: "Although the effects of Pre-K on long-term academic achievement are not evident in the present study, the lack of a statistically significant difference in measures of student achievement in the long term can not logically be attributed to an ineffective Pre-K intervention." In other words, this study can't really answer the question of whether Tennessee's Pre-K has lasting effects. As my grandmother who taught school in Tennessee might have said, the stitching is mighty fancy, but it's still a sow's ear. The real question here is why the Comptroller spends taxpayer money on this flawed study year after year.

NIEER's Preschool Matters publication recently ran a story about yet another research study that refutes the fade-out myth at

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