With recent news that the State of Tennessee Department of Education (TNDOE) has granted funding for Voluntary Pre-K (VPK) classrooms in 138 school districts, it’s important to underscore that investment in high quality Pre-K is vital if Tennessee is going to improve our public schools.
The immediate priority is to improve the percentage of third grade students reading on grade-level from 34 percent in 2016 to 75 percent by 2025 – a fundamental goal of the TNDOE’s strategic plan, Tennessee Succeeds.
Pre-K plays a central role in improving third grade achievement for all students, and especially underserved groups of children, including children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and those with special needs. Students who fall behind in the early years rarely catch up in later grades when remediation efforts are costlier and less likely to succeed, which is why a strong foundation of early education is an imperative.
In Pre-K – as in all grades – quality in teaching and curriculum is essential. And quality has been a big focus of Tennesseans for Quality Early Education (TQEE) and other statewide advocates for a stronger system of early education.
In 2016, the Tennessee General Assembly approved the Pre-K Quality Act, which for the first time since Tennessee premiered Pre-K in 2005, defined program quality, standards and student performance measures. An added boost emerged from the Gates Foundation through a partnership with the Ounce of Prevention Fund and Alliance for Early Success, titled the Partnership for Pre-K Improvement (PPI). Tennessee was one four states chosen in 2016 to participate in the PPI national cohort of states leading the charge to make pre-k high quality and impactful.
The confluence of these efforts has resulted in numerous positive changes to the state’s Pre-K program, including those outlined below.
- Pre-k quality has been defined. For the first time since the VPK program was founded, Pre-K quality has been defined in a clear, coherent and evidenced-based definition. All Pre-K improvement efforts are aligned to the new definition to ensure consistency in quality.
- Pre-K, K, and 1st through 3rd grade standards have been revised. TN’s K-12 Academic Standards and Early Learning Developmental Standards have been revised and aligned in English Language Arts and Math. Standards were implemented in 2017-18.
- Pre-K funding is dependent on demonstrated progress towards high quality. Prior to 2016, districts received VPK funds based on formulas largely unchanged since VPK’s founding a decade prior. In 2016-17, TNDOE instituted a competitive grant process aligned to quality benchmarks. The grant application set a high bar for programs to meet to ensure their programs are funded.
The VPK competitive grant application and process have been continuously improved each year, based on district feedback and data, and in 2018-19 the department experienced the most successful grant administration to date.
- Pre-K and kindergarten teachers now have a way to monitor student learning. In 2017-18, TNDOE instituted a new pre-k and kindergarten student growth portfolio model that helps teachers track and monitor student learning aligned to priority literacy and math standards.
- New curriculum has been adopted. The TNDOE reduced the number of state-approved Pre-K curricula from 37 options to only 3 evidenced-based, high-quality curricula. The department invested in training and materials for VPK districts to implement the new high-quality curricula in 2018-19. The department is piloting a coaching initiative in 2019-20 to further supports districts in quality curriculum implementation.
- Data is being collected on the efficacy of VPK classrooms. For the first time since the VPK program was scaled in 2008-9, and was evaluated by Vanderbilt in 2009-10, statewide data has been collected using the CLASS tool to provide a baseline measure to assess quality improvement efforts, including instructional quality and teacher-student interactions.
Ensuring access and quality for students in pre-k programs statewide is challenging. To build on the success of the initiatives outlined above, it is important for Tennessee to prioritize early learning and further focus Pre-K improvement efforts, particularly in the following areas:
- Data collection. To continuously assess progress of the state’s Pre-K improvement efforts, the department will need to collect data from CLASS, ECERS or other tools. Key to continued success is selection of the right metrics aligned to the department’s definition of quality, adequate resources dedicated to data collection and analysis, and successful implementation of assessment.
- Funding that reflects the cost of quality. The amount of VPK funding a district receives per classroom has not changed in a decade, despite increases in teacher salaries and other programming costs, leaving districts to make up for any resulting shortfall of funds if they choose to maintain and/or expand their capacity. Additional investment in the VPK program should factor in the actual cost of quality per classroom, based on the state’s definition of quality and the actual costs to maintain a quality program.
- Professional development and monitoring. Currently, there is one administrator at the department to lead, manage, monitor, and assess Tennessee’s VPK program statewide. Successful Pre-K programs in benchmark states that have seen long-term positive impact ensure adequate resources are provided to support and monitor district pre-k programs. To build district capacity to effectively support teachers, focus should be placed on targeted professional learning and monitoring for districts.
- A systems approach to access. Demand is high in many regions for quality Pre-K programs, and Tennessee families overwhelmingly want more access for all children, but expansion is a challenge due to state budget constraints, quality issues that must be problem-solved, and the potential negative impact of Pre-K expansion on child care in Tennessee. To ensure access and quality, Tennessee must develop a systems-approach to Pre-K, potentially including blended funding, coordinated enrollment through multiple providers, and better alignment between the policies, governance structure and practices of the department of education and department of human services, which leads and manages child care in the state.