- Children from high-poverty neighborhoods who attended Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K (VPK) had significantly higher 3rd grade reading scores than peers from similar socioeconomic conditions who did not attend the program, according to a new study appearing in the American Educational Research Journal.
- Children from low-poverty neighborhoods, however, had lower reading scores at 3rd grade in the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program than their peers who did not enroll, the researchers find, noting that the analysis builds on existing research by showing that pre-K effects in Tennessee “were contingent on the neighborhoods in which children lived.”
- The study’s author, Francis Pearman of Stanford University, attributes the positive effects on children in lower-income communities to the fact that those in the control group had fewer options for child care or preschool and were “overexposed” to risk factors that could include being exposed to violence, a lack of stable housing, unemployment and “weakened family units.”
Researchers and policymakers have drawn attention to Tennessee’s state-funded pre-K program in recent years, but not because of positive results. Data from an ongoing study released last year showed that by 3rd grade, children who attended VPK were more likely to be receiving special education services and to have behavioral problems than those who did not participate in the program.
Across the study sample, Pearman also found that regardless of whether children lived in moderate- or low-income neighborhoods, the program had no “measurable impact on children’s 3rd grade math achievement.” One explanation could be that preschool teachers didn’t spend as much time on math instruction as they did literacy. Another reason could be that neighborhood poverty affects children’s early reading skills more than it does math skills.
Research by New York University’s Susan Neuman, for example, concludes that many low-income communities in urban areas are “book deserts,” where children have minimal access to print resources, such as books, magazines and newspapers. She notes that while many books are now purchased online, the majority of children’s books are still purchased in stores.
The findings, Pearman writes, point to the importance of “safeguarding children from periods of elevated developmental vulnerability.” Place-based initiatives, such as Discover Together, are one example of efforts to support families with young children who might be isolated due to poverty. Home-visiting programs — sometimes conducted in partnership with elementary schools — are another model for connecting families to early learning experiences and resources for their children.
The study also has implications for the ongoing debate over whether public preschool programs should be accessible to all children or targeted to those in poverty or facing other risk factors. Pearman suggests that one way for universal pre-K programs to reach children who would be more likely to benefit is to prioritize high-poverty areas when selecting sites for new centers. Another strategy would be to make sure families in low-income neighborhoods have information about and adequate transportation to centers in higher-income neighborhoods.
Finally, Pearman notes that future research should look at whether similar patterns exist in other states, as well as whether outcomes also vary by children’s neighborhoods in the areas of discipline, attendance, grade retention and executive function skills.