Tennessee’s pre-K wasn’t working, a 2015 study found. Now the state is putting new focus on teaching.

PHOTO: Grace Tatter

Catalyzed by a landmark study showing its public prekindergarten program is ineffective, the Tennessee Department of Education is tying funding to quality and evaluating teachers as part of a sweeping overhaul.

The changes are in response to a Vanderbilt University study that showed the benefits of Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K program faded by the second grade — and that students who attended eventually performed worse than their peers. The state department has since been exploring how to improve the quality of pre-K classrooms while staying true to 2005 initiative’s original goal: helping students from low-income families start kindergarten on an equal footing with their more affluent peers.

“We know the findings from the 2015 Vanderbilt study are real, and we’ve got to take those study findings seriously,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said last week. “We have made changes to the VPK application to focus on quality and ensure we are funding programs that are high quality and serving students who most need this strong start.”

The state won’t change its $86 million in funding for Voluntary Pre-K, and the goal of the overhaul isn’t to cut programs. Department officials hope that revamping how districts can access the money will push them to improve their pre-K practices. Before, distribution was based on how many students were served by districts; from now on, it will be based on a rigorous application process.

The state also has hired an assistant commissioner to oversee early education and literacy, part of Tennessee’s priority to improve the reading skills of its youngest readers.

The study’s surprising results shook the nation’s pre-K community and prompted concerns from Tennessee pre-K advocates that state lawmakers might even scrap state funding for pre-K. Instead, state officials heeded the urgings of Vanderbilt’s researchers to look into quality. While the program wasn’t working as a whole, some districts were getting pre-K right, according to Vanderbilt’s Dale Farran and Mark Lipsey.

For instance, more successful programs limit whole-class instruction and focus on hands-on learning so that students stay engaged throughout the day. Meanwhile, less effective ones have their students spending a lot of time switching locations or waiting in line for the bathroom. That takes away from learning time.

The new application for state funding asks districts for details about curriculum and how they’ll structure their days to maximize student engagement and learning. It also asks that localized plans be developed for getting parents and families involved in their child’s pre-K experience. Research shows that parental involvement, like reading to students at home and attending parent-teacher conference, helps students be more successful at school.

“The Vanderbilt report has opened our eyes to (what programs need),” said Candace Cook, who directs Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K program. “We’re focusing on what we can do to better serve our children.”

The new application, which seeks funding for the 2017-18 school year, is due in April. District officials have been attending trainings this month to understand what the state is looking for, and why.

“We are currently … meeting with VPK directors to go through these changes in detail and provide them with tools and resources,” said Elizabeth Alves, the state’s newly hired assistant commissioner of early education and literacy.

Districts also are being asked to take a harder look at which students enroll in their pre-K classrooms. Vanderbilt researchers found that nearly 20 percent of students statewide did not meet the state’s high-needs criteria.

“We have been really trying to advocate for using this (state) money in the way it was intended, which is to serve low-income pre-K students,” Cook said.

The pre-K evaluation system is Tennessee’s first. It goes into effect next school year for pre-K and kindergarten teachers as part of the 2016 Pre-K Quality Act, and will use videos and portfolios of student work in reading, language, counting and shapes to determine teachers’ effectiveness. The state already has developed a similar model for evaluating first-grade teachers, as well as teachers of fine arts and foreign language.

Ultimately, McQueen says the tool should help district administrators and the Department of Education figure out how to better support pre-K teachers.

“We’ve not had the ability to really dig into the effectiveness of our (pre-K) teachers,” she said. “The intent of portfolios … have really been about making sure that we are training and educating our teachers.”

Teaching teachers

How a Memphis pre-K giant is changing the way early childhood educators are taught

PHOTO: Porter-Leath
Porter-Leath's new training program places emphasis on early literacy.

Morgan Bradley thought that teaching children at her church’s Sunday school would have prepared her to work in early childhood education.

But the recent college graduate was shocked by all she learned at a recent training at Porter-Leath’s new Early Childhood Academy.

“I thought I knew how to work with little kids, but I didn’t know how much a child’s brain develops during those years before kindergarten,” said Bradley, who will be helping in a Head Start classroom through AmeriCorps. “I’m realizing now how necessary good teaching in pre-K is to getting a baby ready for kindergarten, especially when it comes to using my words to build a child’s vocabulary.”

Bradley is one of more than 500 educators who will go through Porter-Leath’s training this year in an effort to boost the quality of early education instruction in Memphis. Porter-Leath is the city’s largest provider of early childhood education and has a partnership with Shelby County Schools for Head Start and other services, including training.

The program comes as Tennessee grapples with a low literacy rate and mixed quality of early education programs. Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has emphasized the need for better early childhood education across the state for Tennessee to improve as a whole.

Porter-Leath’s trainings are held almost monthly and revolve around four tenets: socio-emotional learning; literacy; health; and STEAM, or science, technology, engineering, art and math.

The socio-emotional and literacy pieces are what make the program different from usual professional development for early educators, said Rafel Hart, vice president of teacher excellence for Porter-Leath and the training program’s leader.

“When we think about professional development in early childhood, we think about training on CPR and first aid,” he said. “That’s important, but Teacher Excellence focuses on classroom practices. How do we make our quality of instruction better?”

A Memphis organization since 1850, Porter-Leath serves about 6,000 children in its preschool program and employs 670 people. It serves students in some of Memphis’ poorest neighborhoods who may be dealing with the trauma of food or home insecurity at early ages. This makes training teachers in socioemotional learning especially crucial, said Hart.

Porter-Leath’s program draws from organizations like Acknowledge Alliance that trains teachers to help students regulate their emotions and learn self-awareness.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
AmeriCorps members who will work in Porter-Leath classrooms are among more than 500 educators to go through the training.

“I’ve been in early childhood for 25 years, and socioemotional learning is rarely used,” Hart said. “That’s a tragic mistake we’re correcting. Students can’t grow to develop strong academics if their emotional health isn’t growing first.”

All new Porter-Leath and Shelby County Schools early childhood educators will go through this training, but it’s also open to and encouraged for longtime teachers.

Kelly Thieme, a former literacy specialist and now Porter Leath instructional coach, is especially excited to see the focus on literacy.

“A lot of people don’t understand literacy starts from birth, and speaking to children makes reading and literacy easier,” she said. “We go through current research on how young children learn to read. To me, this helps us and others understand that we’re not just babysitters; it helps us professionalize our profession.”

Paying for pre-K

With clock ticking on federal pre-K grant, districts in Shelby County and Nashville explore next steps

PHOTO: Porter-Leath

Tennessee’s elation at winning a $70 million federal grant to expand pre-K offerings in Memphis and Nashville is now being tempered by the realization that the four-year grant will run out all too soon.

The funds used to pay for dozens of new pre-K classrooms began flowing into five school districts in 2015 and will end in May of 2019.

How to sustain the expansion in Greater Memphis was on the minds of school leaders and pre-K advocates who gathered Wednesday for the second annual Shelby County Pre-K Summit.

Calling pre-K “one of the biggest economic investment opportunities we have,” Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said early childhood programs must be a priority.

“In order for us to create an educational system where our most fragile constituents can change their circumstances in life, we’ve gotta make sure that we’re giving them a better opportunity in our district and it starts with pre-K,” he told about 50 people at the summit.

Announced in 2014, the grant from the U.S. Department of Education was a huge win for Tennessee as Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration sought to grow and build a public pre-K program that began under a 2005 state law.

Shelby County Schools was among five needy districts chosen as recipients because of its commitment to developing and funding high-quality programming for their youngest children. The others were Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, the state-run Achievement School District, and districts in the suburban Shelby County towns of Bartlett and Millington.

The money has added 50 pre-K classrooms in Shelby County and four pre-K centers in Nashville.

Nashville school officials already have begun to develop a strategy to sustain the investments after 2019. At the city’s early education summit last week, Director Shawn Joseph said the district is working to shift money to allow the expansions to continue.

Hopson asked the crowd Wednesday to advocate for ways to sustain expansions in Memphis too — work that he said is key to the success of both the district and the city.

“When you think about correlations between poverty and poor student outcome, our babies who are living in poverty situations through no fault of their own … need to have the early start that it takes so that they can enter kindergarten ready,” Hopson said.

Research shows that disadvantaged young children who participate in high-quality pre-K enter school are more ready to learn than their peers, while also contributing to their success in adulthood.

The quality of Tennessee’s pre-K programs has come under a microscope following the 2015 release of a five-year Vanderbilt University study showing that students who participated saw the effects dissipate by first grade — and even turn negative compared to students who didn’t participate in the program. The researchers suggested that quality might be the issue, and the state has been working ever since to up its game.

The federal grant has been significant in Memphis, which has a high concentration of low-income students and low-performing schools. It now pays for 13 percent of pre-K programs for about 6,500 children in Shelby County. Each classroom costs about $160,000 annually to operate. The county’s long-term goal is for every 4-year-old who needs pre-K to have access to a high-quality seat.