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Peter H. Rossi Award Lecture: Roiling the Waters: Controversy over the First Longitudinal Randomized Study of a State Pre-K Program

By Cristina M. Stanica, Ph.D. Candidate, School of Public Policy and Administration, University of Delaware  
The topic of this lecture is related to a pre-K education research study that stirred controversy when pre-k advocates and researchers noticed that pre-K participants were not performing well after the third grade, including on state achievement tests. The lecture given by Mark Lipsey of Vanderbilt University, was structured into three parts, one on the context of pre-K education, one on the actual Tennessee pre-K study, and another one on the issues, exploration, and policy implications of major findings. 
The discussion on the context refers to the growth of public pre-K, an analysis of Head Start and State-level pre-K programs from a public policy perspective, and the fact that previous studies have problems with generalizing the data, an overall notable vulnerability to bias, and inconclusive mixed findings.
When considering the Tennessee pre-K study, it is important to note the Department of Education’s support and involvement in encouraging partnerships on these issues concerning school districts. Preliminary results indicate no pre-K effect through 5th grade, more effects for 5th grade, and special education placements that are higher for pre-K through 5th grade.
Looking at the policy implications of this study, it is important to consider the need for enhancing the potential of State pre-K.  This would include investing in infrastructure that serves at-risk children. Other aspects should focus on the importance of shifting teachers’ approaches, from talking and listening to children and on creating active learning opportunities and engagement. Extending math learning opportunities and maintaining a positive emotional climate that includes more behavior approving comments are two critical aspects that support the transition towards high quality instruction and a positive learning experience.
Eric Hanushek of Stanford University highlighted that all evaluations have some implications on the people in that specific area, because of the conditions in the status quo, and that researchers hold the key to the final answers.
Larry Orr of Johns Hopkins University stressed the importance of two categories of impacts of such a study, one on the profession, that includes Mark Lipsey’s work on meta-analysis, and another on policy, showing that there is a consistent positive impact that is statistically significant.
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