Tennesseans for Quality Early Education (TQEE) was formed in 2016 is response to a Vanderbilt University Peabody Research Institute study of Tennessee Pre-K programs conducted in 2015. The research demonstrated that Pre-K had a positive effect for those children who attended. However, those gains were not sustained and eventually reversed. The study also found that the gains made by economically disadvantaged students and English language learners were statistically significant. The study further demonstrated that students who participate in Pre-K were, in fact, more likely to be kindergarten-ready than those not attending Pre-K.
Some of these findings were surprising to advocates of early learning and fodder for opponents who desired to reduce or eliminate Voluntary Pre-K funding. Yet, one of the most important findings of the study was that the quality of programs varied widely across the state, including how time was spent in the classroom, the effectiveness of the classroom teacher, the efficacy of the curriculum and actual outcomes for children. There was a lack of consistency in the use of evidenced-based curriculum and methods from one program to another. This “lack of quality” finding was the catalyst for the formation of Tennesseans for Quality Early Education, which was formed as a 501(c)4 by Blair Taylor in late 2015, but now includes a 501(c)3 as the policy arm.
With a convincing argument, TQEE won the support of Rep. Mark White (R-Memphis) and Senator Steve Dickerson (R-Nashville) to sponsor and draft the Pre-K Quality Act, which revised the Voluntary Pre-K for Tennessee Act of 2005 to ensure that programs are high-quality and coordinated with elementary education beyond the Pre-K level. The Pre-K Quality Act required programs to meet the criteria for a “highly qualified pre-kindergarten program” as defined by the Tennessee Department of Education.
Additionally, local education agencies (LEAs) that received TN-VPK program approval by the Department of Education were required to utilize the Pre-K/Kindergarten growth portfolio model approved by the State Board of Education in the evaluation of teachers. They were also required to have plans that:
- Ensured coordination between TN-VPK classrooms and elementary schools within an LEA so that elementary grade instruction builds upon Pre-K classroom experiences.
- Engaged parents and families of TN-VPK students through the school year; and
- Required teachers to conduct professional development in order to attain high-quality Pre-K experience.
The 2016 launch of the Pre-K Quality Act was a positive step toward instilling quality and consistency in Pre-K programs around the state. The program lacked a competitive component leading to a continued quality disparity between programs. Also, the $86 million in Pre-K Quality Act funds require a focus on economically disadvantaged 4-year-old children with a target of 90% falling within that criteria. A significant number of programs receiving support failed to reach that target and some even lacked an understanding of how to determine eligibility. As a result, the 2017-18 Pre-K Quality Act funds will be awarded through a competitive grant process that requires participants to demonstrate high quality programming and curricula, effective classroom teachers and aides and a sound strategy for targeting economically disadvantaged 4-year-olds. This is an approach that both TQEE and the TDOE believe will produce better outcomes.
While VPK was defended and improved, one cannot ignore the data from the Vanderbilt study that demonstrated Pre-K and non-Pre-K students lost achievement gains in grades K-3. This fact is the basis for TQEE’s mission, which is to:
Create the foundation for a thriving Tennessee through bipartisan advocacy of early childhood education policies that result in strong academic outcomes for all of Tennessee’s third graders.