The positive effects of Tennessee’s pre-K program for economically disadvantaged children fade out in early elementary school grades, according to the latest results of a five-year Vanderbilt University study.

The evaluation study found that children attending the state’s voluntary pre-K program made greater gains than their peers early on. By the end of kindergarten, there was no significant difference between the two groups.

By the end of third grade, however, the children who attended pre-K were not performing as well as those who did not.

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“We’re pretty stunned looking at these data and have a lot of questions about what might be going on in the later grades that doesn’t seem to be maintaining, if not accelerating, the positive gains,” Mark Lipsey, director of the Peabody Research Institute, said in a news release.

The study began in 2009 as a coordinated effort between Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development and the Tennessee Department of Education to examine the state’s voluntary pre-K program.

The state’s $85 million early education program targets at-risk preschool children. About 3,000 children in the study come from economically disadvantaged homes.

Researchers concluded that the state’s pre-K program is not producing the effects advocates have expected, despite strong gains shown in early years.

They pointed to other considerations for policymakers to take into account. Poverty is a strong indicator for future academic disadvantage, and although pre-K could be a part of the equation, it is unlikely to be sufficient on its own, they said.

“Pre-K is a good start, but without a more coherent vision and consistent implementation of that vision, we cannot realistically expect dramatic effects,” said Dale Farran, professor and senior associate director at Peabody.

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