Rethinking Pre-K: Five ways to fix preschool

By Kayla Webley

Take two kids, one from a low-income family, the other middle class. Let them run around and do little-kid things in their respective homes and then, at age 5, enroll them in kindergarten. Research shows that when the first day of school rolls around, the child from the low-income household will be as many as 1.5 years behind grade level in terms of language and prereading and premath skills. The middle-class kid will be as many as 1.5 years ahead. This means that, by the time these two 5-year-olds start school, the achievement gap between them is already as great as three years.

When you look at findings like this, it’s not hard to see why educators and government officials believe so strongly in the need for early-childhood education, particularly for low-income children. A half-century’s worth of data has shown that reaching kids early helps them avoid repeating grades in elementary school, stay on track to graduate high school, earn more money as adults and spend less time in prison or on welfare. Recent studies have also pointed to third grade as a critical benchmark – if children are not performing at grade level by then, they may never catch up – making the years leading up to that point increasingly important. (Eleven education activists for 2011.)

And yet early-learning programs, because of the way they are financed and administered, are not part of the entrenched educational system in most of the U.S. The vast majority of states are not required to offer preschool, and some states have no pre-K programs at all. Many of the states that have long championed preschool still decide from year to year how many children get to attend, and the waiting lists of qualified kids are long – and sad.

All of this helps explain why the nonprofit Pew Charitable Trusts has invested 10 years – and some $100 million – in studying preschool and spearheading a movement to get states to offer more of it and in smarter ways. The initiative, called Pre-K Now, has made a lot of progress. The total amount that states spend on preschool has more than doubled in the past decade, enrollment nationwide has increased from 700,000 4-year-olds in 2001 to more than 1 million today, and three states that had no preschool programs 10 years ago (Alaska, Florida and Rhode Island) have joined the pre-K club. And despite the Great Recession, six states and the District of Columbia have opened their pre-K programs to all 4-year-olds, bringing the total number of states that offer universal pre-K to nine, plus D.C. (Pictures of a public boarding school in Washington, D.C.)

Early-childhood education is getting its own Race to the Top initiative (states have to submit their applications by Oct. 19 to win some of the $500 million in grants) and celebrity advocate (actress Jennifer Garner has taken up the cause). But for all its successes, Pew is wrapping up its 10-year initiative at a precarious time. Arizona recently cut its entire pre-K program because of budgetary constraints. Iowa came close to doing the same, and a report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has determined that the federal Head Start program it administers does not lead to lasting academic gains, casting a shadow on other, more rigorous early-learning programs.

Against this backdrop, Pew is exiting the pre-K stage with several hard-boiled recommendations. TIME got an early look at the report, Transforming Public Education: Pathway to a Pre-K-12 Future. Here are the highlights, plus a handicapper’s guide to the chances of implementing these directives:

1. Stop thinking K to 12, and start thinking pre-K to 12
States are required to provide education for students in grades 1 to 12, which means that even in tough economic times, they can reduce funding only on a per-child basis. The same is not true for preschool. Only a handful of states are required to provide pre-K; all the others can choose to cap enrollment for low-income children or stop funding these programs altogether. “One of the reasons that it’s easy in some states to cut back pre-K investments when times are tough is this idea that it’s just a program for some kids, not something for all kids,” Michele Palermo, coordinator of early-childhood initiatives at the Rhode Island Department of Education, is quoted as saying in the Pew report. “And we in the trenches are always kind of puzzled. … You wouldn’t just cut out second grade. Why are we just cutting out pre-K? And you wouldn’t just provide second grade to some kids but not all kids.”

See “In Preschool, What Matters More: Education or Play?”

This is one of many reasons that Pew is calling for a paradigm shift: stop thinking about public education as K to 12 and start thinking about pre-K to 12. Once considered little more than day care, preschool (or nursery school) is regarded as a crucial beginning to a high-quality education. Part of a natural continuum of learning, these early years are too often separated from kindergarten and elementary school by artificial boundaries. Pew points to few bright spots in which pre-K has been integrated as a fundamental component of the public-education system, with dramatic results. In Kentucky’s Whitley County School District, which began offering pre-K to all 4-year-olds in 1996, the program was so successful that by 2005 the district raised its academic standards for first grade because they were being satisfied by so many former pre-K students halfway through kindergarten. Meanwhile, on a national scale, experts know that existing preschool programs need better quality control – Head Start is particularly spotty – and yet preschool has been largely excluded from reform initiatives.

Reality check: Shifting the vernacular from K to 12 to pre-K to 12 shouldn’t be too hard. After all, it wasn’t all that long ago that K to 12 became a common household phrase. But families won’t start thinking about preschool as a crucial part of the educational continuum until their elected officials do. (Five tips on picking a good school.)

2. Strategically expand access
Some 27% of 4-year-olds in the U.S. were enrolled in state-funded pre-K programs in the 2009-10 school year. Factor in programs like Head Start, and the total rises to just 40% of 4-year-olds. That’s not good enough. And as cash-strapped states start eyeing their already meager preschool funding – only six are serving more than 50% of their 4-year-olds – enrollments are being capped, and thousands of students who qualify based on income or developmental issues are sitting on waiting lists.

But skimping on pre-K budgets is penny-wise and pound-foolish. Economists have found that investing in preschool programs more than pays off in the long run. According to James Heckman, an economics professor and Nobel Laureate at the University of Chicago, pre-K programs for disadvantaged kids have a 7-10 percent rate of return, which means that for every dollar a state spends on preschool, it will get back $60 to $300 from increased earnings and a decreased need for public services over that child’s lifetime. “You can save a lot of money and get a lot better performance by starting early … rather than putting it off and trying to remediate them later,” he tells TIME. “There are real costs in delay.” So while Pew isn’t pushing for universal pre-K in this economy, it is urging states to expand access to all low-income students as a first step in the hope that eventually any child who wants to attend preschool will be able to.

Reality check: While state funding for preschool programs has more than doubled in the past 10 years to over $5 billion nationwide, the upward trend is beginning to reverse. The 2009-10 school year, the most recent year for which complete data is available, saw total state spending on pre-K decrease for the first time in a decade. “States waited as long as they could,” says Ron Haskins, a senior fellow in the economic-studies program and a co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution. “But after three or four years of serious cuts, they couldn’t hold off any longer. Honestly, I’m impressed they waited this long.” (How K-to-12 programs are declining in popularity.)

3. Bring early-learning initiatives under one roof
Consider, the Pew study tells readers, the scattered system in Alabama, where child care, pre-K and kindergarten are all run by separate departments. It should come as no surprise, then, that early-learning advocates are trying to coordinate efforts and bring everything under one roof. The fractured governance is also exemplified by Head Start. An internal report last year about the preschool program – which is the largest in the U.S. thanks to the more than $7 billion in federal funds it receives each year – found that the program yields no lasting results. The report was devastating, but it was hardly the first time Head Start has been called into question. Conceived as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, Head Start is run by the Department of Health and Human Services rather than the Department of Education. It was based on a small, highly successful program in Tennessee but was rapidly scaled up to serve 500,000 3- and 4-year-olds by the fall of 1965. The first review that questioned its effectiveness was published in 1969.

Over the years, there have been calls, most recently during George W. Bush’s first term in the White House, to move the program under the domain of the Department of Education. But Brookings’ Haskins says that will likely never happen because the program is so firmly embedded in Health and Human Services that moving it may do more harm than good.

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Reality check: While it’s unlikely that states will start a massive overhaul of their pre-K governance, Head Start is slated to get a makeover. To improve the program, the Obama Administration is expected to issue a plan to evaluate each of the 1,600-plus Head Start centers nationwide (which operate some 49,000 classrooms) over the course of three years, and low-performing centers will have to compete again for federal dollars. This means that if another preschool program, be it in one town or in all 50 states, can prove it is better than the local Head Start center, it will get the money and Head Start won’t.

4. Assess outcomes
Crazy as it may sound, it is possible to evaluate student learning even when those students are too young to be expected to know how to write their own name, let alone take a standardized test. But “we need more measures that look less at qualifications and more at how much teachers grow their kids,” Kati Haycock, president of Education Trust, is quoted as saying in the Pew report. One program that Pew highlights is from the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning at the University of Virginia, which took fundamental early-learning principles and used them to develop assessment tools that evaluate teachers based on emotional support (does the teacher demonstrate a sensitivity to the children’s needs?), classroom organization (does the teacher run the classroom using behavior management and active learning strategies?) and instructional support (does the teacher give high-quality feedback and modeling of language to promote higher-order thinking?) – three dimensions that are predictive of better student outcomes. (“Paying Kids for Good Grades: Does It Work?”)

Meanwhile, the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University rates each state program against a set of 10 benchmarks that factor in such things as class size and teacher-to-student ratio. In its most recent annual report, only four states were meeting all 10 benchmarks, even though 17 states provide enough funding to meet all 10 of the quality-control measures. Some of those same benchmarks are now being incorporated into the Education Department’s latest Race to the Top competition, which this time around will focus on early-education programs. In order to win some of the $500 million in grant money, states will have to demonstrate the effectiveness of their programs. The competition will also encourage states to coordinate their programs to ensure consistency and sustainability, implement a quality rating and improvement system, develop common standards to measure child outcomes, provide professional development and track progress so that the data can be used to assess whether children are adequately prepared for kindergarten.

NIEER recommends two basic ways of evaluating a program’s effectiveness. One is to have each teacher perform self-evaluations of each student as well as his or her own teaching ability and have the district and state also perform internal evaluations. The other is to commission formal research studies on the programs by outside firms, local universities or education consortiums. Ideally, says NIEER director W. Steven Barnett, a state should be doing both to evaluate its program. (Pictures of homeschoolers.)

Reality check: Self-evaluations are tricky (“I’m giving myself three gold stars!”), and Barnett says that even before the economic downturn, few states were conducting formal research studies. Some states were doing a decent job with internal evaluations, but he expects things to get worse. “Evaluations take a lot of time and money,” Barnett says. “With budget cuts, I’m afraid they will be the first to go.”

5. Use the federal government to push pre-K reform
Pew sees the coming battle over the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) as a major opportunity. If the federal government uses NCLB to emphasize the importance of pre-K and makes it clear what funding streams are available to finance the programs, the states will follow the lead, says Marci Young, director of Pew’s Pre-K Now initiative. Young urges legislators to think about how preschool can be included in the evaluation systems, curriculum standards and other reform initiatives likely to be part of the reauthorization; she would also like to see incentives offered to states that make progress on pre-K. “We want to see pre-K as a fundamental component of the legislation, not a side issue,” she says. “It would be foolish not to continue to invest in the programs like high-quality pre-K, which have such demonstrated success both for getting children on the right track and for our economic prosperity.”

Reality check: There is already a long list of things both educators and government officials would like to change about NCLB, so it seems unlikely that Congress would add another item to the mix, even if reforming preschool would have a positive effect on the education system as a whole. Here’s hoping that whatever happens, more 4-year-olds get off those waiting lists.

Editor’s Note: This article was featured in TIME.com on September 26, 2011.

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