Legislators Want to Know: How Good Are State's Preschool Programs?
By KATHLEEN MEGAN
March 02, 2013
HARTFORD -- With a little encouragement, four-year-old Hector Robles phrases the question with great diplomacy: "Lamonnie, can I have green and I'll give you brown?"
Lamonnie Graham and Hector are four year olds in the Community Renewal Team's Head Start program and they are painting paper mache volcanos with green and brown paint. Hector's polite inquiry meets with instant success.
"Very nice! I like that, so you can just exchange," their teacher, Linda Tower chimes in.
Learning to get along with peers and ask for what you want politely is all part of the learning that goes on in the classroom for three to five year olds, along with myriad other skills. By the end of the year, Tower says she always sees great progress in the children in every area from social skills to academic abilities such as recognizing certain words.
But do those gains stay with them into kindergarten and beyond?
Beneath the widespread support for early childhood programs in the state – and after hundreds of million of dollars in spending – a troubling question has emerged. Connecticut policy makers don't really know whether these costly programs are doing anything to help close the state's achievement gap between higher and lower-income students.
"I and the other members of the legislature have been looking for data on the impact of publicly funded pre-school programs for eight years now," said Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, who is co-chairman of the education committee. "So understandably the legislature is getting impatient."
About $500,000 was earmarked for such a study in 2008, but when the state's budget grew tight the money was rescinded.
Sen. Beth Bye, who is vice chairwoman of the education committee, said the state has invested over a billion dollars in early childhood programs since 1997. Though legislators have repeatedly asked for studies, Bye said, "It never seems to happen. It's very frustrating … Certainly, there are plenty of national studies that show pre-school makes a difference but we want to know: How are we doing in Connecticut? Which kinds of pre-school make the most difference?"
Grover J. Whitehurst, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington, D.C., said "no one can honestly tell a legislator what the return on investment is going to be from a state pre-K program… I think it's terribly over sold.'
"The effects are going to be modest. This is not a silver bullet. We're not going to erase the achievement gap between the poor and rich, the minority and non-minority, but we can have some impact on it. I'm for it, but I think it's oversold because people think they will produce a big return. It's a positive thing, but it has to be part of a total package of better efforts at educating poor kids."
Experts say that assessing how well pre-school has worked is complex. Late last year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service's study of Head Start showed that children demonstrated achievement gains during their years in the program, but that advantage seemed to fade out or flatten during the early years of elementary school when they performed no better than peers who had not been in Head Start.
In general, most experts agree that the preponderance of research across the country shows that high quality early childhood programs do provide a benefit for children, particularly for poor children. But there are different shades in opinion on how great that gain might be.
Walter S. Gilliam, an associate professor of child psychiatry and psychology at the Yale's Child Study Center, said that "overwhelmingly over the past four decades, there is strong evidence to show high quality pre-school can have an important lasting effect on the lives of children who attend."
But, Gilliam added, there is also evidence that "many of the programs we implement are not necessarily of high quality and there's not much evidence that shows low-quality programs help children at all."
A New State Agency
Since Gov. Dannel P. Malloy took office he has made the early childhood programs one of the key elements in his reform of education.
Last year, the state invested $9.8 million in early childhood initiatives, created 1,000 new pre-school slots, and invested $3 million for a tiered quality rating and improvement system.
This year, he hopes to see the legislature approve his $370,000 proposal to combine programs previously housed in five separate state agencies into a single Office of Early Childhood to improve continuity and coordination of the state's efforts.
"When we improve early childhood education, we set a foundation for our young people that they will build on their entire lives," Malloy said as he unveiled this year's plan earlier this month.
The state's early childhood programs are indeed scattered across many agencies, which poses a challenge for data collectors and researchers.
According to figures from the advocacy group, Connecticut Voices for Children, 33,512 children are in state-subsidized early childhood programs at a cost of $226 million a year.
This includes not only the state's "school readiness" program, but also state-funded centers for children, the state's share in the federal Head Start program, and the state's "Care 4 Kids" program which helps parents pay for child care.
About 80 percent of kindergartners in Connecticut have attended pre-school. In well-off suburbs, the percentage shoots up to the high 90th percentiles, while in poorer cities it plummets to about 65 percent.
If expectations for pre-school programs have been high, they may date back to the well-known Perry Preschool project in the 1960s in Ypsilanti, Michigan. As Gilliam explained, a small group of children in a struggling community were given extremely high quality pre-school.
Over the years, those who attended the pre-school outperformed their peers who did not attend the school in a multitude of ways: they had better test scores; their attendance was better, they were less likely to need special or remedial education, they were less likely to be held back, and they had better test scores.
As adults, those who attended the pre-school were more likely to be employed, had greater earnings, paid more taxes, and were less likely to be incarcerated.
But experts say that such dramatic results from most pre-school programs are unlikely because they are not nearly so expensive, intensive and highly-controlled.
"All of the research, literally all of it, shows that high quality pre-school closes achievement gaps for the years those kids are in the program," said Kristie Kauerz, a research professor at the University of Washington. "Where it becomes politically loaded is when we then ask: But did those gains last until third grade or high school graduation? That's where it becomes political."
"We need to be really thoughtful in what evidence we demand for pre-K," said Kauerz said. It's important to "try to debunk some of these unrealistic expectation that we've placed on early childhood programs,'' she said. "Certain expectations that we place on them, we don't place on other ages or grade levels."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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