by Laura Koenig and Amy Wiseman, Ph. D.
Everyone is talking about the importance of pre-K: our new governor, our new Mayor, our city leaders and state legislators. There are several bills expected before the legislature looking at quality and funding for pre-K. But how much are we willing to invest in a strong future for our children?
State and local policy makers are thinking through just that question and looking at the data that shows we have great leverage for closing achievement gaps, if we invest in quality pre-K programs and help promote consistency statewide. So how can we ensure our policy makers are using data to inform their decisions?
Interest in pre-K is not sudden. For years child advocates have been touting national studies showing that high quality early education has short and long-term pay offs for children and the community: lower rates in special education, fewer children being held back, lower juvenile delinquency, higher high school graduation, higher job earnings, more stable employment, and the list goes on.
Public school pre-K programs may just be the greatest leverage we have to close achievement gaps for our children who start school already behind. But, the devil is in the details. Most longitudinal studies demonstrating positive outcomes associated with pre-K programs are based on very high quality programs. Advocates and policy makers have known for years that Texas’ delivery of pre-K does not meet many of the standards present in these programs.
Because the state has very few quality standards for pre-K and most we do have are voluntary, we see large program variation across the state. Texas previously funded efforts to improve quality on a district-by-district basis until the budget shortfall of the 2011 legislative session halted these efforts in their tracks. In Central Texas, we lost more than $8 million dollars a year dedicated to pre-K quality improvement like pre-K teacher training and extending pre-k from just 3 hours a day to a full school day.
What we are left with is a hodge-podge system where districts have to make quality trade-offs to make ends meet. Still, research on the program factors associated with readiness is helping districts make smarter decisions.
So, is Texas pre-K high enough quality to make a difference?
We now have data to answer this question from a Central Texas study of Kindergarten readiness. To be considered ready for school, children must demonstrate the social, language and cognitive skills required for Kindergarten and beyond. Teachers rate students on skill such as the child’s ability to speak in complete sentences and express wants and needs.
Strong longitudinal data from E3 Alliance demonstrates that in central Texas two structural factors are associated with the school readiness of eligible children enrolled in public Pre-K: 1) the ratio of students to adults in classroom and 2) the length of the school day. Districts with the combination of low student teacher ratios (fifteen or fewer students per teacher or aide) and full school day instruction have students who are MORE ready for school compared to districts with higher student ratios and/or only three hours of instruction a day. Currently, the state does not have mandated class size or student teacher ratio limits. The state also only pays for 3 hours of pre-K instruction per school day. Districts choose to set their own student teacher ratios and class sizes and can also choose to spend local funds to pay for a full-day of instruction, and districts with full-day pre-K programs have significantly higher enrollment of eligible students, so more children access early education.
The E3 Alliance Kindergarten Readiness Study found that children who attend pre-K, regardless of income level, are significantly more likely to be ready for school than children who stayed at home or with a relative. In fact, when accounting for income and other demographic factors, Kindergarten students who attended Pre-K were four times more likely to be ready for school than children who did not.
Yet, not every child who attends pre-K will be ready for school. Currently only 55 percent of children who attended pre-K were ready. When children start pre-K, achievement gaps are already present. In our largest Central Texas school district, many children starting pre-K at 4 years old have the language skills of a 2 year old. That is lot of catching up to do to be ready for Kindergarten in a year. This challenge speaks to the need for family and community supports in early years that help all children reach their potential.
So, how can we help all of our children be school ready? Making sure legislators, policy makers, community and education leaders are guided by the data in their decision-making is a great start!
Laura Koenig is the Senior Director of Community Solutions at E3 Alliance. For over 20 years, Laura has been working with families through direct child care, parent education, provider education, public policy and advocacy in Central Texas.
Amy Wiseman, Ph.D. is the former E3 Alliance Director of Research Studies. Amy has more than 20 years of experience with research and data analysis, particularly in education research studies and program evaluations addressing the state of education in Central Texas.