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Preschool begins road to reform

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With the first Chicago teacher walkout in 25 years, the city’s public school system has been making national headlines as a starting point to discuss education reform. While a central issue in Chicago has been evaluating teachers, perhaps an equally important question to consider is whether reform programs — on the whole — are effective.

Of particular concern are programs aimed at closing student achievement gaps that imply not all children have equal opportunities to attain the American Dream.

For example, the most recent Nation’s Report Card from the U.S. Department of Education documents persistent gaps between poor and non-poor children. In 2011, nearly half of higher-income fourth-graders were proficient in reading compared to less than one-fifth of lower-income children, a gap of 30 percentage points. The gap in Illinois was slightly larger, at 33 points.

Education reforms aim to reduce these gaps in school. But evidence suggests that the gaps begin in early childhood, before children even walk through a school door. A recent national study found that poor kindergartners began school nearly 10 points below their higher-income classmates in reading and math. Interventions thus increasingly start in early childhood, fueled both by the desire to reduce these school readiness gaps and the success of some widely publicized programs in doing so. Indeed, state funding for pre-kindergarten more than doubled during the 2000s, to nearly $5.5 billion in 2010. Illinois spent almost $300 million on pre-k in the 2010-2011 school year.

With this type of investment, lawmakers and the public want to see evidence that current programs in Illinois are effective. Yet, the best evaluations cost the most money, and without good data, the programs are often vulnerable to budget cuts. Policymakers in Illinois can look to other states that are beginning to support better-designed evaluations, often using federal dollars and partnerships with universities and research firms to help fund the efforts.

For example, an innovative evaluation of Oklahoma’s state pre-k program capitalized on the fact that some children just missed the birthday cutoff for enrolling one year. Those children were compared with children who did make the cutoff. In the following fall, the children who had made the cutoff had completed a year of preschool. Those who had missed the cutoff were similarly aged, but were just about to begin preschool.

The children who had just made the birthday cutoff to attend preschool scored as though they were nine-months older in their knowledge of letters and words than the children who had just missed the cutoff, on average. This design has been replicated in several other states, and Tennessee is currently using it along with random assignment, the “gold standard” approach to evaluation. As these states have learned, ensuring that state-funded pre-k is in fact helping get children ready for school requires not only enough money for high-quality programs but also sufficient funding for well-designed evaluations to document these outcomes. Illinois can look to them for ideas to inform our next evaluations.

As the nation debates the future of education reform, evaluation will be a cornerstone issue. Beyond the question of teacher evaluation that was a touch point in the Chicago labor dispute remains a larger question concerning which programs are most effective — especially in early childhood. Reduced money in state coffers may lead some to walk away from early childhood programs completely. Yet turning away from these important early investments without full evidence about their effectiveness risks lost potential for many children, and for society, in decades to come.

Rachel Gordon is a sociologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago and IGPA. Her research focuses on issues related to the well-being of children and their families.



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