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Better pre-K leads to better schools

Updated: March 8, 2013 7:34AM

Hoping education reforms will produce lasting gains? The answer lies in addressing two fundamental performance gaps — and not the usual gaps between rich and poor or black and white. They are gaps between a standard of excellence and actual performance.

The first performance gap is the school readiness gap. Only two in five children are academically prepared for school, according to a national survey of kindergarten teachers. Assessments of Chicago children confirm this. Based on a recommended standard of excellence that expects 75 percent of children to be school-ready, the readiness gap is at least 35 points.

The second performance gap is in reading proficiency. One third of Illinois fourth-graders and one fifth of Chicago children demonstrate proficiency on a national test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress. This indicates that two-thirds or more of young students have difficulty reading Charlotte’s Web. With a standard of excellence of 75 percent, the reading proficiency gap is 40 points.

Any serious effort to erase these gaps must include high-quality early childhood education. In addition, a strong system of continuing services is essential to maintain and strengthen gains to fourth grade. The best Pre-K programs show gains of 15-20 points, roughly half the size needed to meet the proficiency standard. For low-income children, this gain reduces the gap by just a third. The urgency for more is high.

An original solution came over four decades ago in Chicago when an extraordinary model was developed called Child-Parent Education Centers. In response to family disengagement and low achievement, Lorraine Sullivan, the superintendent of Chicago’s west side schools, opened four early education centers in 1967. The CPCs immediately filled with children as young as three for educational enrichment and parent involvement and services through third grade.

Last fall, the CPCs began the largest expansion in their history under a grant from the U. S. Department of Education. In the Midwest CPC Expansion, the Chicago Public Schools has increased the number of centers to 16 serving over 1,700 preschoolers this year. More than 6,000 additional children will be served in succeeding years. Evanston, Normal, and two Minnesota districts also participate.

The expansion is occurring because CPCs produce enduring impacts. Studies show that graduates begin kindergarten at the national average in school readiness skills and 6 months ahead of disadvantaged peers. Children who participate through second or third grade show continuing achievement gains, higher rates of school graduation and lower rates of crime. The economic return is nine to 11 dollars for every dollar invested.

CPCs offer a comprehensive approach. In addition to enriched pre-K classes, continuing services in the same school are provided in small classes within a system of instructional and family supports overseen by the principal. The synergy of all these elements working together is absent in other reforms. In the first year of expansion, pre-K enrollment in the original centers has increased 13 percent over last year, largely because of the addition of full-day pre-K has attracted new families.

CPCs are a vision of education that has proven results. In this age of accountability, priority must go to programs and practices with a track record of success.

Arthur Reynolds, a professor of child development, directs the Midwest Expansion of the Child-Parent Centers in the Human Capital Research Collaborative at the University of Minnesota.

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