Pre-K won’t close achievement gap

Universal pre-K won’t solve the vocabulary gap (or inequality), writes Kay Hymowitz in Time. There’s no substitute for stable, nurturing families.

Two-year-olds from high-income families know many more words than two-year-olds from low-income families, according to a new study that confirms earlier research. Language Gap Study Bolsters a Push for Pre-K, reported the New York Times on the front page.

The idea that pre-K can compensate for family break down is “the preschool fairy tale,” writes Hymowitz.

It’s true that good preschools raise the math and reading scores of disadvantaged kids. The problem is that the gains are almost always temporary.  Study after study of every kind of program since Head Start first came on line in the 1960’s to recent state wide programs in Georgia and Oklahoma has concluded that, with the lonely exception of third grade boys’ math scores in Tulsa, cognitive gains “fade out” by third grade, probably because subpar schools and an unsupportive environment at home were unable to help pre-K kids take advantage of those gain.

Researchers now argue that preschool has the potential to create lasting benefits in students’ “soft skills” such as  attentiveness and self-control.

Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman, one of early childhood education’s most prominent advocates, has argued that because soft skills are vital to labor market and life success, under some conditions preschools have actually been able to reduce welfare dependency, teen pregnancy, and crime rates, while also improving educational outcomes and earnings. At least one study has estimated that the resulting higher tax revenues, lower imprisonment and welfare costs have created a return of nearly 13 dollars for every preschool dollar spent.

. . . Heckman’s findings are based on several small, model programs from the 1960’s. The most famous and influential of them, the Perry Preschool in Ypsalanti, Michigan, involved only 58 children.  It takes a heavy dose of wishful thinking to assume that states are any more capable of creating a large system of Perry quality preschools than they have been of designing networks of high quality K-12 schools.

Even if that were possible, it would close the achievement gap, she writes. Perry graduates did better than the control group, but much worse than children from middle or working-class families.  And “these mediocre gains were not passed on to the next generation.”

The first two children of Perry grads (there’s no data on later siblings) were just as likely as the children of non Perry-ites to go on welfare, drop out of school, and to get arrested; their earnings were also similarly anemic.

In other words, the graduates of the best preschool designed for low income kids we’ve ever had in the United States  grew up to become low skilled, low income single parents, less costly to society than others without their early educational advantage, but equally likely to raise children who would cycle back into poverty.

“It’s parents, not formal education, that makes the difference for young children’s readiness for school and success once they get there,” Hymowitz concludes.

If Mama ain’t functional, ain’t nobody functional.

Smart talk

Aneisha Newell, playing with daughter Alona Sharp and son Amod Newell, uses fewer directives with her children since participating in the Thirty Million Words trial, instead asking open-ended questions that give them an opportunity to respond.
Aneisha Newell, playing with children Alona and Amod, asks more open-ended questions. —Photo by Kim Palmer/Hechinger Report

Poorly educated, low-income, single mothers will talk to their babies — developing their language skills — if someone tells them it matters, writes Sara Neufeld in Slate. That’s the idea behind Chicago’s Thirty Million Words Project, which was started by a surgeon who does cochlear implants to help deaf children hear. Dana Suskind noticed the children of educated parents learned to talk quickly, once they could hear. Disadvantaged children were slow to develop language.The Thirty Million Words curriculum is delivered in 12 weekly home visits.

Every week, a young child in a participating family would spend a day wearing a small electronic device in a shirt pocket to record the number of words heard and spoken, plus the number of “turns” in a conversation—the amount of back-and-forth between parent and child. Words heard on television did not count.

Shurand Adams, 25, dropped out of high school to work at McDonald’s. She thought her 3-year-old daughter’s education would begin in kindergarten. The home visitor encouraged her to read to her daughter and pause to let her respond.

 She learned to continually engage her daughter in conversation, whether about food names in the grocery store or colors in the park. “Now I know I can just have a regular conversation with her,” Adams said. “Just ask her about her day, even if I can’t understand half of it.” She was teaching Teshyia the letters of her name on the day I met them, and she’s considering possibilities for continuing her own education.

In low-income households, parents often speak to their children in simple commands, writes Neufeld. Aneisha Newell has changed that.

“Instead of saying, ‘go put on your shoes,’ I can say, ‘All right, it’s time to go. What else do you need? … That gives my child the chance to respond, and say, ‘shoes,’ ” said Newell, 25, who has a 4-year-old daughter and a 10-month-old son and works for a company providing recess supervision and after-school activities in Chicago Public Schools.

Newell said many of her friends and relatives think she’s crazy for talking to her daughter as if she’s an adult. “I can quote this: ‘Neisha, no one wants to sit and talk to the kids like they understand’ That’s basically the response I get.”

Her daughter peppers her with questions. She can spell her first and last names, recite her address and phone number, recognize and spell colors, and count to 200.

A summer bridge to kindergarten

California 5-year-olds with no preschool experience can prep for kindergarten over the summer, reports EdSource Today.  Free “summer bridge” programs are aimed at teaching kids to “wait their turn, raise a hand to answer a question or ask for help, play cooperatively with classmates and deal with time away from family.”

Most summer bridge programs run for half a day for two to six weeks.

A study of 828 summer preschool participants in Kern County last summer found that the program did have a clear effect. Children at all five elementary schools that hosted the program showed significant improvement in math, reading and social skills according to pre- and post-program tests.

Although programs usually pay a kindergarten teacher to teach a group of eight children, a summer bridge is far cheaper than nine months of preschool.

Selling Obama’s ‘preschool for all’

Education Secretary Arne Duncan is trying to persuade Republican governors to persuade Republicans in Congress to back $75 billion in new tobacco taxes to fund President Obama’s “preschool for all” initiative, reports the Washington Post.

“The average disadvantaged child comes to kindergarten a year to a year and a half behind other kids,” Duncan said. “And we spend all this time and money trying to catch them up. And we wonder why we have an achievement gap.”

The plan doesn’t really offer preschool to “all.”  States would get federal grants to fund preschool for 4-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families. The federal share would diminish from 91 percent to 25 percent after 10 years. Obama also is seeking $15 billion for programs for babies and toddlers.

Georgia has funded its own preschool program. Republican Gov. Nathan Deal wants some of the money spent on Head Start, the federal preschool program for poor children. “We could do a better job of it because, frankly, our program is better,” Deal said.

Without new taxes, there isn’t enough money, Duncan responded. “I’m talking about a massive influx of resources . . . Our goal is to dramatically expand access.”

If Duncan is serious about high-quality preschool, he’ll offer Republicans more than a new federal tax, writes Mike Petrilli.

Cut the TRIO programs, which (as a recent Brookings paper shows) don’t work at preparing disadvantaged high school students for college. That’s $1 billion a year.

Cut Title II of ESEA, which is a big slush fund for school districts to spend on “teacher stuff” and class-size reduction—with no evidence of results. $3 billion a year.

Cut Pell grants, many of which are flowing to remedial-education courses from which disadvantaged students never escape. Introduce some minimal standards so that only students who are college-ready—a very low bar for community colleges, it turns out—can receive the aid. I bet you could shave $5 billion a year easy—a big chunk of it currently landing in for-profit universities.

Cut $9 billion and then ask Republicans to pitch in $1 billion in new money, Petrilli suggests.

Head Start hasn’t produced lasting benefits for low-income children. I think Duncan’s first step is explaining why “preschool for some” will be more effective. And why not let states expand their preschools with Head Start funding?

Preschool for all — or for the poor?

President Obama wants to spend $75 billion over 10 years on Preschool for All, partnering with states to provide “high-quality” preschool to 4-year-olds from families under 200 percent of the poverty level.

“The path to college begins in preschool,” writes Lisa Hansel on the Core Knowledge Blog. Closing achievement gaps in elementary or middle school is very, very difficult, she writes, citing Chrys Dougherty in ACT’s College and Career Readiness: The Importance of Early Learning.

“Large numbers of disadvantaged students enter kindergarten behind in early reading and mathematics skills, oral language development, vocabulary, and general knowledge,” writes Dougherty.

One study found that kindergarteners’ general knowledge of the world was a better predictor of those students’ eighth-grade reading ability than were early reading skills. This is consistent with research showing that reading comprehension, particularly in the upper grades, depends heavily on students’ vocabulary and background knowledge….

What makes a program high quality? It’s not cheap. Successful preschool programs in Boston and New Jersey hire well-educated teachers and pay them well, reports the Christian Science Monitor.  In addition:

They are full-day programs open to all students of a certain age group, regardless of family income.
They offer curricula linked to system-wide educational standards.
School districts monitor preschool teacher and student improvement on an ongoing basis.

In Boston, preschoolers made significantly greater gains in vocabulary, math and “executive function,” which includes working memory and paying attention to a task. The gains could be seen in third-grade test scores.

New Jersey offers high-quality pre-K in 31 low-income districts. The gains “are still visible in language, math, and science scores in fourth and fifth grades,” reports the Monitor.

“Everyone should applaud programs that are generating big gains for children who desperately need to be ready for school,” said Grover Whitehurst, director of Brookings’ Brown Center on Education Policy. However, we don’t know what factors lead to success, he says. The federal government should not require preschool teachers to have a bachelor’s degree, for example.

High-quality preschool costs $8,000 a year per child, estimates the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers. The group suppors universal preschool rather than targeting help to disadvantaged students.  

In essence, taxpayers would fund pre-K through 12th grade for all students. (And the most effective programs work better if kids have two years of preschool.) Children who aren’t learning vocabulary, general knowledge or self-control at home can benefit from preschool. Most kids don’t need it.

Could earlier kindergarten be the achievement gap solution?

Here’s a mostly filler piece from Julia Lawrence over at EducationNews. I use it merely as a launching point for a slightly different inquiry.

During his State of the Union speech last year, President Barack Obama called for the federal and state lawmakers to work together to offer early pre-school to every child. Once the i’s were dotted and the t’s were crossed, “every” turned out to mean more like everyone from families making 200% of the federal poverty line or less.

Some critics say that sending children to school at the age of four does not work. The evidence suggests otherwise. For example, on March 20th new results were announced from a study of nine-to-11-year-olds in New Jersey. This report found that disadvantaged children who had attended pre-school had better literacy, language, maths and science skills. And two years of pre-kindergarten were better than one.

Starting schooling early doesn’t just have academic benefits, but social ones as well. Those who begin learning at an earlier age are less likely to commit crimes and end up in prison later in life.

Let’s first remind ourselves, then remind ourselves again, that what we are talking about is earlier kindergarten for “disadvantaged” children. (And let’s also remind ourselves that when we say “disadvantaged”, what at least some of us really mean is “Black and Hispanic”.) 49% of students will always be below average, and people could be fine with that. But what drives a lot of people crazy is the fact that what passes for academic performance (as measured by the NAEP, mostly) seems in startlingly short supply in student “populations” defined in terms of their race or income. It’s especially, I think, the race thing that gets people in their gut, but as a practical matter we often focus more on the socioeconomic issues because that’s a less politically charged terrain.

So here’s what we’ve got: Student group A has crappy test scores. Student group B has good test scores. There’s a gap, and we want to close it.

What do we know? Well, we know that the typical member of Student group B gets read to at home, has access to books, has school pushed on them by their parents, has parents who themselves have at least some sort of academic disposition and training, and grows up around other students who are similarly situated. They tend not to be shot at by their classmates on a regular basis, and oftentimes it seems that their family situation is somewhat stable. There may even be a father around. They have interesting toys, and go on trips to places like museums and factories and orchards. They have a quiet place to study, and they tend to get three or four balanced meals a day.

These seem to be the relevant differences. We can call them “advantages” because they seem to give children a leg up on doing well in school, and their absence tends to hurt school performance. Typical members of Student Group A, on the other hand, don’t get these “advantages” — that’s why they’re called “disadvantaged”. A headline that says something like “disadvantaged kids do worse in school” is actually something of a truism: the reason they are called disadvantaged is because they happen to have the characteristics that we have statistically correlated with doing poorly in school, and lack the ones that we think benefit academic achievement.

By way of analogy, if it turned out that 100% of low-performing students grew up in blue-, green-, and red-painted bedrooms, while 100% of high performers grew up in yellow-painted bedrooms, growing up in a yellow bedroom would be an advantage. And those “children of darker colors” who grew up in blue, green, and red rooms would be “disadvantaged”. And it shouldn’t surprise us that, when we go looking for disadvantages in this way, that the disadvantaged don’t do as well.

Now, I’m just musing here, but it seems like the VERY FIRST thing to do if you wanted to close the achievement gap between disadvantaged and advantaged kids is give the disadvantaged kids some advantages. Then they wouldn’t be disadvantaged, and if they weren’t disadvantaged, well… then at least in theory there would be no achievement gap. So how to do that? Well, “advantages” seem to track with growing up in a certain sort of family. So the most obvious way is to take the kids away from “disadvantaged” families at birth and give them to “advantaged” families to raise. No raising kids for you if you’re statistically suspect: there’s social good to promote. Trust me, that’s the way to fix the achievement gap.

That probably won’t go over so well, though. (For some reason I’m imagining cries of “cultural genocide”, although it seems pretty clear that the “advantages” we wish to promote and the “disadvantages” we wish to eradicate are profoundly cultural.) So let’s look for a less drastic solution that accomplishes more or less the same thing.

Howsabout this: If we can’t take the A-kids kids completely away from their families at birth, we just take the kids away, at an incredibly early age, and have those kids “raised” in an environment which simulates the “advantagedness” of Student Group B? In the A-Group’s cognitively formative years, we’ll give them a bright, busy, happy linguistically-charged environment that sort of will be like the environment that the B-Group already grows up in. We can call it “early kindergarten” at first, and then after that, we’ll just call it “school”. Eventually, we’ll call the whole thing “school”. And we won’t take the kids out of their homes completely — just for most of the day. Their disadvantaged parents will still be (mostly) responsible for clothing and feeding and the like, and for providing a place to sleep. This also reduces expenses.

Will that close, or at least narrow the achievement gap?

Sure. I don’t see why it wouldn’t.

High-quality preschool pays off

The Chicago Public Schools’ federally funded Child-Parent Centers, started in 1967, provide high-quality preschool and after-school programs for disadvantaged children in early elementary school. The program generates $4 to $11 of benefits for every dollar it costs, concludes the National Institutes of Health.

CPC facilities, located in or near elementary schools in poor Chicago neighborhoods, are staffed by certified teachers and offer instruction in reading and math, small group activities and educational field trips for children ages 3 through 9. The centers also provide meals and health screening. Center staff offer support services such as parenting or job skills training to parents and encourage them to volunteer in the classroom and to help supervise student field trips.

The researchers analyzed education, employment, criminal justice and child welfare records for the participants through to age 26. A previous analysis found that children who had been enrolled in the centers were more likely to go to college,work full time and have health insurance and less likely to go to prison or suffer from depression.

However, the study did not assign children randomly, so it’s possible the CPC children had more motivated parents.  The non-CPC children went to another program or did not attend preschool.

“These findings suggest that high-quality education programs focused on preschool through the elementary grades may produce long term benefits not only for the children enrolled, but for society as well,” said Alan E. Guttmacher, director of the . . .  NIH institute that funded the study. “The findings also provide evidence that combining early education with job skills training and other instruction for parents also may increase benefits for children.”

Ninety-three percent of the children in the study were African-American and 7 percent were Hispanic.

Researchers estimated the value of increased lifetime earnings, taxes paid on these earnings and savings on schooling (fewer children repeating a grade), health care, depression treatment, child welfare services and criminal-justice costs.

Lifetime benefits were greater for children who started CPC in preschool compared to those who started in elementary school.  Greater benefits also were found for certain subsets, such as boys, children living in higher-poverty areas and those in high-risk homes.

Compared to Head Start, which doesn’t produce lasting benefits for children, the CPCs are much more intensive and long-term and provide more parental support. The average preschool isn’t a game changer for very disadvantaged children. They need more.

Via Shanker Blog.