Achievement gap starts early, so CT’s pre-K must, too.

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Gov. Dannel Malloy visits a preschool in Meriden.

Connecticut has some of the nation’s largest achievement gaps between white students and students of color. That’s the lesson from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results released during the last week of October. These results provide Connecticut residents a clear picture of how the state’s schools perform, for different student groups, compared to other states, and over time.

To close these gaps, Connecticut’s schools must do a much better job of serving low-income, black, and Hispanic students. But, because one-third to one-half of the achievement gap exists before children start school, efforts to close those gaps must also start earlier, in the preschool and early childhood years.

Research shows that high-quality pre-k programs can help to narrow achievement gaps for low-income students, improving their school and long-term outcomes. This is crucial for a state like Connecticut that has struggled with persistent achievement gaps between student groups for decades.

CT achievement gap graphicChildren who participated in New Jersey’s Abbott Preschool Program, which provided universal pre-k in 31 of the state’s highest poverty districts, gained nearly four months in vocabulary growth compared to non-participants, and also made significant gains in math and early literacy skills. Follow up studies found that these gains lasted through at least 5th grade.

Studies of large scale, quality preschool programs in Boston and Oklahoma have also found evidence of significant and lasting gains. Longer-term studies that followed children who attended preschool or Head Start in the 1960s and 1980s found that at-risk children who attended preschool are more likely to graduate high school and less likely to drop out, be arrested, or be unemployed than those who did not.

Yet, as a new ConnCAN report shows, Connecticut is falling short in preparing our youngest students to succeed in school. No more than half of entering kindergarteners consistently demonstrate school readiness, and the percentage is much lower in the highest-poverty districts.

Although Connecticut has made investments in expanding access to preschool, nearly 20 percent of low-income preschoolers still lack access to these programs. In some of the state’s highest poverty communities, the share of unserved children is higher. High parent co-pays, lack of coordination between the state’s multiple preschool programs, and confusing eligibility standards prevent some of the neediest children from attending preschool.

Even worse, many preschool programs do not provide quality early learning experiences that prepare low-income children for success in school and life. The state and district preschool programs that produce lasting results employ qualified teachers with bachelor’s degrees; pay them similarly to K-12 public school teachers; provide job-embedded coaching to improve teacher practice; use research-based, age-appropriate curricula; and regularly collect and analyze data on child outcomes and program quality to support ongoing improvement.

While some Connecticut preschool programs—such as the Friends Center For Children, Elm City Montessori School, and ELLI Lab School—do many of these things, Connecticut’s current preschool policies do not ensure this level of quality across all programs, nor does the state fund preschool at the levels sufficient to support them.

When Connecticut is facing a difficult budget crisis, investing in early childhood can seem impossible. But research shows that preschool makes good economic sense. Children who attended preschool are less likely to be held back in school, placed in special education, go to jail, or receive public assistance as adults. In short, preschool actually saves government money over the long-term.

Given the benefits of a quality early childhood education Connecticut must continue efforts in expand access to high-quality pre-k and infant and toddler programs, while also improving quality in existing programs.

In the near term, the state can improve quality and access by reorganizing and streamlining its fragmented early childhood programs—at least 8 different funding streams currently support preschool—into a more integrated, coherent, and efficient system. It must also raise expectations for quality and learning in preschool, shifting focus from compliance and inputs to the kinds of teaching practices support children’s learning. And it must develop a statewide strategy to recruit, prepare, and retain qualified preschool teachers.

The work ahead is significant. But research shows that the potential benefits are even greater. The path to narrowing Connecticut’s achievement gap begins in early childhood.

Sara Mead is a partner with Bellwether Education Partners and has advised ConnCAN on early childhood education.

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