Is pre-K in DC working?

DC has made a major commitment to pre-kindergarten education. Are these programs improving kids' performance in the rest of their education? Based on information available so far, we don't know for sure. We do know that a pre-K program has to be high quality to make a difference, and some do better than others.

Photo by jeannechristine on Flickr.

In his State of the Union address, President Obama proposed greatly expanding pre-k and other early childhood education programs nationwide.

President Obama mentioned the success that Georgia and Oklahoma have had with their early education programs. He failed to mention that here, in the District of Columbia, high-quality education is already widespread for 3- and 4- year olds and an accomplishment that we should celebrate.

DC's Pre-K Enhancement and Expansion Amendment Act of 2008 guarantees all DC 3- and 4- year olds a pre-K seat. While the District's claims of having already achieved "universal access" can be debated, the important question, today, is "are early education programs having an impact on student achievement?"

What is the impact of early education in DC?

Last summer, Mayor Gray, along with officials from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, announced that District students participating in pre-kindergarten programs demonstrated gains in overall proficiency by 3rd and 4th grade on the 2012 District of Columbia Comprehensive Assessment System (DC CAS).

City officials claim that the test results showed slight increases for both reading and math District-wide by students from both DC Public Schools and public charter schools who had attended early education programs.

However, a study released last December by DC Action for Children shows no significant improvement in the math and reading performance of third-grade students in DC public schools since 2007.

These two contrasting views clearly demonstrate that we need better data to evaluate our early education programs. (It's also important to note that the two evaluations used different methologies.)

Our early education programs must be high quality

Even if early education isn't helping DC students today, it doesn't necessarily mean we shouldn't invest in universal early education. It means we should invest in high-quality universal early education.

It is generally accepted that early education programs must meet specific quality standards to impact a child's cognitive and social development. The President, as well as early education advocates, have long cited studies from the Perry Preschool Project, in Ypsilanti, Michigan, and the Carolina Abecedarian Project, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to claim that "high-quality early education provides the foundation for all children's success in school and helps to reduce achievement gaps."

In the District, the 2008 law requires many of the elements of "high-quality" programs, including small class sizes (16 children and 2 adults) and an approved curriculum. Lead teachers must have a bachelor's degree or higher, and assistant teachers need at least an associate's degree.

The legislation includes provisions for professional development for teachers; comprehensive, wrap-around services for children and their families, including home visits; and a parental component, including educational workshops, parent association meetings, and parent-teacher conferences.

While I haven't visited all District schools and I've been in only a few of the private and nonprofit early education classrooms that get support from the District's Pre-K legislation, I have seen remarkable differences among the classrooms. High-quality classrooms should be stocked with developmentally-appropriate materials. Children should be able to move around the classroom, engaging in hands-on activities. Adults should interact meaningfully with those children, helping them deepen the knowledge that they're gaining through play.

Many programs meet this standard; unfortunately, others fail this "I'll know it when I see it" test, despite their ability to check off the other more tangible measures of "quality."

There is hope; data is coming

District officials acknowledge, in a recent RAISE DC report, that the District lacks a clear measure for kindergarten readiness, "making it difficult to know overall where our youngest children are in meeting academic and developmental benchmarks." Additionally, despite the fact that the Office of the State Superintendent for Education (OSSE) insists that every preschool and pre-K program meet their new "gold" standard when they apply for funding, a visit to classrooms in different parts of the city clearly shows that differences do exist.

For the past few years, OSSE has been developing a long-awaited Statewide Longitudinal Education Data Warehouse (SLED). Developed with federal Department of Education funds, the SLED will track students across DCPS and the charters from kindergarten through high school.

The SLED works by assigning every student in the District a unique student identifier and uses that number to track students through their educational development, even as they change schools. By running a report in SLED, education agencies and school staff can look at real-time, standardized enrollment data broken down by gender, ward, and grade. Appropriate staff can also look at assessment scores and individual student progress.

The current SLED incorporates 9 years of enrollment audit data and the last 5 years of DC CAS data. OSSE wants to expand SLED to include early childhood, college enrollment and adult education data starting later this year.

Having comprehensive and longitudinal data for students is imperative if we want to track and improve educational outcomes for students, as well as if we want to ensure programs that we're investing in are meeting their goals—something that we're currently unable to do.

Joe Weedon is the Ward 6 representative to the DC State Board of Education. He lives in Ward 6 with his wife and two children. 


I appreciate the approach to educational data that you are taking in this article, noting that data sets sometimes prompt more questions than answers. It reminded me that I have been disappointed to recently see attacks on Head Start that simply note that HS has not "solved for" the education gap for children who are enrolled without rolling up the proverbial sleeves and diving deeper behind the data.

I want to highlight two conclusions I draw from your article above that I think are critical to thinking about policy planning for pre-K.

First, the concept that pre-K may be necessary but not sufficient to achieve positive outcomes.

Second, and the idea that not all pre-K programs are equally high quality making it difficult if not impossible to draw broad conclusions about the value of pre-K simply by comparing rates of success at third grade absent an multi-factored understanding of the many variables that add up to quality education.

The more data, and the more considered questioning we ask to see what is overlooked by the data, the better for everyone.

by Katherine Mereand-Sinha on Mar 13, 2013 3:51 pm • linkreport

Though I totally support the fact that all of our kids in DC should have access to high-quality pre-school programs (and high-quality affordable day care, as well - but that's a whole other ball of wax) there are a couple of competing issues with the impact of pre-school on third grade proficiency rates that I wanted to raise.

First is that studies have shown that if academic interventions and a focus on the whole child are not kept up after pre-school, any academic and many social emotional gains made while in preschool are pretty much erased by 2nd grade. Which is to say that the best pre-school program in the world will not be able to totally counteract the confluence of poverty outside a home and insufficient educational stimulation in school (which is not to place all blame at teacher and administrator's DC, for example, elementary school classrooms are the largest with official student to teacher ratios being 25:1, but many public school teachers report that they are often higher than that by the end of the year, particularly in DCPS as DCPS does not track funding levels to current enrollment, but to prior enrollment levels).

Additionally, pre-school teaches all kinds of "soft" skills that may not translate to higher achievement (though sometimes they do) but have been shown to translate into better overall life outcomes (employment, health, etc.), so to just look at one indicator (DC-CAS test scores) and say that preschool may not be working may be taking a very short view of what is a very long process.

by 4LOM on Mar 15, 2013 12:39 pm • linkreport

Having high-quality early grades is critical to the long-term outcomes of early education programs; however, we also need to know what the immediate outcomes of the early ed programs should be. What is kindergarten readiness?

I also agree completely that we need to look at and evaluate the "soft skills," though, we also need to recognize that the students who have gone through DC's Pre-K for All program are just now reaching 3rd grade. We'll need to track them over the long-term to determine the impact on life outcomes.

In all areas, clear expectations and open data are key.

by Joe Weedon on Mar 15, 2013 12:51 pm • linkreport

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