Research: Investing in pre-kindergarten pays dividends

A new report from the Center for Public Education suggests that Indiana is failing its youngest citizens by refusing to develop high-quality, public pre-kindergarten programs.

The research report, “Starting Out Right: Pre-K and Kindergarten,” says students who attend both pre-k and kindergarten fare significantly better than those who don’t on third-grade reading tests, an important predictor of future academic success. It also finds that, facing a choice between providing pre-k and full-day kindergarten, states would do better to expand access to pre-kindergarten programs.

Students who attend both pre-k and half-day kindergarten do better than those who attend full-day kindergarten but not pre-k, the report says. The gains from pre-k are especially strong for children from low-income families, blacks, Hispanics and English language learners.

The report draws on a federal data base that tracked more than 21,000 children from kindergarten through eighth grade. The Center for Public Education is an initiative of the National School Boards Association.

The author of the report, senior policy analyst Jim Hull, says the paper shouldn’t be read to endorse a move away from full-day kindergarten.

“Especially for traditional disadvantaged groups, pre-kindergarten and kindergarten are investments that pay remarkable dividends not only for schools, but for communities,” Hull writes. “We should strive to give all children access to both high-quality pre-kindergarten and full-day kindergarten. The research is clear that this is the best option.”

The Indiana legislature this year boosted funding for full-day kindergarten with the intent of making it available in all public school districts. However, the state doesn’t fully fund full-day kindergarten, with the result that parents often have to pay for the program.

And Indiana is one of only 10 states that don’t provide public pre-k programs, according to data from the National Institute for Early Education Research. Florida, the supposed model for the education reforms championed by Indiana Superintendent of Public Education Tony Bennett, provides public pre-k for 68 percent of its 4-year-olds, according to NIEER.

Bennett told a Bloomington audience last month that Indiana really ought to expand access to pre-k, but there’s no money right now to do so. But as Kara Kenney of WRTV in Indianapolis reported, Indiana was one of only 15 states that chose not to apply this fall for federal Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge grants ranging from $50 million to $100 million to expand early-learning opportunities.

Indiana Department of Education spokesman Alex Damron told Kenney it would have been a waste of effort to apply, because Indiana wasn’t going to win. But if Indiana isn’t in a position to compete for funding to expand early-learning programs, the question is: Why not?

Indiana’s teacher evaluation law: some promise, lots of peril

A policy brief released last week by the Center on Evaluation & Education Policy at Indiana University spells out a number of reasons to be concerned about Indiana’s new teacher-evaluation law.

The law, Senate Enrolled Act 1, requires annual teacher evaluations that rely significantly on student test results. All teachers will be put in one of four categories: highly effective, effective, improvement needed and ineffective. Compensation and tenure will be tied to the evaluations, and teachers in the two lower categories won’t get raises and may be at risk of losing their jobs.

The law requires schools to start implementing the new evaluation and merit-pay system in 2012-13. But as the authors of the CEEP report, Rodney Whiteman, Dingjing Shi and Jonathan Plucker, point out, this won’t be easy, and there are bound to be unintended consequences.

Here are a few of the issues that they highlight:

– Tying teacher evaluations to student performance may seem like a no-brainer. But in fact, there’s not much evidence that you can accurately attribute student test scores, or even improvement in test scores, to the effect of a single teacher. Standardized tests are designed to measure whether students meet grade-level standards, not how much they improve from year to year. And can schools develop tests that measure teacher effectiveness in subjects like art, music and physical education?

Research has shown that students learn best when teachers collaborate and share expertise. But most schools will have a limited amount of money available for raises, and it must all go to teachers rated effective and highly effective. “This creates an indirect competition for compensation and an incentive to out-perform colleagues,” the brief says. “Teachers may begin viewing their materials and techniques as proprietary intellectual property and elect to not share that property with their competitors.”

– Finally – and this may be the biggest issue – where will schools will find the time, resources and expertise to design and implement annual evaluations that are fair and meaningful? SEA 1 is an “unfunded mandate,” the authors say. At a time when most Indiana school districts are pinched for money, they may have pull some of their best teachers out of the classroom to develop and carry out evaluations; either that or hire outside experts, at considerable cost.

The brief concludes, “If done correctly, with sufficient time, finances, and people, changing teacher evaluation can be a powerful reform in public education.”

That’s a mighty big if.