Rethinking Pre-K: 5 Ways to Fix Preschool

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Reality check: While it's unlikely that states will start a massive overhaul of their pre-K governance, Head Start is slated to get a makeover. To improve the program, the Obama Administration is expected to issue a plan to evaluate each of the 1,600-plus Head Start centers nationwide (which operate some 49,000 classrooms) over the course of three years, and low-performing centers will have to compete again for federal dollars. This means that if another preschool program, be it in one town or in all 50 states, can prove it is better than the local Head Start center, it will get the money and Head Start won't.

4. Assess outcomes
Crazy as it may sound, it is possible to evaluate student learning even when those students are too young to be expected to know how to write their own name, let alone take a standardized test. But "we need more measures that look less at qualifications and more at how much teachers grow their kids," Kati Haycock, president of Education Trust, is quoted as saying in the Pew report. One program that Pew highlights is from the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning at the University of Virginia, which took fundamental early-learning principles and used them to develop assessment tools that evaluate teachers based on emotional support (does the teacher demonstrate a sensitivity to the children's needs?), classroom organization (does the teacher run the classroom using behavior management and active learning strategies?) and instructional support (does the teacher give high-quality feedback and modeling of language to promote higher-order thinking?) — three dimensions that are predictive of better student outcomes.

Meanwhile, the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University rates each state program against a set of 10 benchmarks that factor in such things as class size and teacher-to-student ratio. In its most recent annual report, only four states were meeting all 10 benchmarks, even though 17 states provide enough funding to meet all 10 of the quality-control measures. Some of those same benchmarks are now being incorporated into the Education Department's latest Race to the Top competition, which this time around will focus on early-education programs. In order to win some of the $500 million in grant money, states will have to demonstrate the effectiveness of their programs. The competition will also encourage states to coordinate their programs to ensure consistency and sustainability, implement a quality rating and improvement system, develop common standards to measure child outcomes, provide professional development and track progress so that the data can be used to assess whether children are adequately prepared for kindergarten.

NIEER recommends two basic ways of evaluating a program's effectiveness. One is to have each teacher perform self-evaluations of each student as well as his or her own teaching ability and have the district and state also perform internal evaluations. The other is to commission formal research studies on the programs by outside firms, local universities or education consortiums. Ideally, says NIEER director W. Steven Barnett, a state should be doing both to evaluate its program.

Reality check: Self-evaluations are tricky ("I'm giving myself three gold stars!"), and Barnett says that even before the economic downturn, few states were conducting formal research studies. Some states were doing a decent job with internal evaluations, but he expects things to get worse. "Evaluations take a lot of time and money," Barnett says. "With budget cuts, I'm afraid they will be the first to go."

5. Use the federal government to push pre-K reform
Pew sees the coming battle over the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) as a major opportunity. If the federal government uses NCLB to emphasize the importance of pre-K and makes it clear what funding streams are available to finance the programs, the states will follow the lead, says Marci Young, director of Pew's Pre-K Now initiative. Young urges legislators to think about how preschool can be included in the evaluation systems, curriculum standards and other reform initiatives likely to be part of the reauthorization; she would also like to see incentives offered to states that make progress on pre-K. "We want to see pre-K as a fundamental component of the legislation, not a side issue," she says. "It would be foolish not to continue to invest in the programs like high-quality pre-K, which have such demonstrated success both for getting children on the right track and for our economic prosperity."

Reality check: There is already a long list of things both educators and government officials would like to change about NCLB, so it seems unlikely that Congress would add another item to the mix, even if reforming preschool would have a positive effect on the education system as a whole. Here's hoping that whatever happens, more 4-year-olds get off those waiting lists.

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