WHAT OTHERS SAY: Want to fix urban schools? Focus on preschool

Wednesday, October 23, 2013 | 5:24 p.m. CDT

If you have been following the upheaval over thousands of schoolchildren in the unaccredited Normandy and Riverview Gardens school districts being transferred to accredited schools in other districts, the following quote won’t offer much hope:

“There is no urban system anywhere in America that is performing at a level that our students deserve.”

So said Ethan Gray, executive director of Cities for Education Entrepreneurship Trust, a Denver-based consultant that works with cities and school districts to improve schools across the nation.

Mr. Gray gave a report this week to Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which is paying CEE-Trust to develop a plan to help turn around its unaccredited school districts. On Tuesday, DESE left the Kansas City School District’s unaccredited status unchanged, meaning that 16,700-student district now faces the same transfer mess that has enveloped public schools on this side of the state.

If Mr. Gray is right, no one should expect any miracles.

When Mr. Gray’s organization issues its report in January, it could have lasting effects on public schools in St. Louis and Kansas City, as well as some rural areas that are bumping up against new state accreditation standards. The report most likely will suggest a passel of reforms centered on allowing the state to more quickly take over individual schools that fail to make a grade, encouraging the most effective models of charter schools and clarifying transfer rules so both the accredited and unaccredited districts have a road map to follow.

All of these things are necessary. The current model fails children who by a fault of geography and poverty are stuck in schools facing overwhelming odds against their success. The forced and rushed transfer process this year in Normandy and Riverview Gardens was haphazard, might bankrupt one or two school districts, puts some kids on buses for two hours a day and doesn’t provide a long-term blueprint for success.

While there may be no silver bullet, education and business leaders know one surefire strategy that would help schoolchildren in poverty-stricken neighborhoods, if only state lawmakers had the will to implement it.

That solution is free early childhood education.

Just this month, yet another study — this one a comprehensive analysis of all the available research — was published that shows what most experts already know to be true: Quality early childhood education works. It improves test scores. It improves social skills and other measures such as graduation rates. It gives children the tools they need to escape, or at least cope, with poverty. And, as an investment, it’s a winner. It produces more than it costs to implement in economic development gains and reductions in crime and mental health costs down the road.

Published by the Society for Research in Child Development, the report’s 10 authors, including Linda Espinosa of MU, conclude that the evidence in favor of early childhood education is overwhelming.

Among the report’s highlights:

  • “In two studies of public prekindergarten programs, positive and substantial impacts on language, literacy, and mathematics skills were found for both low- and middle-income children. In both of these studies, the impacts were larger for children living in or near poverty. ...”
  • “Finally, while it has been clear for some time that high-quality preschool education yields more in benefits to society than its initial costs, the most recent work indicates that there is a positive return on investment for a range of differing preschool programs, from those that are more intensive and costly to those that require less initial investment. In sum, quality preschool education is an investment in our future.”

Nationally, there is bipartisan support for the concept of statewide early childhood education. It has been implemented in red states and blue states. Last year state Sen. Joe Keaveny, D-St. Louis, pushed a proposal to bring universal childhood education to Missouri. Ironically, it was blocked in part by rural Republicans, some of whose communities are poor enough to have universal early childhood education paid for by the federal government.

This is the one, clear strategy that based on the evidence, based on the financial benefits, based on the long-term savings to taxpayers, should be implemented in Missouri. It’s the one strategy that public school advocates and reform groups agree on.

It should happen no matter what other solutions eventually are pushed by the state’s consultants or various lawmakers.

Missouri isn’t going to magically fix its urban school districts overnight or even in a couple of years. The overwhelming body of evidence says that the primary culprits for poor test scores — poverty, crime, transient populations, lack of investment — aren’t going to be overcome by any combination of reform measures.

But if every 3- or 4-year-old in Missouri can show up at school a little more ready to learn, having already been mentored by well-trained teachers, given access to books, to vocabulary, to the various tools that will give them an opportunity to succeed, why aren’t we trying that?

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission. 

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