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New report highlights stagnation for early childhood programs

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As the early childhood education community celebrates President Barack Obama’s campaign for universal preschool, a new report shows stagnation in the number of low-income children enrolled in Pre-K between 2009 and 2013.

Called “Subprime Learning”, the report by the New America Foundation delves into various factors of the lives of low-income children in 3rd grade or younger, including education, health, family well-being and poverty. It also looked at state and federal funding for early childhood.

Even in states where quality preschool exists, the report found that not enough children have access. In 2009, 40 percent of children were enrolled in publicly-funded preschool nationwide. according to the report. Four years later, that number had increased by only 2 percent, to 42 percent.

Lisa Guernsey, who directs the Early Education Initiative at New America Foundation and authored the report, said by comparison in China access increased by 14 percent in three years.

She said policy initiatives to help more children access quality preschool and help families move out of poverty “are moving slow.”

According to the report, more lower-middle income families where two parents work are registering for subsidized or free lunch. In 2013, 48 percent of students from preschool to 3rd grade qualify for reduced or free lunch. For a family of four to qualify, income would have to be at or below $44,000. Those children were also more likely to be underperforming in school, Guernsey said.

On a positive note, she said 2014 was off to a better start with the refunding of Head Start in the most recent budget. The report also took pains to highlight areas and states where young children are getting ahead, like Maryland and Massachusetts. Guernsey said those two states in particular are “working hard to use better tools and help teachers use these tools in the classroom to improve the quality of preschool learning.”

Publicly funded preschools in these states are helping teachers use observation as a “tool” to carefully note progress and challenges that each child experiences.  

“It enables a teacher to watch how a child is, say, forming letters in writing, and take notes on how well that child is able to hold the pencil or document how the child is doing,” Guernsey said. Those who aren't doing as well are more likely to get help.

Guernsey also lauded programs where experts are hired to watch a teacher in action and then provide individualized advice and training.

She called both these methods “very simple concepts that work.”

Other findings in the report:

  • Per-pupil funding for state pre-K dropped over these years. 
  • Policies paid virtually no attention to the rising population of dual-language learners, especially in the early years in which bilingualism could more easily take hold.
  • Kindergarten data from 2010 showed achievement gaps between rich and poor. The National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that although fourth-grade test scores inched up on average, income gaps have widened since 2009.
  • Access to early education opportunities and funding varied widely by state, with some states making critical investments, particularly in 2013, as effects of the recession eased. Federal grants have spurred many states to improve the infrastructure that supports their pre-K and child care programs, and Mississippi launched a pre-K program in 2013.
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