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SCHOOL MATTERS: Pre-school Helps Close the Learning Gap

New America Media, News Report, Vivian Po Posted: Jun 03, 2009

Providing high-quality pre-school education to more Latino and African-American children is key in closing the achievement gaps in Californias K-12 public education system, according to a recent study.

Pre-school Adequacy and Efficiency in California: Issues, Policy Options, and Recommendations, is the last in a series of studies on Californias early childhood education system by the RAND Corporation. It focuses on the need to increase both access to, and quality of, pre-school programs, especially for children who are likely to fall behind in elementary grades.

Californias early childhood education system is both inadequate and inefficient, said report author Lynn Karoly. It can only serve about half of the eligible three and four year olds.

The report points out that students from low-income, disadvantaged families are least likely to participate in any pre-school programs and will be less prepared when they start kindergarten. As a result, those readiness gaps will then become significant achievement gaps as they advance in grade level.

The achievement gap can be narrowed by 10 to 20 percent by doing two things, the report states. First, by increasing the number of disadvantaged children attending pre-schools; and second, by improving the quality of pre-school education.

Although the report raises the idea of universal pre-school education making it available to all children it recommends instead prioritizing pre-school enrollment for those who would benefit the most. That means enrolling a high percent of Latino and African-American children, according to Jack O'Connell, superintendent of public instruction.

We are seeing the fastest-growing student population, which are the Latino American children, lag behind on school achievements, OConnell said. It is a must that we address the achievement gap problem now.

However, increasing pre-school participation without promoting quality wont solve the problem. The current pre-school system with its loose regulations and weak standards requires closer regulation and licensing of pre-school providers, along with a quality rating system.

The report notes that in the 2005-06 fiscal year, about $1.9 billion was spent on subsidizing early childhood care and education for pre-school-aged children. That amount wont increase. In fact, it may be cut because of the states budget crisis. But the report points to pre-school reforms that dont demand more funding.

There are lots of improvements California can make without costing much or any money, Karoly said.

One approach is to reform the way pre-school providers receive funding, which currently is complicated and leaves much funding unspent from year to year. Other no-cost or minimum cost recommendations include standardizing the reimbursement structure.

The report also provides suggestions for long-term improvements, such as expanding eligibility to include 3-year-olds from families with incomes below the federal poverty line.

It is good to know that our pre-school system is going on the right track, said Catherine Atkin, president of Preschool California. Hopefully, one day, all children can receive pre-school services they need and deserve.

The full report can be found at: http://www.rand.org/pubs/monographs/MG889/

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