Investing in high-quality preschool: Will the benefits last?

Posted at 5:00 AM, Oct 11, 2016
and last updated 2016-10-11 10:40:51-04

CINCINNATI – Pumping $15 million a year into near-universal preschool in Cincinnati is supposed to snowball into a more successful academic career and eventually better jobs and fewer jail sentences.

But some studies suggest that whatever benefits preschool bestows on children disappear in elementary school when preschool graduates' test scores fall in line with peers who didn't go to preschool.

So which is it? Beware of anyone bearing a black-and-white answer, because it's complicated.

Quality is key

Supporters and opponents of Cincinnati Preschool Promise agree on at least one thing: spending money on low-quality preschool programs won't help children in the long run.

"Quality really is the driving factor," said Chad Aldis, vice president for Ohio Policy and Advocacy at Fordham Institute, a conservative-leaning organization that advocates for education reform.

Chad Aldis

Cincinnati Preschool Promise and CPS advocates plan to maximize the return on the investment by requiring all preschool programs that want to receive public money be rated three stars or higher on Ohio's Step Up to Quality one-to-five-star ratings scale.

"Where you can control for quality and make sure you have high standards and consistent level of service provided you're going to be in a better position to get results," said Stephanie Byrd, who leads United Way of Greater Cincinnati's Success by Six program.

Stephanie Byrd

The CPS school levy seeks $48 million a year in new funds for five years, including $15 million a year to subsidize two years of preschool for all children who live in the district. 

The preschool venture will be overseen by United Way, which will be charged with distributing the money to eligible private preschools and helping new and existing schools to achieve three-star or higher ratings. 

The case for fleeting results

Opponents of investing more public money in preschool point to several studies that suggest "fadeout" -- early gains fading away by middle school.

A 2010 study found no discernible advantages among the third and fourth graders who participated in Head Start preschool programs in math and social-emotional development.

A 2015 study of preschool programs in Tennessee had similarly bad news that elementary students who participated in state-funded preschool programs showed no social or academic improvements compared to their peers.

Matthew Wahlert, a teacher at St. Henry High School in Covington and a former CPS teacher, is the Republican nominee for Ohio House District 32. He said another government program to fund preschool would be a poor use of tax dollars.

Aldis said fadeout can and does happen if preschool graduates move onto poor public, charter or private kindergarten and elementary schools.

"The biggest variable might be through the quality of K-3 education. A lot of our kids aren't having a great experience in elementary school," he said.

Bradford Beckett, executive director of COAST, the anti-tax group that opposes the school levy, said CPS's track record doesn't justify the investment.

"A quality education leads to educated students, and CPS is not offering it," Beckett said.

The case for lasting results

John Pepper, the retired president and CEO of Procter & Gamble, has been fighting for investing in early education for nearly 30 years.

John Pepper

"We face an overwhelming imperative -- to give every child a fair chance to develop his or her God-given abilities," Pepper said.

Pepper cites studies that say being ready for kindergarten with basic academic, social and emotional skills means students are more likely to be reading at grade level in third grade.

An exhaustive study of Cincinnati's preschool landscape conducted by Rand concludes that expanded high-quality preschool that is strongly aligned with K-12 curriculum could have lasting benefits. 

Those results are echoed by a news analysis by the Hamilton Project, which found that adults who participated in Head Start preschool finished high school in greater numbers than peers, attended college more frequently and earned more college degrees and certificates.

Advocates say third graders who have learned to read are ready to read to learn. They are less likely to drop out of school, more likely to get a living-wage job or go to college and less likely to commit crimes, need welfare or other social services.

In Denver, which funds preschool for 4 year olds, 86 percent of Denver preschool graduates are proficient or partially proficient at reading at grade level in third grade compared to 81 percent who didn't participate in the preschool program. 

Math scores were better, too, even for students who went on to attend lower-ranked elementary schools. There, 70 percent of Denver preschool graduates who attended higher ranked schools passed a standardized math test  compared to 64 percent of non-preschool graduates. At lower performing schools, 55 percent of preschool graduates passed the test compared to 49 percent of non-preschool graduates. 

Closer to home, United Way of Greater Cincinnati and CPS tracked results for kindergarten students who attended CPS preschools -- all of which have five-star ratings -- compared to those who didn't.

The preschool graduates scored consistently higher than their counterparts on the state kindergarten readiness test, including an average of 21 in 2013-14, compared to 18.8 in the non-preschool group. A 19 or higher was considered kindergarten-ready.

How did Cincinnati's kindergarten-ready students fare on the third-grade reading test? About 86 percent were proficient in 2012-13, compared to 59 percent who weren't kindergarten-ready, according to a study sponsored by United Way and CPS.

The Tennessee and Head Start studies included results from preschoolers who attended low-quality programs, Byrd and Pepper said, and who may have graduated into low-quality elementary schools.

Cincinnati Preschool Promise plans to avoid those pitfalls by aligning curriculum with the school district's K-12 curriculum.

They contend that high-quality preschool, combined with high-quality elementary school, will yield long-term dividends.

Aldis, whose Fordham Institute has not taken a position on the CPS plan, said the district has the right approach.

"They're doing the right thing. They're looking at those things that could lead to those benefits fading out," he said.

Aldis also likes the emphasis on investing in low-income family subsidies rather than making preschool free for all incomes.

"It's far better to focus these resources at low-income and not make it universal or pseudo-universal," he said.

Aldis is concerned that Cincinnati, like most communities, will struggle to find enough high-quality seats to meet demand.

"The challenges we face in educating kids who come in far behind make fadeout the likely result, but I'm still optimistic that they can be overcome with a really high-quality program and a quality elementary education," he said. "All kids can learn. We can't give up."

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