Quality pre-K is key to school turnaround

As the idea of universal pre-K moved to center stage in election season this fall in Maryland and beyond, interest in high-quality pre-K as a school turnaround tool grew.

At the center of the Obama administration's public school turnaround agenda is the federal School Improvement Grant program, which provides federal funds to fix failing public schools. But a new study from the Ounce of Prevention Fund, a hands-on anti-child poverty nonprofit, and Mass Insight Education, a Massachusetts-based education reform organization, reports that the program is fundamentally flawed. This research identifies disincentives built into SIG reforms that will hinder rather than help school turnaround efforts.


Tragically, millions of children begin elementary school years behind their peers, and the SIG program — overhauled by the Obama administration five years ago — has not closed that gap.

New regulations have been proposed by the administration, under which school districts can opt to provide high-quality pre-K in exchange for federal turnaround funds. Yet the study's four authors argue that school leaders and districts will have few incentives to implement quality preschool programs, because turnaround success is largely determined by accountability tests that are not administered until third grade. This means that, despite the good intentions behind changing SIG rules, four year olds who received federal funding for pre-K classes in the first year of the turnaround grant won't take any standardized tests until the turnaround project's fifth year.

The need to begin turnaround efforts early, however, is bolstered by research. Academic analysis by child development researchers Todd Risley and Betsy Hart found that, by age three, children from low-income families hear an average of three million fewer words than their more advantaged peers. This word gap and other social and emotional skill deficits begin at birth and ensure our most disadvantaged children begin school unprepared and far behind their counterparts growing up in more affluent homes.

Over time, this word gap becomes what is known as the achievement gap, whereby those entering kindergarten unprepared never catch up, placing them at high-risk of dropping out of school later, with all of the adverse consequences that involves.

By creating incentives to begin addressing the word gap and related skill gaps before kindergarten, SIG could begin addressing the achievement gap at its foundation, rather than after it has become entrenched. This could help get K-12 education out of the business of what U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan calls "playing catch up."

Evidence-based early education programs, such as Every Child Ready, have proved that they can move the needle for economically disadvantaged children before kindergarten. Center City Public Charter School offers the ECR pre-K program at its six campuses in underserved neighborhoods in Washington D.C.

In a longitudinal study tracking the same cohort of students over time, students who had been enrolled in Center City's ECR pre-K program outperformed their non-ECR peers in early reading and math skills in kindergarten and first grade. ECR pre-K students began kindergarten and first grade ahead of their non-ECR classmates, and also scored above the national norm — in which disadvantaged students represent a much smaller share than at Center City — upon entering kindergarten.

Moving to a school turnaround model, in which school leaders and districts are rewarded for achieving data-backed improvements at the pre-kindergarten level, would incentivize them to implement programs with proven effectiveness. It also would encourage school leaders and districts to address the achievement gap as early as possible.

Center City Public Charter School's regulator, the D.C. Public Charter School Board, has led the way in creating a specially tailored performance management framework for pre-K initiatives to monitor and assess their effectiveness. School district offices and other boards should follow their pioneering lead. By embracing such data-oriented accountability mechanisms, school turnarounds would have a much higher chance of success than simply waiting five years to discover what worked.

The public charter school model is a potentially powerful vehicle for delivering high-quality pre-K as the first step in school turnarounds. With time-limited performance-based contracts, charters can be held accountable for improving student performance.

Traditional public school systems also can benefit from accountability assessments that indicate the effectiveness of pre-K provision. A multi-year cohort study of New Jersey's state Supreme Court-mandated pre-K program, which has many similarities with Every Child Ready, undertaken between 2005 and 2012 by the National Institute for Early Education, revealed that this initiative closed about half of the achievement gap before kindergarten.

The evidence is clear — the federal government should target school turnarounds before kindergarten begins.

Jack McCarthy is president and CEO of the AppleTree Institute for Education Innovation. His email is