Pre-K’s pre-emptive power

Posted on April 8, 2016. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , |

There are few statistical slam-dunks in public policy.

Most social issues have multidimensional complexity comprising various factors, each with the singular capacity to wildly skew analysis—and thus skewer the effectiveness of social programs designed to solve them. That’s why some programs wind up doing the exact opposite of their intended purpose, and making things worse.

Occasionally, however, an idea materializes whose time has not only come, but also arrives accompanied by great opportunity.

Pre-kindergarten education is that idea, and the time and place to seize national leadership on it is Arkansas 2016.

For some (and perhaps for many), “preschool” has knee-jerk connotations derived from the general partisan politicization surrounding education issues. That reflex is a hindrance to clear thinking. Even the slightest deliberation over the factual realities suggest that support for more pre-K funding is simply smart common sense.

Here are a few ways high quality pre-K reduces costs and returns to society, by some analytical estimates, up to $16 for every $1 in program cost.

It produces staggering results in lowering crime. Good luck finding any single public initiative with demonstrated reductions of arrests and sentencing among low-income teens and twentysomethings that can rival those achieved by pre-kindergarten enrollment.

The criminals 20 years from now are today’s toddlers, and research from the Perry Preschool Study (which followed subjects through age 40) showed enormous reductions in criminality from high-risk children who participated in a high-quality pre-K program. At age 40, the pre-K students had been sentenced for a crime 46 percent less often than their peers in a control group who did not attend pre-K. The pre-K group also had a 33 percent lower arrest rate for violent crimes. The drop in drug-crime arrests for the pre-K students was a remarkable 58 percent.

Reductions of that magnitude are almost unimaginable in a day and time in which a 3 or 4 percent drop in crime rates makes headlines. And here in Arkansas we suffer some disproportionate victimization in some violent categories.

If you’re anti-crime, you should be pro-preschool.

It focuses on reading readiness. Literacy is absolutely fundamental to learning, and we know that if a child arrives at kindergarten behind on his letters, he’s unlikely to ever catch up. Nearly nine out of 10 (88 percent) poor readers in the first grade are still poor readers in the fourth grade, according to Pew Charitable Trusts data. And 75 percent of poor third-grade readers turn into poor high school readers.

Model pre-K programs have curricula that ready students for reading so they don’t start out behind. I’m a believer that all real learning starts with reading, and the earlier a child becomes a good reader, the better that child will do in school. In a state like Arkansas that gets double-whammied by high child poverty and low child literacy rates, pre-K spells extraordinary potential.

If you’re pro-reading, you should be pro-preschool.

It encourages better parenting. One of the requirements for a quality pre-K program is interactivity and feedback from parents, at a more involved level than a typical often-skipped parent-teacher conference in regular school. High-risk children often come from troubled family environments, and pre-K can introduce some measure of stability for them.

Research data also show that pre-K students in high-risk categories benefited later in life as parents themselves: Pre-K female participants in studies had significantly fewer teen pregnancies and fewer abortions.

Pre-K participants in the Perry School Study at age 40 were four times more likely to do volunteer community work than the control group.

If you’re pro-family and pro-life, you should be pro-preschool.

It leads to better employment and earning power. Farsighted business leaders and organizations across the country are recognizing the significant difference pre-K programs can make in the later working lives of children. They know the toddlers of today will be the emerging work force 20 years from now, and they view pre-K as particularly relevant in economically depressed areas as a job-training factor.

The studies show higher employment and wages among low-income children who attend pre-K, and the Perry data featured a 36 percent increase in median annual earnings at age 40.

So chambers of commerce are lining up in support, as reported in Jonesboro last week, where the number of pre-K students and classes in the Jonesboro Public School district have doubled since 2004—and there’s a waiting list.

If you’re pro-business, you should be pro-preschool.

Pre-K kids are better prepared for K-12. In some respects, all the previous benefits are icing on the primary purpose cake. At the heart of quality pre-K is its highly demonstrated ability to help kids do better in school, especially those also confronted with poverty.

Unlike so many social-engineering ideas, pre-K offers proven results—provided that key quality indicators are in place: qualified teachers, small classes, effective curricula, systematic parental interaction.

There are lobbies, special interests and political opportunists who all hope to make a football of pre-K for their own ends. But it need not be partisan, nor even a public/private issue.

It’s just a good idea in general, and a great idea for a state like Arkansas.

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