Lawmakers debate effectiveness of preschool, kindergarten (Standard Examiner)

By CALEB LARKIN

SALT LAKE CITY – National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results show Utah students score at the national average in math and reading. Yet in the 1990’s Utah scores were among the top in the nation.

The Education Interim Committee discussed the drop in educational progress and suggested it was possibly linked with poor early grade reading and math proficiency at the preschool and kindergarten level.

State funded pilot programs are not giving legislators the information they need. Diana Suddreth, director of Teaching and Learning at the Utah State Office of Education, reported programs such as the Optional Extend a Day for Kindergarten (OEK) are difficult to track effectiveness. She accredited the inability to find “statistically significant findings” to not having common measurements from school to school.

Utah reports only 13 percent of 5- to 6-year old children attend a full-day of kindergarten. The national average for attendance is 77 percent. The committee’s chair, Rep. Bradley Last, R-Hurricane, accredited the low numbers to Utah’s optional kindergarten program. Last referred to OEK as an “optional program on top of an optional program.”

Brad Smith, the State Superintended of Public Instruction, suggested a standardized test to measure kindergarten readiness. “If we are going to further all-day kindergarten, we need a way to ensure the efficacy of the program.” Smith said.

Melissa Proctor, a research analyst with the Utah Foundation, shared a report comparing Utah and Colorado’s NAEP scores. In the 1990’s both states ranked in the top 10 in the nation. In the early 2000’s both states faced setbacks in education progress. Colorado, however, bounced back and returned to the top 10 in the nation.

Proctor reported Colorado and Utah are similar in per student spending and other education areas. The report found a significant difference in two areas: (1) High-quality preschool, and (2) Full-day kindergarten attendance. “In Colorado they speak in terms of p through 12, not k through 12,” Proctor said. Colorado has a 74 percent full-day kindergarten attendance.

David Doty, Principal with Education Direction, recommended the committee incorporate six elements “into an early childhood education bill with ongoing funding of at least $15 to $20 million annually for five years.” The six elements included: (1) fund competitive proposals, (2) fund a portfolio of options, (3) Enact creative funding mechanism, (4) Insist programs emphasize academics such as math and reading, not simply a day care, (5) Insist programs address school readiness behavior, and (6) Provide targeted professional development.

Gretchen Anderson, school readiness program coordinator at the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget, presented a “Pay for Success” program. The pilot program allows for investors to fund a child’s preschool education. They opened 750 slots for students to enter preschool. Goldman Sachs, the largest investor, provides funding for high-quality preschool education. The “return” on investment comes if the student they sponsored does not enter the special education system. The state then pays back the investor.

Bill Crim, Senior Vice President at the United Way of Salt Lake, found the “Pay for Success” pilot program extremely effective. “If it doesn’t yield then they lose the money not us (the state),” Crim said. “However it is working so far so they are willing to take the risk.”

Crim reported that of the more than 100,000 3- and 4-year-olds in the state, “about one-third are economically challenged.” A school readiness assessment predicts the likelihood that these students will enter the special education system some time during their education. Twenty-five percent of the low-income students score less than 70 on the assessment, predicting they will end up going into special education.

“Yet 90 percent of the low-income students who score 70 or below avoid special education if they had a high-quality preschool education.” Crim said. High-quality preschool is defined as a program that focuses on academic skills such as reading and math.

The committee made no bill proposals or other motions during the meeting. Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, emphasized the committee needs “to understand where our money is better spent” before they take action.