The challenge for early learning advocates is proving that preschool has paid off by the time toddlers have reached adulthood. In a world of two-year election cycles and quarterly earnings reports, the patience for 20-year studies is sadly lacking.
In that context, long-range policy solutions need to report positive progress. Fortunately, the state adopted measurements for full-day kindergarten that provide insights into early learning, and the most recent report card is encouraging.
Last fall, full-day kindergartners in 208 Washington schools, including 15 in Spokane with the highest poverty levels, were assessed for seven weeks, and the data buttressed what proponents had suspected. On average, children in low-income households were less prepared for the learning experience. Most state-funded full-day kindergartens are situated in low-income neighborhoods.
Emily Sobczuk, who has taught kindergarten at Holmes Elementary School for 14 years, said the results were expected. She told The Spokesman-Review, “It is surprising that our 5-year-olds can’t count to 20, but that has been the trend for the years I’ve been working here. I think if I was at a school where the kids weren’t low-income, where the kids have strong foundations and are more likely to attend preschool, then it would be more surprising.”
She estimates that only about 35 percent of Holmes kindergartners have exposure to some form of preschool. Because the kindergarten assessment was conducted early in the school year, it offers a glimpse into preparedness.
The experience of the Cheney School District shows the value of broad access to high-quality preschool. Its kindergartners scored above average in the assessment, and they all have access to tuition-based preschool with certificated teachers. The district also has classes for parents who want to become better educators at home.
The Cheney results show the potential of a high-quality preschool education for low-income students, if it were available. Long-range studies in Chicago and Minnesota have already shown the value, revealing that students with preschool experience are more apt to attend college, make a decent living and stay out of jails and prisons. The estimated return on investment for taxpayers in educating rather than incarcerating is anywhere from $3 to $9 for every dollar spent.
But again, reaping those rewards requires the patience and discipline to stick with an early education commitment as political leaders come and go. So it’s not just children who need a better education, it’s our elected officials, too. The good news is that the Washington Student Achievement Council, which was formed by the Legislature to devise a 10-year education plan, has embraced early learning as a key component.
Of course, a full-scale commitment to early learning would be prohibitively expensive at this time, especially as the state scrambles to find the money to meet its basic education responsibility. But the kindergarten assessment suggests that with strategic spending on preschool the state can chip away at the problem while awaiting better revenue days.