Closing the achievement gap begins with preschool
Gov. Gary Herbert released his budget recommendations last week for the upcoming legislative session. Only $10 million out of a $2.4 billion education budget was allocated to early intervention, which would address children entering kindergarten already behind.
In order to reach the goal of 66 percent of Utah adults achieving a college degree or post-secondary certificate by 2020 and produce the skilled workforce necessary for high- tech businesses, Utah needs greater investment in high quality preschool and the school readiness of Utah's children, particularly low-income and at-risk children.
We know that children who start behind tend to stay behind. One of the best predictors of high school graduation and attendance in college is reading proficiency in third grade. Studies show that one of the most important predictors of third grade test performance is school readiness at kindergarten entry.
Many low-income children begin school with an opportunity gap. According to Dr. James Heckman, University of Chicago economist and Nobel laureate, children at 3 years old from low-income families have a cumulative vocabulary of 500-700 words, whereas 3-year-olds from professional families have a cumulative vocabulary of 1,100 words.
This opportunity gap in early literacy becomes an achievement gap in language arts once children enter and progress in school. High quality preschool for at-risk children closes the opportunity gap and improves school readiness, reduces the achievement gap, reduces the need for special education and other remedial services, improves high school graduation rates and improves long-term earnings for low-income children.
Heckman has written extensively on the productivity argument for investing in early childhood development: "Early interventions for disadvantaged children promote schooling, raise the quality of the workforce, enhance the productivity of schools and reduce crime, teenage pregnancy and welfare dependency."
In addition, Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis economists Arthur J. Rolnick and Rob Grunewald contend that investments in human capital prior to kindergarten provide a high public return and the most efficient way to increase the productivity of the future workforce is to invest in today's youngest, especially at risk, children.
High-quality preschool is a cost-efficient and effective approach to addressing Utah's achievement gap and improving high school graduation rates. We need only to look at the results of a preschool program in Title I schools in the Granite School District for a local example of a high quality program for at-risk children that is making a difference and closing both the opportunity and achievement gap.
Children who attended the Granite School District's high quality preschool program in beginning in 2006 in the district's 11 schools most impacted by poverty are currently in fifth grade. These at-risk children, on average, performed comparably to all children in the state in language arts and math in second, third and fourth grades, even though many of these preschoolers did not speak English when they entered preschool.
Most business executives will tell you that if you are not getting the results you want in the long term, then you are not investing enough up front to lay the groundwork for success. The same is true in education. Many education leaders know that the earliest years in a child's cognitive development is the most important and lays the foundation for future academic success.
Yet, Utah invests little in early education. Additional investments in the school readiness of at-risk children before they enter school would reward all of us and move Utah toward the 66 percent goal.
Janis Dubno is senior policy analyst for nonprofit Voices for Utah Children.