This past week over forty local leaders interested in education traveled together to Boston, Jersey City, and Washington DC to see what success looks like in public and private preschools.
Teachers, principals and administrators from Seattle Public Schools, joined Councilmembers Tim Burgess, Bruce Harrell and Mayor Ed Murray, King County Executive Dow Constantine, proponents from human service community, and key labor and business leaders as well as me. We met with our counterparts in Boston and Jersey City, and en masse showed decision-makers in Washington D.C. that we are serious about high quality early education and are deserving of federal support.
Before leaving for Boston many of us read Restoring Opportunity by Greg Duncan and Richard Murnane. In their book, the authors confirm that early learners’ basic knowledge such as reading readiness, language skills and math comprehension, as well as positive social behaviors and interest in learning, differ significantly between those who come from low income families and those who emerge from more affluent families. The authors cite the Boston program we went to visit as a way to bridge the economic divide.
We all intuitively know that being raised in a family that has stable housing, income to pay the bills and access to affordable health care, reduces the stress on even the youngest child. We’ve been told for years that children who show up to school well nourished, whose families have had the time and willingness to read to them since birth, and who have the boost of supportive family and neighborhood structures, have a big head start. No surprises there, but without intervention, the achievement gaps increase as our children age.
Evidence from various studies is conclusive that a child who starts kindergarten behind the learning curve will be even further behind by third grade without significant remedial help; by fifth grade a struggling student moves with less confidence into middle school and by his/her high school years, the chances of being disciplined, or dropping out, or becoming pregnant, or even spending time in jail increases greatly.
In the face of these facts, there is one clear investment we can make to turn the inequality trend around. Substantial research data shows that the best way to close the achievement gap is to make high quality preschool available to our youngest students first.
Here is what high quality preschool means and how we can invest wisely to get a smart return on our investment:
- Create a data-based district-wide strategic plan that includes the public school as well as private providers
- Provide funding for a few small pilot programs across the district and across income levels
- Utilize a successful and tested program such as Opening the World of Learning or “OWL” program for 3-4 year olds
- Require a bachelor’s degree for all preschool teachers; encourage every teacher to work toward a masters degree in pre-school education.
- Provide additional training to experienced teachers who want to be part of the program
- Recognize capable teachers’ experience, and for those without a bachelor’s degree, initially grant additional time and financial support for those willing teachers to move toward advanced degrees
- Pay preschool teachers well. Boston preschool teachers, for example, are well compensated — $70,000 per year
- Include para-professionals and volunteers in the classroom to keep class sizes small and deal with inevitable bathroom needs
- Provide coaches for the teachers to improve instruction, build on strengths of students, and assistant with classroom behavioral issues
- Provide sufficient financial resources to support teacher collaboration, special instruction, and emotional needs of both students and teachers
- Assure a clean, well-maintained physical facility
- Include principals in the training
- Start small and build on success. Parents will demand and the community will pay to increase the number of successful programs.
This is what our schools can provide students and in turn provide our city. Parents can also be involved in productive new ways, building support groups for themselves and the teachers. Here’s an excellent link on how parents can build an educational support group from the Portland Family Empowerment Network, founded by my new friend, Dr. Kathy Masarie.
Much has been written about the need to turn around the generational impacts of income inequality. Our citywide goal should be to promote policies to provide a better standard of living for every family. Early investment in high quality preschools is one tested tool.