Photo by jeannechristine on Flickr.

DC has made a major commitment to pre-kindergarten education. Are these programs improving kids’ performance in the rest of their education? Based on information available so far, we don’t know for sure. We do know that a pre-K program has to be high quality to make a difference, and some do better than others.

In his State of the Union address, President Obama proposed greatly expanding pre-k and other early childhood education programs nationwide.

President Obama mentioned the success that Georgia and Oklahoma have had with their early education programs. He failed to mention that here, in the District of Columbia, high-quality education is already widespread for 3- and 4- year olds and an accomplishment that we should celebrate.

DC’s Pre-K Enhancement and Expansion Amendment Act of 2008 guarantees all DC 3- and 4- year olds a pre-K seat. While the District’s claims of having already achieved “universal access” can be debated, the important question, today, is “are early education programs having an impact on student achievement?”

What is the impact of early education in DC?

Last summer, Mayor Gray, along with officials from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, announced that District students participating in pre-kindergarten programs demonstrated gains in overall proficiency by 3rd and 4th grade on the 2012 District of Columbia Comprehensive Assessment System (DC CAS). City officials claim that the test results showed slight increases for both reading and math District-wide by students from both DC Public Schools and public charter schools who had attended early education programs.

However, a study released last December by DC Action for Children shows no significant improvement in the math and reading performance of third-grade students in DC public schools since 2007.

These two contrasting views clearly demonstrate that we need better data to evaluate our early education programs. (It’s also important to note that the two evaluations used different methologies.) Our early education programs must be high quality Even if early education isn’t helping DC students today, it doesn’t necessarily mean we shouldn’t invest in universal early education. It means we should invest in high-quality universal early education.

It is generally accepted that early education programs must meet specific quality standards to impact a child’s cognitive and social development. The President, as well as early education advocates, have long cited studies from the Perry Preschool Project, in Ypsilanti, Michigan, and the Carolina Abecedarian Project, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to claim that “high-quality early education provides the foundation for all children’s success in school and helps to reduce achievement gaps.”

In the District, the 2008 law requires many of the elements of “high-quality” programs, including small class sizes (16 children and 2 adults) and an approved curriculum. Lead teachers must have a bachelor’s degree or higher, and assistant teachers need at least an associate’s degree. The legislation includes provisions for professional development for teachers; comprehensive, wrap-around services for children and their families, including home visits; and a parental component, including educational workshops, parent association meetings, and parent-teacher conferences.

While I haven’t visited all District schools and I’ve been in only a few of the private and nonprofit early education classrooms that get support from the District’s Pre-K legislation, I have seen remarkable differences among the classrooms.  High-quality classrooms should be stocked with developmentally-appropriate materials. Children should be able to move around the classroom, engaging in hands-on activities. Adults should interact meaningfully with those children, helping them deepen the knowledge that they’re gaining through play.

Many programs meet this standard; unfortunately, others fail this “I’ll know it when I see it” test, despite their ability to check off the other more tangible measures of “quality.”

There is hope; data is coming

District officials acknowledge, in a recent RAISE DC report, that the District lacks a clear measure for kindergarten readiness, “making it difficult to know overall where our youngest children are in meeting academic and developmental benchmarks.” Additionally, despite the fact that the Office of the State Superintendent for Education (OSSE) insists that every preschool and pre-K program meet their new “gold” standard when they apply for funding, a visit to classrooms in different parts of the city clearly shows that differences do exist.

For the past few years, OSSE has been developing a long-awaited Statewide Longitudinal Education Data Warehouse (SLED). Developed with federal Department of Education funds, the SLED will track students across DCPS and the charters from kindergarten through high school.

The SLED works by assigning every student in the District a unique student identifier and uses that number to track students through their educational development, even as they change schools. By running a report in SLED, education agencies and school staff can look at real-time, standardized enrollment data broken down by gender, ward, and grade. Appropriate staff can also look at assessment scores and individual student progress. The current SLED incorporates 9 years of enrollment audit data and the last 5 years of DC CAS data. OSSE wants to expand SLED to include early childhood, college enrollment and adult education data starting later this year.

Having comprehensive and longitudinal data for students is imperative if we want to track and improve educational outcomes for students, as well as if we want to ensure programs that we’re investing in are meeting their goals — something that we’re currently unable to do.