To Get a Student Ready for School, How Much Pre-K Is Enough?

Leah Binkovitz | @leahbink | April 12, 2017

What does it take to get kids ready for school? Image via flickr/woodleywonderworks

As Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and state legislature square off over a pre-kindergarten pilot program begun in 2016, a new report from the Kinder Institute’s Houston Education Research Consortium shows just how important pre-K is for properly preparing children for school.

Most Texas schools are already required to provide one year of half-day pre-K. But several, including the Houston Independent School District, have long offered full-day pre-K for one year and in some cases two, to eligible students, including students who are considered English language learners or economically disadvantaged. A pilot program pushed through by Abbott last legislative session sought to provide additional funding for pre-K to support expansion of those programs.

But when the money was finally handed out it was so far below the promised amount that some districts actually gave back the one-time grants and the new requirements that came with them. Now a debate at the state level about how best to fund and regulate pre-K is threatening to cut short Abbott’s ambitions.

Research has long linked early childhood education to later academic success and suggested it may be a critical part of closing the persistent academic disparities between student groups. The new report from HERC found that HISD students who received two years of pre-K education had greater improvement in “school readiness” than those who only got one. But here’s the rub: The vast majority of students in the district’s pre-K program – 90 percent of them – were only enrolled for one year. It also found that many students, whether they attended pre-K with the district or not, were still not ready for kindergarten by the time they got there.

“There’s so much disparity in how prepared kids are at kindergarten entry that anything we can do to help trim that is important,” said Erin Baumgartner, author of the study, who looked at test scores of almost 40,000 kindergarten students in the 2013-2014 and 2015-2016 school years.

Using scores from a standardized test all students take when they enter kindergarten, Baumgartner found that, among students taking the English language test, those students who had two years of pre-K with the district were the most likely to be “school ready” – 45 percent compared to 39 percent of students with only one year of pre-K with the district – and were more than twice as likely to be school ready than those who had zero years of pre-K with the district, only 22 percent of whom were deemed ready for kindergarten.

“There is a clear boost that happens with one year versus zero years with HISD pre-K and then incrementally from one to two years,” said Baumgartner. When she broke the results down by gender, race and ethnicity, among other factors, the same patterns generally held true. “White students, black students, Hispanic students: one is more than zero, and two is more than one,” she said.

The results were a bit more complicated for English language learners taking the Spanish language version of the test upon entering kindergarten. Though there was a big boost in readiness between students with zero years and one year with the district, the gains leveled off and even dipped slightly for students who had two years of pre-K. Baumgartner said this may indicate a need to evaluate how bilingual programs can better promote progress for those students who already had a year of pre-K under their belt, but over all, “They’re definitely in a better place than they would’ve been without it,” she said.

With roughly a third of students in HISD kindergarten coming in with zero years of pre-K with the district, Baumgartner said she actually expected the impact of one or two years with the district to be smaller. She suspected that many of the students not enrolling with the district’s pre-K program were still getting some form of early education, since students with zero years are less likely to be economically disadvantaged than their peers in HISD pre-kindergarten.

The district considers the results to be a win.

“The findings definitely confirm and validate the great work that our schools are doing every day,” said Lance Menster, Officer for Elementary Curriculum and Development with HISD. “We also always know that there’s more work to do,” he added, “and this is what House Bill 4 has been instrumental in,” he said, referring to the bill that created Abbott’s pilot pre-K program now under threat.

Abbott’s push to expand so-called “high quality” pre-K across the state launched this school year with more than $118 million spread across 578 school districts and charter schools. But the program and its funding are on the chopping block this legislative session as the state House looks to remove some of the strings attached – like requirements around parental engagement, professional development and reporting requirements – and the state Senate put forth a budget with much less than Abbott is asking for the program.

Those are the types of changes that Menster argued have helped improve the quality of pre-K in the district. The funding HISD received through the grant program went toward professional development and training, as well as the new parental engagement tool, Ready Rosie, part of a national program that texts or emails parent subscribers activities to do with young children.

“If House Bill 4 funding is cut, it would significantly impact the work that we began this year to continue to reach that goal of high quality pre-K,” said Menster, who aims to look next at how pre-kindergarten exposure affects literacy in third grade students.

And there is more work. For one, not all students who are eligible for pre-K with the district enroll. And even with the boost that one or two years of district pre-K provides, a huge percentage of students are coming into kindergarten unprepared, according to the test scores.

“This is great that we see these upward patterns,” said Baumgartner, “that these are still hovering around 50 percent of the probability of being ready for school, that means that there are a lot of students who are not prepared. They’re better prepared than they would have been but we want 100 percent of students to be ready for school.”

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Leah Binkovitz

Leah Binkovitz is Senior Editor with the Kinder Institute for Urban Research.

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