There is near universal agreement in the research community that early childhood education benefits disadvantaged children despite the contention of skeptics that Georgia pre-k is just free daycare.
To address that skepticism, Georgia commissioned a study to look at the impact of its pre-k program.
A first-of-its kind study of Georgia pre-kindergarten program is nearly complete, and early reports indicate it shows largely good news about the program that has enrolled about 1.2 million youngsters in 20 years.
The study, which cost $1.5 million in lottery dollars, not tax dollars, was launched at the request of lawmakers two years ago amid dire predictions about the long-term viability of the lottery-funded pre-k and HOPE scholarship programs, arguably the state’s two most popular initiatives.
Researchers at the University of North Carolina’s Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute followed a random sample of pre-k students during the 2011-2012 school year, using pre- and post-tests to measure how much the 4-year-olds learned and classroom observations and teacher surveys to assess classroom quality.
State officials have seen some early data from the researchers, said Kristin Bernhard, education policy adviser to Gov. Nathan Deal. By almost every measure — including language and mathematics — the researchers found that students who went through Georgia pre-k fared better than their national peers, Bernhard said.
Former state Senate Education Committee Chairman Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, said the researchers’ findings are critical.
“It is extremely important that the people understand that this pre-k program is not baby-sitting, that it is preparing young people for school, and that it makes a difference on achievement at the end of the day,” Millar said.
The program year was shortened to 160 days during the 2011 legislative session among the grim forecasts, sparking a mass exodus of mostly veteran pre-k teachers who said they could not afford an accompanying pay cut of nearly 10 percent. The governor added back 1o of the 20 days last year by dropping plans to open the program, which serves about 84,000 4-year-olds, to an additional 2,000 students.
This year, lawmakers will be asked to restore the remaining 10 days based on the Georgia Lottery Corp.’s banner year, with $3.8 billion in ticket sales. That provided $900 million for HOPE and pre-k, $55 million more than the previous year. HOPE scholars will benefit as well, the governor has said.
Georgia began its own study of pre-k back in 1996 using a Georgia State University team.
The No. 1 recommendation of that study — never enacted — was getting the state’ s poorest children into pre-k classrooms even earlier, at age 3. The study found that poor children needed exposure to a language-rich environment earlier to catch up with peers from more affluent households.
Much of what I noted in a 2005 column about that study remains the case today:
The study of preschoolers across Georgia found that while the children begin school behind their peers nationally, they gain ground from the beginning of preschool to the end of first grade. By the end of first grade, Georgia’s children exceed the national norms on their overall math skills and their ability to identify letters and words.
However, about one-third of the children whose mothers didn’t complete high school repeated either kindergarten or first grade and scored far lower on standardized tests, according to the findings. That’s because these children come from homes where they have little exposure to the language and social skills essential to school success. Pre-k teachers told Henry and other researchers that much of their time goes to teaching students how to hold a fork or turn pages of a book, basic skills that middle-class 4-year-olds arrive in class already knowing.
With about 40 percent of Georgia children living in low-income households, a statewide educational program targeting at-risk 3-year-olds would be expensive. But those children are costing the state millions of dollars now because many of them end up being held back or dropping out in high school.
The GSU study also suggests that Georgia children are paying a price for the state’s failure to lower class sizes in first grade. The researchers documented a slight downturn in the language skills of Georgia first-graders relative to their peers around the country. They blame the slippage on two factors: a redundancy of what’s being taught in kindergarten and first grade, and higher class sizes.
–from Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog