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Walton family funds pre-k success study

by Cynthia Howell | April 2, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

The long-standing Arkansas Better Chance for School Success program for 3- and 4-year-olds is the focus of research to identify the features of preschool that best prepare children for kindergarten success.

The Walton Family Foundation of Bentonville commissioned the study in hopes of finding ways to remedy achievement gaps that exist among children entering kindergarten in Arkansas and elsewhere in the nation, Kathy Smith, the foundation's senior program adviser, said.

"In the legislative session last year, many of the advocacy groups were asking for increases in funding for pre-kindergarten," Smith said. "Some of the legislators questioned how the program is performing in terms of kindergarten readiness and those kinds of things" that go beyond keeping children safe and cared for while their parents work.

"We didn't have those answers," Smith said. "That's not really the data that had been collected."

Student test results in kindergarten and higher grades oftentimes show that children from low-income and from middle/higher-income families start kindergarten with already significant gaps between them in what they know and are able to do. That's at least partly because of the trips and other educational experiences that may or may not be available to young children depending on their family resources, Smith said.

"We started thinking ... would it be possible to infuse educational options and qualities into that already state-funded ABC program?"

The Walton Family Foundation was prompted in part to back the research as the result of its partnership with the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation and Arkansas Department of Education in the Forward Arkansas initiative for student success in college and the workplace.

The three entities doing the study are the University of Colorado at Denver's School of Education and Human Development; NORC at the University of Chicago, which is a nonpartisan organization founded in 1941 as the National Opinion Research Center; and Kate Tarrant, an independent consultant based in Westport, Conn.

Diana Schaack, assistant professor at the University of Colorado at Denver and one of the researchers, said she hopes that the study will result in the identification of preschool components that policymakers and foundations might want to support through policy initiatives or philanthropy to improve outcomes for children.

"We are getting to the point in our knowledge base that we understand that high quality preschool is a really important mechanism to support children's emotional, social and cognitive development, and it plays a really important role in helping to narrow the achievement gap," Schaack said.

"But we as states don't put a lot of funding toward preschool," she said. "As a result we have a mixed delivery system with some programs getting some types of public support and others relying fully on parent tuition. We have different operating standards across the different types of programs. We really need to, as states and as a country, think about what are we going to do to make sure all children have access to high quality preschool classrooms."

Tonya Williams is director of the Arkansas Department of Human Services' Childcare and Early Childhood Education Division that has administered what is now the 25,000-child Arkansas Better Chance program since its inception by state law in 1991. The statewide program serves children from families whose gross income does not exceed 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

"It's exciting for our program," Williams said Monday about the prospect of the research.

She said the Arkansas program has always been tied to readying children for kindergarten.

"We have continued to do longitudinal tracking of children who have participated in pre-k. It just continues to show that these children who have that experience are doing better than their counterparts who are in the same economic cohort but don't get to have the experience," Williams said.

"It's always interesting to learn more," she added. "Our goal here is always to try to improve and see how we can do things better with our program. Anything that is learned is a wonderful way for us to take information and apply it. I think we'll continue to see good results from research done about this program."

Researchers in the commissioned study will determine what data are collected and what data should be collected about a student's educational career, and how that might be integrated or coordinated to determine what experiences support student development, growth and learning, Schaack and Smith said.

The Arkansas-centered study will also look at elements of preschool programs such as teacher preparation, classroom ratios of children to adults, how teachers relate to children, and whether the curricula used are related to kindergarten readiness, Schaack said.

How to best assess learning in children who don't read and can't take a paper/pencil or computer test, will be another focus, Smith said.

She expects researchers to visit different preschool centers "to determine what quality looks like, and how do we replicate it."

It's her hope, Smith said, that the resulting information will lead to improved staff training and standards.

"We give everyone a chance to have access to training, to raise quality," Smith said. "Eventually, the ABC program grants would infuse the metric of quality centers. You get ABC money if you can prove that you are actually a center that prepares children for kindergarten as well as being a quality day care."

Would every preschool teacher be required to have a bachelor's degree?

"That could be a recommendation but there is debate about it, " Smith responded. "If you make a degree a requirement, then often you can lose your best teachers to regular public schools. So, the question is, would it be a required degree program or would intensive training take care of it? It sounds great," she said of state-licensed teachers working in preschools, "but in some of our areas of high poverty, it's just as hard to get pre-k teachers as it is to get k-12 teachers. Would the requirement then become a barrier when you could achieve a high quality preschool program in other ways -- through the targeted training?"

Smith said she anticipates that the researchers' work on data to be completed by the end of this calendar year.

"It will take a little bit longer to determine quality and how to replicate it. That takes longer. The entire report is to be completed in March 2019," Smith said.

A Section on 04/02/2018

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