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MT: Bullock’s Pre-K Boondoggle

Gov. Steve Bullock continues to press for universal pre-kindergarten in Montana, at a cost  of $37 million, as reported by the Billings Gazette.

In a press release from July, the governor laid the rhetorical groundwork:

“Montana children deserve every opportunity to succeed, that begins with ensuring that they come to kindergarten ready to learn,” Bullock said.  ““Students who participate in high quality pre-Kindergarten programs as kids see improved academic performance in school, higher graduation rates, and increased earning potential as adults. Despite all of these benefits, Montana remains in the minority of states who don’t provide our youngest learners with a pre-K option available for all.  It’s time that we change that.”

Currently, educator licensure endorsements in Montana are only issued for grades K-12…  The new rule will propose an early childhood educator licensure endorsement for “age three to grade three,” as well as a middle school endorsement for grades four through eight.

The Gazette article linked above presents one opposing view, that of state Rep. Matt Rosendale:

…the rules would “choke out” current providers, which he said have been operating effectively for years. “It’s a whole host of licensing and certifications that these private institutions are not going to be in a position to provide,” Rosendale said.

Pre-K Fadeout

A major question not often addressed is the factual basis, or lack thereof, for Bullock’s assertions regarding the benefits of universal pre-K. The assertions made are derived from data related to “at risk” children, but that fairly relevant bit of information never seems to make it into his talking points.

The Washington Post, among others, has reported on another central question: how lasting are the effects of early childhood education?

…there is growing debate about whether preschool pays off academically for kids.

Most controversial is the so-called “fade-out” effect that has surfaced in research, showing that students who attend preschool begin kindergarten more prepared than control groups of students who did not, but they lose their edge on reading or math tests within the first few years as other children catch up.

The Post article references the work of   Georgetown University psychology professor Deborah A. Phillips, “co-author of a policy brief published in the fall that reviewed dozens of studies over 50 years.”

That review addresses the “fadeout” phenomenon at length:

 As children in preschool evaluation studies are followed into elementary school, the differences between those who received preschool and those who did not are typically reduced, based on the available primary-school outcomes of evaluations (chiefly test scores of reading and math achievement). This phenomenon of reduced effect sizes on test scores over time is often labeled “fadeout.”  We use the term convergence, as this term more accurately captures how outcomes like test scores of children who participated versus did not participate in preschool converge over time as the non-attenders catch-up. There is not yet a strong evidence base on reasons for the convergence of test scores in follow-up evaluations of children after early childhood.

A number of factors may be involved—for example, low quality of primary schooling, particularly for students in disadvantaged areas, may fail to build on the gains created by early childhood education.  Having students who attended and benefited from preschool may also permit elementary-school teachers to focus more on the non-attenders, and this extra attention may explain the convergence or catch-up pattern….

Despite several promising studies of long-term gains, we caution that the vast majority of preschool program evaluations have not assessed outcomes substantially beyond the end of the program. Strategies for sustaining short-term gains for children require more exploration and evaluation….

Parenting 101

 And finally…. Recent advances in successful parenting interventions, which provide great specificity and intensive focus on the dimension of parenting behavior targeted (e.g., specific behavior management approaches or contingent responsiveness), have yet to be integrated with preschool systems….

A recent meta-analytic study suggests that a parenting-focused component can be an important complement to preschool and produce added gains in children’s cognitive skills. The key is that the component on parenting be delivered via modeling of positive interactions or opportunities for practice with feedback. Didactic workshops or classes in which parents merely receive information about parenting strategies or practices appeared to produce no additive benefits beyond those from the early education component of preschool alone.

All of which is to say this: a “quality pre-K program,” as defined by the government, is one that doesn’t just teach children. It also needs to teach parenting.

All totally voluntary, of course.

Perhaps the best summary of universal pre-K can be found in the header to the final point in the fact sheet for President Obama’s plan — “Supporting our Federal Child Care System”

Some of the impetus behind the president’s pre-K plan was derived from work by the Center for American Progress, which Obama cited early on.  The reference to federal child care is a very apt description.  Just a few days prior to the 2013 State of the Union Address in which the president announced his early childhood education initiative, CAP wrote:

…perhaps the most important way in which the president can directly improve the lives of millions of American women and families across the economic spectrum is to make a bold commitment to educate and care for children during the first years of their lives.

The language of “accessibility” continues to waft gently around the topic of pre-K planning.  But Montanans, like most Americans, have begun to learn what “accessible to all” looks like.  It looks like “If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor.”

So try this on for size: If you like your kids, you can keep your kids.


Michael Mattson

Michael Mattson is State Editor for Watchdog Wire - Montana. He is founder and Executive Editor of The Hellroaring Review, an online literary journal that focuses on very short ("flash") fiction, as well as The Hellroaring Report, a news aggregator focused on the Mountain West and Northern Plains. Contact Michael at Montana@WatchdogWire.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Hell_Roaring

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