By STEVE RIVKIN and CATHERINE SANDERSON
Published on November 13, 2009
National statistics reveal that lower-income children on average have lower standardized test scores, are less likely to graduate from high school, and are less likely to attend college than middle- and higher-income children, and the recently released MCAS results reveal that these differences hold in Amherst as well.
In the Amherst elementary schools, 61 percent of low-income children failed to reach proficiency in English language arts (compared to 20 percent of non-low-income students) and 68 percent failed to reach proficiency in math (compared to 25 percent of non-low income students).
In the middle and high schools, 29 percent of low-income students failed to reach proficiency in English language arts (compared to 7 percent of non-low-income students) and 49 percent failed to reach proficiency in math (compared to 19 percent of non-low-income students).
These results evoke considerable concern and indicate that our current efforts to reduce the class-based achievement gap and improve academic outcomes for lower income children fail to achieve our district's goals despite our strong commitment to social justice.
Although we believe that all aspects of our educational programs merit close scrutiny, one striking difference between Amherst and other districts is the absence of a strong preschool program accessible to lower-income children.
The belief in the importance of preschool prompted the federal government to create the Head Start program, a national program that provides early education for hundreds of thousands of lower-income children, in the 1960s. However, research on the effectiveness of Head Start reveals mixed results, in part because the quality of the program appears to vary substantially from site to site.
In contrast, there is quite strong evidence that highly enriching preschool programs convey valuable short- and long-term benefits.
A recent study in Chicago found that children who attended a publicly funded preschool program made substantial progress in terms of vocabulary development, literacy and mathematics.
The strongest evidence of the important of early education comes from a long-term study of low-income children who attended the Perry Preschool in Ypsilanti, Mich. Adults who attended Perry Preschool were more likely than those in the randomly assigned comparison group to earn a college degree, have a job, own their own home, own a car, and have a savings account, while they were significantly less likely to have been arrested or become teenage parents.
In Amherst, middle- and upper-income families enjoy a wide range of preschool choices, but these programs tend to be expensive and offer only limited scholarship opportunities. Although our district does run a small preschool program at Crocker Farm, this program is mandated by law to serve children with disabilities and offers very few places for other children. In contrast, many similar communities, including Framingham, Brookline, and Princeton, N.J., have chosen to offer public preschool programs funded through a combination of parent fees, local, state and federal revenues, and private contributions as a core component of their efforts to support lower-income children.
Although providing a highly enriching preschool experience for low-income children would not be cheap, it would provide many of our most vulnerable children with the type of early education enjoyed by many of their higher income peers. In line with this view, the Hamer Report, commissioned by Superintendent Rodriguez in July, identified the absence of preschool opportunities as an important omission in our efforts to support lower income children and families.
We believe the district must seriously consider the desirability of reallocating available state and federal funds and taking advantage of additional funding sources, such as the generosity of a community that is committed to expanding opportunities for disadvantaged children, to provide the type of early education that can foster long-term success for our lower-income children. Not only would such a program help to equalize opportunities, but evidence suggests it would lead to a reduction in expenditures on special education and academic intervention and support. Educationally desirable and fiscally responsible is a tough combination to beat.
Steve Rivkin and Catherine Sanderson are Amherst College professors and members of the Amherst School Committee.
My Goal in Blogging
I started this blog in May of 2008, shortly after my election to the School Committee, because I believed it was very important to both provide the community with an opportunity to share their thoughts with me about our schools and to provide me with an opportunity for me to ask questions and share my thoughts and reasoning. I have found the conversation generated on my blog to be extremely helpful to me in learning community views on many issues. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to share their views. I believe it is critical to the quality of our public schools to have a public discussion of our community priorities, concerns and aspirations.