A new report says Texas faces real obstacles to improve pre-kindergarten education, despite noteworthy efforts in Fort Worth and San Antonio. As part of KERA’s American Graduate Project, one of the study’s lead authors talks about what’s needed.
Robert Pianta co-wrote Pre-Kindergarten for the Modern Age: A Scalable, Affordable, High-Quality Plan for Texas at the request of Raise Your Hand, Texas, an education non-profit. The dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia says while Texas offers some pre-k, it lacks both quantity and quality.
“We’ve given kids access to pre-k,” Pianta said. “But the question is — is there sufficient dosage to actually matter? It’s not dosage to anything. It has to be dosage to something that really is sufficiently, educationally intensive to move the needle for kids that are coming from struggling backgrounds.”
Pianta’s prescription for improved Texas pre-k? A higher dose of standards and dollars in eight different nationally recognized categories, where he says Texas doesn’t measure up. He’d start with better trained teachers in front of 4-year-olds.
“I think about it as strategic opportunism,” Pianta says with a chuckle. “You have to be able to read kids’ reactions on the fly and know where to take them next. That’s what we mean by quality teacher/child interactions. We can measure those actually in ways that are quite standardized.”
John Breitfeller knows about qualified pre-k teachers. He runs the non-profit Educational First Steps, which trains teachers in best practices for early childhood education. Standing in the back of a pre-k class, he says there’s one way to make a real difference in children’s lives.
“You surround them with adults who know what they’re doing,” Breitfeller says. “And so many times we invest in a snappier playground or a better piece of material and we fail to realize the thing they need are the adults who know what they’re doing.”
Pianta’s 19-page report also stresses the value of full-day pre-k. But Texas only pays for half a day. He says that comes with a price.
“On most of the kinds of tests we give, the achievement gap between poor kids and non-poor kids is about 15 points,” Pianta explains. “Most well-run pre-k programs of the sort that have been around and evaluated can help close that gap by half, by the time kids reach third grade.”
Third grade matters. Research shows students not reading well by then are four times less likely to graduate high school by the time they’re 19. Pianta says Texas also has problems with pre-k curriculum standards and student teacher ratios. Both elements, he says, can stimulate creativity if done well. At Little Rascal’s pre-k in West Dallas, school seems to be fun.
“Sometimes those opportunities happen in a play situation, sometimes they happen outside at recess, sometimes around a set of blocks and Legos,” Pianta says. “And sometimes they happen in somewhat structured activities that are book reading or literary-focused or math-focused.”
When it comes to Texas, Pianta says that’s not all the state could do to improve its pre-k. He says the state should use data to measure and drive pre-k instruction, but it doesn’t now.
Finally, he says the state could use a dose of political leadership. It cut pre-k funding more than three years ago, and he says it hasn’t focused on quality or increased funding in recent years.