Posts about Pre-kindergarten
DC's Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) disputed our report last week that auditors believe the District has not reached universal pre-K. But parents are being turned away across the city, and the auditors confirmed that pre-K, while it has grown significantly, is still not universal.
In a statement, OSSE suggested a fairly simple definition of "universal pre-K":
Regardless of income, if you are a parent of a District of Columbia child of pre-K age and wish to enroll them in a pre-K program, a pre-K slot is universally available in the District of Columbia for you.However, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that children of pre-K age who wish to enroll are not finding slots. The auditors legally tasked with determining whether DC has universal pre-K don't think it is. And OSSE is not measuring what it needs to measure to really determine whether its pre-K programs have enough capacity.
OSSE is not measuring how many children apply and get turned away
One sensible way to measure how pre-K capacity compares to demand would be to figure out how many kids applied for pre-K but were offered no placement at all. However, OSSE is not measuring this.
From kindergarten onward, any child is guaranteed a spot at the local neighborhood school. Parents can apply for "out of boundary" slots at another school, but often there isn't room. Still, there's always room at the local school, and they will add new classrooms if needed to accommodate the kids who live in-boundary.
That's not how pre-K works. Instead, parents apply for up to 6 of the 85 DCPS pre-K programs by lottery, and the other 70 charter and community-based programs all have separate applications and lotteries of their own. A child could apply for a few programs and get turned down at all of them, and never know if there is a slot somewhere else.
OSSE could collect data on all of these lotteries, identify how many distinct children are applying, and report a number reflecting the total demand for pre-K. But they do not. OSSE did not respond to multiple requests about its audit methodology.
OSSE is not measuring enrollment at the start of the school year
Another way to get some better data on pre-K would be to calculate the enrollment and the number of available slots at the start of the school year. If all programs are full, we'd know there is not enough capacity.
Even if they're not full, some kids still might have applied only for full programs, or they might live in one part of the District and only find available slots clear across town, but it would provide better information.
OSSE is not measuring this either. Instead, OSSE instructed its auditor to measure the number of available pre-K slots in May, at the end of the school year. A few kids leave the program during the year, meaning there are inevitably a few open slots by then.
In their statement, OSSE argues that because there were some unfilled slots, there must be more supply than demand, and thus pre-K is "universal." The logical fallacy is clear. No matter how many people get turned away, if one person drops out mid-year leaving an extra slot, there must be no problem since there are empty slots.
This is similar to arguing that there must be no problem with housing capacity in DC, because there are a few housing units being listed on Craigslist, and therefore every single person who wants to live in DC must be able to, even if some of those units are only temporarily empty because someone just moved out.
Auditors agree pre-K is not universal, and have suggested ways to get better data
The auditor of pre-K capacity, ChildTrends, confirmed last week that their conclusion in the 2011 pre-K capacity audit is that the District has not achieved universal pre-K. Further, they say in the 2011 audit that the practice of measuring capacity in May is flawed:
Since the pre-K audit was conducted near the end of the school year, these vacancies may be attributed to the fact that many schools do not maintain their waiting lists during the last few months of school. Therefore, if a vacancy opened in the middle or end of the year, schools may not have necessarily notified families about these vacancies. Or, families may not have wanted to relocate their children at the end of the school year even if they were notified about availability.The 2008 legislation requiring that the District achieve universal pre-K mandates an annual audit of the "number of children for whom pre-K is not available and whose parents would send them to pre-K but for the lack of availability."
ChildTrends has suggested surveying parents to better understand how many kids are being turned away. The 2011 audit says, "The number of children seeking access to pre-K for whom pre-K is not available would ideally be determined through a household survey of parents of 3- and 4-year-old children living in the District." (p. 16) The 2011 audit says this was not done "due to time and budget constraints." However, the 2009 audit made the exact same recommendation. (p. 36)
Alternately, OSSE could better track the lotteries. DCPS has a centralized, de-duplicated database of applicants to its 85 pre-K programs. OSSE could require that publicly-funded charter and community-based pre-K programs report their applications so that OSSE can compile a single list of distinct applicants to public pre-K programs, then report statistics such as how many total children applied, compared to the available seats, and how many received no placement anywhere.
OSSE didn't reply to questions about these alternative audit methodologies last week. Let's hope that OSSE agrees to halt the 2012 pre-K capacity audit and conduct it with one of these two methodologies. The 9 elected members of the State Board of Education, which advises OSSE, should ask OSSE to do the same.
OSSE's statement is vague and undermines their argument
While refusing to answer detailed questions, OSSE's statement mostly gave many platitudes about how pre-K enrollment has grown and how committed they are to "sharing best practices and coordinating data to both ensure and validate the access, enrollment, development and protection for the District's youngest learners just beginning their educational journey."
They do, however, cast aspersions on the accuracy of our report, saying, "While OSSE applauds media efforts to hold our agency accountable and investigate pre-K capacity and enrollment throughout the District, we must also insist the data on which we are measured is timely, accurate and factual."
We agree. That's why all of the data in the earlier article came directly from the audit reports. OSSE provides different, higher numbers for pre-K enrollment. Ironically, if one accepts their enrollment number and continues to use the capacity number in the audit (the only one available), then pre-K enrollment jumps to over 101% of capacity:
|Capacity utilization (audit)||99.2%|
|Capacity utilization (OSSE/audit)||101.1%|
In other words, if we were to correct any math from the last article with OSSE's numbers, the conclusion supports even more strongly the conclusion that pre-K is over capacity.
Pre-K is a success, which is the reason to expand it
OSSE seems very sensitive to any criticism of pre-K, touting its many successes. Indeed, bringing pre-K to more children has been a tremendous achievement, one DC should be very proud of.
It is precisely because of this success that DC needs to expand the program. Many parents are finding themselves turned away, but OSSE seemingly insists that cannot be happening, and leaves money budgeted for pre-K expansion unspent. Only if DC can accurately measure the unmet demand can it begin to satisfy it and incorporate it into the budget.
Just a few years after setting a goal of "universal" pre-kindergarten, DC education officials claim they reached it. But many parents are still getting turned away at their local schools. Do we really have universal pre-K?
Local auditors and independent reports conclude that the answer is no. The problem is worst east of the Anacostia, but reaches all wards. This matters because while officials claim "mission accomplished," they aren't spending available money to expand pre-K when, in fact, kids need it.
DC needs to survey parents to better understand pre-K needs and set clearer, realistic goals. The DC Council should also create an education committee to better oversee and monitor this and other education needs.
The DC Council unanimously passed legislation in 2008 "to make pre-k universally available" by 2014. Then-chairman Vincent Gray introduced that legislation, which covered preschool for 3-year-olds and pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds, and campaigned heavily on the issue.
DC's Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) then announced that they had reached universal pre-K in September 2010, 4 years ahead of schedule and a couple weeks before the election that brought Gray into the mayor's office.
What is "universal pre-K?"
There is no clear definition for "universal pre-K." But whatever it is, auditors don't believe DC has yet achieved it. A 2011 pre-K capacity audit does not say that pre-K is universally available. Neither does the 2009 audit, the only other audit that has been done despite a mandate in the law to do an audit every year.
Instead, the 2011 pre-K capacity audit says that "the District is still striving to meet its goal to provide high-quality pre-K programs to all three- and four-year-old children by 2014." (p. 23)
OSSE spokesman Marc Caposino said, "In our view we have achieved universal pre-K in the District based on the fact that we know that every family that wants a slot for their child has access to one." However, Caposino was unable to say how OSSE knows this is true.
The Assistant Superintendent for Early Childhood Education, Maxine Maloney, has an even more curious definition for universal pre-K. She said, "A district reaches universal pre-K when every school that can offer pre-K offers at least one class."
When pressed that this is not the definition of universal pre-K in Gray's legislation, Maloney insisted that early childhood education experts accept her "supply side definition," and that Atlanta and West Virginia used it in their universal pre-K campaigns.
Outside reports are skeptical
To claim universal pre-K, OSSE has misrepresented auditors' findings. One blatant example is the State of Preschool 2011 report by the National Institute for Early Education Research, released in April 2012. The report provided pre-K enrollment estimates for each state and DC.
Using data provided by OSSE, the NIEER report showed a hard-to-believe enrollment rate of 98% of 4-yr-olds for 2009-2010. That was so hard to believe that in their 2010-2011 report, NIEER refused to use OSSE's enrollment data.
"We're not convinced" about OSSE's numbers, said NIEER Director Dr Steven Barnett. He said, "We're not saying that we dispute their numbers, but our own knowledge level is not enough to support their conclusion."
That didn't stop OSSE from issuing a press release saying that NIEER's report "praised [OSSE] for administering statewide early childhood education programming...to 98 percent of 4 year-olds...during the 2010-2011 school year."
However, NIEER says it did no such thing, and the press release included no quotes from NIEER staff. Dr Barnett says NIEER communicated their misgivings about the data to OSSE. OSSE spokesperson Caposino disputes this.
Pre-K is not universal enough
Whatever technical definition one uses, parents know that pre-K is not available enough. Many are finding their kids turned away from local schools.
Telling parents that there is universal pre-K is like telling Metro riders that 90% of trains are on time. There may be a contrived technical definition that could make the claim true, but reality suggests otherwise.
The 2011 audit recommends expanding capacity in wards that are over-capacity and in wards with long waiting lists. Ward 7 pre-K programs are the most over-capacity at 111%, and Ward 8 has the most programs, 20, with waiting lists.
|Ward||Est.pop. 3-4 y.o.||Enrolled||Capacity||Capacity utiliz.||Num. of programs||Num progs. w/waitlists||% progs. w/waitlists|
DC isn't spending money to expand pre-K
The 2011 audit makes some spending recommendations, such as $3.3 million to accommodate 5% of students on waiting lists or $1.5 million to accommodate 5% of students on waiting lists in the most over-capacity wards. But when the DC Council budgeted $6 million to expand pre-K, OSSE left those funds unspent.
At a hearing this past Februrary, a representative of the Office of the Chief Financial Officer claimed that the reason OSSE hasn't spent the money is because DC has already achieved universal pre-K. "We didn't need all of these funds in order to hit universal pre-K for all 3- and 4-year olds," he said, and this year's budget has cut that money entirely.
Quality also must still improve
Even if there were adequate availability for every 3- and 4-year old desiring a pre-K slot, the Pre-K Expansion and Enhancement Act of 2008 limits qualifying pre-K programs to those that meet new "high quality standards" to be determined by OSSE.
In fact, half of the legislation addresses quality, requiring that pre-K programs meet new quality standards by 2014 or lose their license. The legislation provides grants for programs that fall short of these standards.
When asked whether any pre-K programs currently fall short of the new standards that will be used in 2014 to de-license programs, Assistant Superintendent Maloney responded, "we do not have programs who are not meeting quality standards."
Using OSSE's "Going for the Gold" ratings of Bronze, Silver, and Gold, Maloney said, "all our Pre-K programs are Gold programs with the exception of two whom are on their way to Gold." But it strains credulity to believe that now-Mayor Gray would have written half of his pre-K legislation to address a problem that doesn't exist.
What can be done?
Many studies show that investments in early childhood education reap a tremendous return to society. They improve children's success in later grades, reduce crime, and cut joblessness and poverty. To achieve these returns, we need to treat universal pre-K as a responsibility to our children, not as a political talking point.
The DC Council and OSSE can take several concrete steps to get back on track on pre-K.
Abandon the "mission accomplished" pretense. Education officials seem to have gotten stuck in a trap. They likely claimed pre-K was universal before the election in an effort to boost then-Mayor Adrian Fenty. Now that they've made the claim, it's hard to back away.
Whatever one calls it, pre-K is not as available as it needs to be. OSSE should admit that, then set a standard which it can clearly define, and for which it can measure progress. The DC Council should ensure that this is the right standard.
Survey parents about pre-K demand. The 2011 audit says, "The number of children seeking access to pre-K for whom pre-K is not available would ideally be determined through a household survey of parents of 3- and 4-year-old children living in the District." (p. 16)
The audit says this was not done "due to time and budget constraints." The 2012 pre-K capacity audit is being conducted right now. OSSE should halt it and add in a survey component. Otherwise, it has no way to know how many parents want to send their kids to pre-K but can't.
Create an education committee of the DC Council. Holding OSSE accountable requires resources to do research. Today, education is part of the Committee of the Whole, but the chairman's staff have their energy spread across too many topics. Of the 16 agencies the Committee of the Whole oversees, only 4 deal with education.
Education is of paramount importance to the future of our city. These 4 agencies need to be the sole focus of a single committee staff.
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