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We need to address student achievement gap



Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Many students who enter kindergarten in the ConVal schools are insufficiently ready-to-learn at grade level. The district administration is floating the idea of addressing this situation by implementing pre-school programs in all ConVal elementary schools. A statewide study of the impacts of preschool on school readiness and achievement provides solid support for this proposal.

At the school board’s Sept. 5 retreat, administrators presented two “models” for reorganizing the district to increase the educational effectiveness and financial efficiency of the system. One model called for “consolidation,” the other for “reconfiguration.”

The school board is in the process of reviewing the proposed changes within each model. The reconfiguration model includes several changes that could improve teaching and learning as well as increase equity in the delivery of services; offering universal pre-school is among the set of reconfiguration proposals. Currently the district offers preschool programs at three of the elementary schools.

Over the last decade the percentage of students from low-income homes in the ConVal schools has increased from approximately 18 percent to above 30 percent; many other families are barely above the standard set by the federal government to identify low-income students.

The percentages vary from town to town within the district, for example, nearly half of the students from Peterborough families fall under the low-income standard. Coming from a low-income household does not doom a child to lesser achievement, but there is a well-established correlation between family income and academic progress.

Lower family income often translates into less preparation to enter school ready to learn at the levels expected in the 21st century. Over the past three decades the expectations of readiness facing early elementary students have increased steadily in New Hampshire and the nation as taxpayers’ and politicians’ ambitions for students’ learning and schools’ performance have escalated.

There is a family income related “achievement gap” nationally and in the ConVal schools for students in early elementary grades. If unsuccessfully addressed, for many students this early elementary gap will persist throughout their educational careers.

In ConVal more than 50 percent of students functioning one or more grade levels below expectation in early elementary are from low-income families. That means that there are also a substantial number of students from economically-secure families who are functioning below grade level in the early grades. There appears to be a clear need for a broad-based effort to accelerate student learning before students face the rising expectations of the early grades.

For the past decade, ConVal has been adopting and creating strategies to accelerate the learning of students who are functioning below grade level. Overall there has been a commitment to implementing teaching techniques that are based on scientific research with proven effectiveness. Specifically, more time has been allocated to teaching reading and math, there have been more small-group and one-on-one instruction, additional teachers have been assigned to support students below grade level, and there has been intensive teacher learning of research-based techniques. Even with this extensive set of interventions the need to proactively address students’ insufficient preparation remains.

In early 2017, the RAND corporation released a report on young students’ readiness to learn and achieve specific to New Hampshire – “Investing in the Early Years: The Costs and Benefits of Investing in Early Childhood in New Hampshire.” For decades RAND has conducted research and analysis on public policy issues to establish factual bases for addressing those issues. RAND conducted an economic analysis of the costs and benefits of public investment in “high quality preschool” programs.

This study of New Hampshire preschoolers concluded that lower-income students are disproportionately likely to enter school less ready than their peers resulting in “considerable gaps in measures of student achievement and high school graduation rates.”

The study identified impacts for individual students but also for our society and communities: lower levels of student achievement negatively affects productivity and economic output, reduces our tax base, and increases the need for social welfare and health care programs. There is “promising evidence” that “high-quality preschool” increases students “school readiness.” RAND documents evidence of “promising effects ... lasting into upper-elementary and middle school years.”

The quality of a preschool program is key to how substantial and persistent the effect is. Primarily because of the higher qualifications of staff, public school pre-schools are RAND’s “model” for high quality programs. The impact of high-quality preschool programming accrues primarily to the individual child in greater future earnings while savings to educational systems, though positive, are modest. Though children from all household income levels benefit from pre-school, the gains are greater for children from the lowest income homes. This is particularly true because currently as family income decreases so does the likelihood that a child will participate in a high-quality preschool program; as family income rises so does the pre-school participation rate of children.

Universal preschool is not the only feature of the “reconfiguration” proposal being considered by the school board. The model also includes, among other innovations, additional work days for teachers, widespread co-teaching, and personalized instruction.

However, given the strong research support for universal pre-school, and especially with the potential for an improvement in equity of opportunity for all ConVal students, the school board should give this proposal strong consideration to improve how our schools serve students and our communities.

Kevin Pobst is a retired school principal from Francestown.