Monday Morning Thoughts: Could Universal Preschool Be a Key to the Achievement Gap?

Last Week's Yolo County Office of Education Commemorated the 50th Anniversary of Head Start
Last Week’s Yolo County Office of Education Commemorated the 50th Anniversary of Head Start

First, I want to applaud the DJUSD School Board for prioritizing the achievement gap at their last meeting. But the achievement gap is a vexing problem that exists statewide and beyond. It is more pronounced here only because of our huge core of high achieving students.

As yesterday’s article illustrates, which pulled from board member statements going back to Susan Lovenburg in the 2007 election, it is not for lack of awareness or lack of attention that the achievement gap has not been addressed.

Instead, the problem is that the achievement gap is not itself a problem but rather a symptom of many problems. Without getting to the core issue, we are simply spinning our wheels.

I believe that the problem starts before a student ever enters kindergarten. The problem starts with access to preschool. Unlike some districts, DJUSD does not have universal preschool.

Here is a perfect illustration of the problem. On September 11, the district sent out a press release that Davis is opening a new preschool program at Valley Oak. It will provide “two programs to ensure a smooth transition to transitional kindergarten or kindergarten for students ages 3 to 5.” The preschool goes from 7:30 to 2:30 Monday through Friday. However, the fee is $800 per month.

Who can afford $800 per month? Well, a lot of people can. But for us to afford $800 a month, even on a middle class income, we would have to get some help from relatives to do so. Drop the income lower, and many people have no way to afford that kind of program.

So if you are a low income family living in Davis, what are your options for preschool? We were lucky that we were able to get our kids into Head Start, but Head Start is heavily impacted and does not have near enough spots for every low income and at-risk child in the city or county.

Our nephew is a good example of what would happen without programs available. Because he was at-risk, we were able to, with the persistence of my wife, get him into Head Start, half day at Montgomery last year. At that point he was diagnosed with a speech delay issue, and received services through the school district.

This year, in addition to Head Start, he was able to qualify for a free half-day program at Valley Oak. Next year, he will be able to go to Head Start and Transitional Kindergarten. And the hope is that he will be on grade-level in two years when he starts Kindergarten.

For us, the system worked. But for many other parents in similar situations, they may not have the ability to gain access to those resources – or the resources may not be available.

For hundreds and probably thousands of low income families, preschool may be out of reach, and their kids start out behind and never catch up.

Sacramento Assemblymember Kevin McCarty is sponsoring legislation that sits on Governor Brown’s desk, AB 47, The Preschool For All Act of 2015. “AB 47 ensures that all eligible low-income 4-year-old children who aren’t enrolled in transitional kindergarten shall have access to the California State Preschool Program, contingent upon funding in the state budget.”

The funding issue is a little tricky. As the Sac Bee pointed out last week, “It doesn’t go all the way, though. AB 47, also known as the Preschool for All Act, doesn’t quite live up to its name because it doesn’t carve out an annual budget appropriation. Instead, lawmakers would have to approve funding for it each year – a compromise meant to address concerns about the low hundreds of millions of dollars it would cost to fund such a comprehensive preschool plan. Such is politics.”

However, “What the legislation does do is create an annual framework for making preschool funding a priority.”

According to the Bee, right now there are 32,000 low income children who cannot afford preschool. The Bee writes, “This is true even though California has spent millions of dollars in recent years to undo recession-era cuts and boost enrollment in the State Preschool Program. With this year’s appropriation, about 158,000 poor kids have access to preschool.”

They add, “That’s a big number, but tens of thousands of children remain left out. The research is clear about the benefits of preschool, to the students and society at large.”

This is the key. “Studies show that children who participate in high-quality preschool programs are more likely than their counterparts to succeed in school and graduate from high school on time. As teenagers and adults, they are less likely to commit crimes.”

“This is especially true for children from low-income families, where parents often have lower levels of educational attainment, and are less likely to have the time or resources to properly nurture the cognitive development of their kids in the crucial first five years of life,” the Bee writes. “This achievement gap between rich and poor students is already evident.”

We should study the issue of the achievement gap. How does access to preschool impact the achievement gap?

This isn’t a one-size fits all solution of course. Back in 2007 when Jim Provenza was a school board member, he showed me data that showed even among kids of college-educated parents, there is a statistically significant gap between whites and Asians versus blacks and Hispanics. That means the full gap will not be closed with universal preschool.

But for those kids who cannot afford preschool, they almost certainly are starting out behind and most will never catch up.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. ryankelly

    Davis schools are not geared for lower income families with working parents.  The homework practices alone sets up students for failure as it relies on parents to instruct children at home.

    Access to preschool might ensure that students are ready when they start kindergarten, but our District has only a half day kindergarten.  Maybe we should look at a full day kindergarten for some students, just like we extend the school day for some in the form of afterschool homework classes.  I suspect that the gap grows incrementally over years.

    There are other things to consider – lower expectations, increased discipline and interruption, etc.


      1. hpierce

        “Do you feel the same about k-12?  If not, what’s the difference?”

        And I thought you were an educator…

        To first question, “No”, but I do believe some children, mainly socially, would fail/become discouraged if pre-school was compulsory.  

        In answer to your second question, what is the difference between mandatory pre-school, and mandatory talking/playing music for children in utero, and/or having pre-school begin at 6 months?

        I say this as the spouse of someone who spent many rewarding years as a pre-school teacher, and convinced me it is valuable, but not for ALL.

        1. Davis Progressive

          perhaps you can cite some educational research to back your position?  i’m pretty convinced that in today’s school setting pre-school and a rigorous pre-school education are far more important than it was 30 years ago.

    1. Biddlin

      The one-size-fits-all shotgun approach to life, not just education, can only lead to dumbing down society. Both of my kids attended Kindergarten without the benefit of pre-school and excelled in high school. We were able to arrange our schedules so that the kids left for school before my missus left for work and I was home by the time they got out.

      I do have doubts about k-12 being compulsory. I think the students who don’t want to be in school are a drag on the others. I would like to see more technical and practical skill certification available by grade 10.


  2. Anon

    We should study the issue of the achievement gap. How does access to preschool impact the achievement gap?
    This isn’t a one-size fits all solution of course. Back in 2007 when Jim Provenza was a school board member, he showed me data that showed even among kids of college-educated parents, there is a statistically significant gap between whites and Asians versus blacks and Hispanics. That means the FULL GAP WILL NOT BE CLOSED WITH UNIVERSAL PRESCHOOL.”

    I think you answered your own question.  There would still be an achievement gap with or without preschool.  This is because of the mishmash of teaching techniques students are subjected to over the years, which tends to undo any good that is done earlier on.  There are tried and true methods that ensure students get the foundational building blocks they need to learn successfully.  But with every new technique that comes down the road for the benefit of the educational profit mill are sewn the seeds of confusion in students.

  3. TrueBlueDevil

    You could start by defining the achievement gap.

    Second, you could tell us where some district has had substantial success addressing the problem.

    Lastly, I believe a large part of the problem includes children from single-parent households (lower income, less adult interaction, less resources, etc.), and also legal and illegal immigrant children who’s parents a) don’t know English, and b) who didn’t learn their native tongue formally (i.e., Spanish), so this is a double-whammy teachers must deal with.

  4. MrsW

    Way-back-when I heard that Head Start was one of the Government’s bright-lights because it actually delivered on what was desired–having a positive impact on student’s lives along multiple measures, including the achievement gap.  Here is an article, the first of a Google Search.

    So I think pre-school or high quality pre-K childcare is a great idea.

    If you are interested in pre-schools, early education, and childcare for infants through Kindergarten, I recommend you talk to the professionals at Bananas in Oakland. These folks have seen it all–non-parent family members getting grants for providing childcare, Head Start, high quality childcare, low quality childcare…you name it.  When we returned to Davis to raise our kids, I discovered that the now-closed Davis’ childcare referral program was inspired on Bananas and was using a number of their materials  [For an article about the City of Davis’ child referral program’s closure, see the recent Enterprise article]

    1. MrsW

      Even-though I think preschool is a great idea, I think the non-monetary approaches to reducing the achievement gap have not been sufficiently explored.

      I think DJUSD should decide to create an environment where taking intellectual risks is valued and encouraged. If DJUSD has an environment where all children feel safe taking intellectual risks, they would take care of a big part of the achievement gap right there.  So many children have behaviors that are based on what they think others are doing or think, even if their reasoning is fallacious. I expect a commitment to understanding different temperaments, genders, and home cultures would be required, however.


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