Ken Hare In Depth: Too many children fall short in cognitive skills

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Anyone who closely follows education issues already should be convinced of how crucial early childhood education -- either in the home or in an effective pre-kindergarten program -- is to a child's later success in school. But despite the fact that pre-kindergarten programs abound, a new study underscores that far too many children nationally are not on track with their cognitive skills by the time they reach the third grade.

However, another study shows that a model for effective pre-kindergarten programs to prepare children for school can be found right here in Alabama.

First the study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation (best known for its annual Kids Count Data Book): When they tracked 13,000 children from kindergarten through middle school, researchers found that only about a third of those children were on schedule in their cognitive skills development by the time they reached the third grade.

And not surprisingly, because it fits with other research, the study found that children who live below or close to the poverty line are much more likely to fall short in reasoning skills than their counterparts in more well-to-do families.

For example, researchers found that about 19 percent of third graders in families with incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty line were at expected cognitive development levels compared to 50 percent of children in families above that income level.

So when it comes to early childhood development, family income matters. And that means it matters a lot in Alabama, because this state has one of the highest rates of children in families below that 200 percent of poverty level in the nation.

According to the Casey report, 55 percent of children ages 1 to 8 in Alabama are in low-income families. While several states have the same rate as Alabama, only two states -- Arkansas at 58 percent and New Mexico at 60 percent -- are higher.

The Casey study suggests that a wide range of services should be provided to help prepare children to learn, including support for parents so they can successfully nurture their children and comprehensive and integrated programs to "address all aspects of children's development."

But I would like to focus on a more specific recommendation in the report that calls for states to provide "voluntary, full-day, high-quality and developmentally appropriate pre-kindergarten  programs that serve all children."

Notice that the report does not call for more pre-kindergarten programs, only for such programs that are "high-quality and developmentally appropriate."

Sadly, the nation has examples galore of pre-k programs that may provide day-care services but that have little or no lasting impact on improving learning skills. For example, even though the federal government has invested billions of dollars over the years in Head Start, studies have found little lasting impact on cognitive skills of participants vs. non-participants who were eligible for the program.

That doesn't mean that all Head Start programs are bad. It just suggests that more of them -- in fact, all of them -- should be required to meet "high-quality and developmentally appropriate standards" in order to receive public funding.

Which brings me to Alabama, where a model for such programs can be found.

Here are some comments from the latest newsletter from the respected Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama:

-- "Students who participated in Alabama's First Class Pre-K program academically outperform their peers once they reach elementary school, and the advantages conferred by pre-k participation persist at least through the 6th grade, according to findings from an ongoing evaluation of the program."

-- "The research, which compares test scores of students who participated in the state's pre-k program with students that didn't, shows that the positive academic effects are particularly strong for pre-k participants who come from lower income households.  There is a persistent gap in academic achievement between students from low-income households and those from more affluent families. But for low income students who participated in the pre-k program that gap was about 25 percent smaller on average."

-- "Alabama's First Class Pre-K program has been recognized for its high standards. The National Institute for Early Education Research finds that Alabama meets all 10 of its benchmarks for quality, including having high learning standards in place and requiring pre-k teachers to have a bachelor's degree and training in early childhood education."

The PARCA article points out that a story in The New York Times recently singled out Alabama as a model for the quality of its programs.

"Alabama is one of only five states whose preschool program received top marks based on an assessment of its quality standards by the National Institute for Early Education Research," the Times reported.

So that means Alabama is where it needs to be in providing high-quality pre-k programs, right?

Not even close.

While Alabama can be justifiably proud of its First Class Pre-Kindergarten program, it still falls far short of providing access to that program to enough of the children who need it.

According to the Alabama School Readiness Alliance web site, even a $12.5 million boost to pre-k funding during the current fiscal year has only increased the percentage of 4-year-olds in Alabama with access to programs from 6 percent to 10 percent.

That means that about 90 percent of eligible 4-year-olds in the state still do not have access to the program, according to the alliance's web site.

So Alabama has a top-notch and widely recognized program, but only provides access to it for one in 10 eligible children.

To the credit of Gov. Robert Bentley and the current members of the state Legislature, they seem to recognize the need to fully fund the First Class Pre-K program.  The boost to funding this year is a significant step along that path.

But it will take 10 years of such increases for the state to provide access to all four-year-olds. And Alabama elected officials aren't known for sustaining growth in programs over time, especially when economic times are tight and various interests compete for what money is available.

It is crucial that the public continue to push Alabama's elected officials to make First Class Pre-K a funding priority.

At the federal level, the president and Congress should shift all pre-k funding to programs that meet tough standards for quality. With the federal budget stretched so thin, the nation cannot afford to continue to fund programs that do not show they provide lasting and measurable improvements in student academic success. Let me emphasize that Congress should not reduce pre-k funding, but it should focus funding on programs that can show they work.


Ken Hare was a longtime Alabama newspaper editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column for WSFA's web site. Email him at

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