Preschool Panacea?

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NJEA issued a press release yesterday linking an improvement in 8th grade math scores to access to preschool. The scores for 4th and 8th graders on the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) are “reason to cheer,” enthuses NJEA President Barbara Keshishian.

I am especially encouraged by the success of our older students, which comes as the first wave of students who had broad access to high quality preschool reach eighth grade. Test scores don’t tell the whole story of the good things happening in our schools, but these results show that our approach is working.

The equation of increased achievement to preschool is problematic on two levels. It’s true that 8th grade math scores were up in N.J. (as they were across the country); in 2007 40% of our 8th graders reached proficiency in math, in 2009 44% did. That’s a nice 4-point gain. But in 2007 52% of our 4th graders reached proficiency in math, and in 2009 49% did, a not-so-nice 3-point drop. If our 8th grade scores are a result of “broad access to high quality preschool,” what happened in 4th grade where, presumably, even more kids had access to high quality preschool?

So there’s a little inconsistency there. The second problem is more troubling: we can’t afford to expand preschool. In fact, it’s not at all clear that we can continue to fund the preschools that we have. In the Lobby reports today that N.J.’s budget is down $190 million in the first quarter, with September collections off by 5.1%. If we don’t do better, by the end of the year our state revenues will be off by almost $1 billion. Our Governor (whomever that might be) will be making cuts and Corzine has already said that if has that honor he will cut education aid, just like last year he cut funding for preschool expansion. So would Christie or Daggett.

It’s heartening to see increased math achievement among our 8th graders, but it’s a bit disingenuous to tie it to preschool. Is the national increase in 8th grade scores and national decrease in 4th grade scores, then, a result of improved access to free preschool across the country? Probably not. Is this press release a thinly-cloaked campaign ad for Jon Corzine, who has made preschool expansion a centerpiece of his education platform? Probably. Fine. All’s fair in war and all that. But we can’t afford to sustain the preschools that we have, let alone expand them (per the School Funding Reform Act) to all poor kids in N.J. The sooner our governor cops to that, the sooner we can look squarely at our educational funding and performance.

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