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School Reform Through the Pre-K to Third Grade Continuum

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For educational reforms to produce the gains that are needed in the information economy, two basic performance gaps must be addressed. But these are not the usual gaps showing the difference between rich and poor or black and white. They are gaps showing the difference between a standard of excellence and actual performance.

The first performance gap is the school readiness gap. According to a national survey of kindergarten teachers, only two in five children are academically prepared for school. Assessments of Chicago children and those in many other cities confirm this low-level of readiness. Based on a recommended standard of excellence of 75 percent of children school-ready, the readiness gap is 35 points.

The second performance gap is the reading proficiency gap. One third of the nation's fourth graders and one-fourth of urban children demonstrate proficiency on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. This indicates that two-thirds or more of young students have difficulty reading Charlotte's Web. With a standard of excellence of 75 percent, the reading proficiency gap is 40 points.

The size of these performance gaps reveals first that any serious effort to erase them must include high quality early childhood education. In addition, a strong system of continuing services is essential to maintain and strengthen gains to fourth grade. The best Pre-K programs show gains of 15-20 points, roughly half the size needed to meet the proficiency standard. For low-income children, this gain reduces the gap by just a third. The urgency for more is high.

An original solution came over four decades ago in Chicago when an extraordinary model was developed called the Child-Parent Education Centers. In response to family disengagement and low achievement, the Superintendent of Chicago's west side schools, Lorraine Sullivan, opened four early education centers in 1967. The CPCs as they became known immediately filled with children as young as 3 for educational enrichment and parent involvement thus establishing a continuum of services through third grade.

This past fall the CPCs began the largest expansion in their history under an Investing in Innovation grant from the U. S. Department of Education. In the Midwest CPC Expansion, the Chicago Public Schools has increased the number of centers to 16 serving over 1,700 preschoolers this year. More than 6,000 additional children will be served in succeeding years. With Evanston, Normal, and two Minnesota districts (Saint Paul and Virginia) also participating, over 10,000 students will be served.

The expansion is occurring because CPCs produce large and enduring impacts. A 30-year study shows that program graduates begin kindergarten at the national average in readiness skills and 6 months ahead of similarly disadvantaged children who did not attend the program.

Children who participated through second or third grade show gains in proficiency of 24 points with rates of grade retention and special education nearly cut in half. There was no fade out of achievement gains.

Most important, participants had greater readiness for college and careers, including higher rates of high school graduation, better job skills, and lower rates of crime. CPCs return on investment is high with 9 to 11 dollars of benefits for every dollar of program cost.

CPC is a comprehensive approach to school improvement. In addition to enriched part- or full-day Pre-K classes, continuing services in the same school are provided in small classes within a system of curriculum alignment and instructional support for teachers. Parent involvement is intensive. The synergy of all these elements working together is absent in other reforms.

In the first year of expansion, Pre-K enrollment in the original centers has increased 13 percent over last year. The main reason is the addition of full-day Pre-K, which has attracted families who would not otherwise have enrolled. Most state-funded Pre-K and Head Start programs are not full-day. Extended learning time leads to extended learning gains.

CPCs are a vision of education that has proven results. They are a ready-made approach to establish a strong Pre-K to 3rd grade continuum. In this age of accountability, priority must go to programs and practices with a track record of success.


A version of this commentary originally appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times.

Arthur Reynolds directs the Midwest Expansion of the Child-Parent Centers in the Human Capital Research Collaborative at the University of Minnesota where he is co-director and professor.