Why You Should Make Supporting Pre-K in DISD a Relentless Priority

Why spending $45 million on pre-K in DISD is a bargain

Of the many things I’ve learned the past six months, the importance of early education, or pre-K, is the most astonishing. What’s amazing to me about it is the near-certainty of the evidence that supports how crucial it is for poor kids to be put into a quality pre-K program.

That’s because so much about education is uncertain, and because of this, politically charged: public vs. private vs. charter, mayoral oversight of school boards vs. single-member districts, teacher evaluations vs. seniority, test scores vs. college readiness vs. college completion, you name it. You can find studies or experts or bloggers or political activists who will authoritatively tell you that research is muddy on which approach provides best outcomes in large poor urban districts.

But the benefits of quality pre-K (the adjective is important) keep being proven. Let me be clear: that doesn’t mean that there aren’t a lot of good studies out there that discuss the problem of “fadeout” — the idea that the pre-K gains disappear by 3rd grade. It’s why there is still thoughtful debate about the subject in large urban districts like New York.

But large meta-analysis of these studies suggests three things: a) the fadeout occurs when the principals of quality pre-K are not carried through the child’s education thereafter; b) truly randomized studies show much less fadeout than cherry-picked results; and c) what is commonly mistaken for “fadeout” is actually “catch-up” from students who did not have quality pre-K but who have other favorable factors allowing them to close the gap by 3rd grade (usually not poor students).

For my money, the $45 million additional dollars DISD hopes to spend on early education by 2020 would be well spent. (Especially when you consider the research that says for every dollar you spend on pre-K, you get back $7. Great ROI.) The takeaway here is that more than three decades of longitudinal studies, is that poor kids who have quality pre-K – teachers trained in pre-K who use strict methods proven to work, and who get buy-in help from parents — perform remarkably better than their peers. Not just in elementary school, not just in high school, not just in college, but in life. (See this post, which will lead you down a rabbit hole of amazing stories.)

In fact, we have sort of a fascinating longitudinal study going on right here in Dallas. The Momentous Institute is not just a pre-K center. In fact, this pre-K through 5th grade school may be one of the best schools in the country because they do just about everything right at every grade level: a relentless focus on social-emotional learning, absolute commitment to parental involvement, hiring high-quality teachers trained in the appropriate grade level, etc. But looking at how they do pre-K is instructive. (Below is a video that explains the concept of “settle your glitter,” which I’ve taken to saying now.)

Momentous is a small private school in Oak Cliff that only teaches very poor kids. In fact, its poverty population nearly mirrors that of DISD at about 85 percent. (DISD’s is 89 percent. The racial breakdown at Momentous shows a higher concentration of Hispanic kids. Also of note, Momentous runs a therapeutic preschool in Northwest Dallas for kids who’ve been expelled from other pre-K programs.) Momentous students begin at 3 years old and have two years of pre-K before they continue on with kindergarten. The school runs through 5th grade, but its students show remarkable success thereafter. As of 2013, 97 percent of its graduates have gone on to higher education. As well, 90 percent of kids who’ve graduated from the school and gone on to college re-enrolled for their sophomore year – showing not just college readiness but a strong possibility for college completion. In fact, the school’s very first class is about to graduate college with four-year degrees. The school checks in on them regularly to see how they’re doing.

Momentous is something of a secret except to educators. That’s partly because the school gets most of its funding from The Salesmanship Club, the group that puts on the Byron Nelson golf tournament every year, and the club only recently began to tell its story of success. Now, though, Momentous is trying to help larger poor urban districts implement what the school has learned about early education: It is currently running a pilot program with Fort Worth ISD in which teachers from the district observe Momentous classes, ask questions, and provide feedback. DISD has been in discussions about working with Momentous in the future.

The reason these districts are looking to Momentous is because its students are poor, its results are tremendous, and because it approaches pre-K with a strong emphasis on social-emotional learning. (If you’ve paid attention, you’ve heard Mike Miles talk about this approach a lot; he’s very keen to get the core tenants of this approach – things like using a program that integrates education and mental health, working with mental health professionals nationwide to take best practices back to the classroom, and combining strong relationships with the kids’ families coupled with holding the entire family to high expectations — in place in all grade levels.).

So when people talk about what a quality pre-K program looks like, Momentous is very much what they mean. I spent a day at the end of last semester touring the school, talking with teachers and students; I then sat in for a half-day of the FWISD training as they observed pre-K classwork, and I talked to some Fort Worth teachers about what they saw. There were disagreements expressed about the portability of the Momentous model — one African-American teacher from Fort Worth told me that “teaching in a predominantly African-American classroom is different on many subtle levels,” which is true — but overall the takeaway was that the group believed best practices could be shared among small schools and large districts to improve pre-K outcomes, which really means improving life outcomes.

These things seem pretty simple — broadly speaking, it’s about how the classroom is constructed, how discipline is approached, how much interaction you require of the 3- and 4-year-olds versus talking to them, the priority you place on making sure even children that age understand not just the what but the why.

Oh, and it means getting buy-in from parents. This is easier in a school with a few hundred kids. Parents of kids at Momentous have their own room in the school they decorate, where they hang on the wall the mission statement they’ve written about how they want this relationship to between their family and the school to progress. This, too, is vital. (Hey, you wanna get choked up at 9 a.m. on a weekday? Go read hand-written essays from parents trying to explain, often in broken English, what they hope a school can do for their child and their family, and how they the parents are going to help ensure it happens.)

When I met this summer with Alan Cohen, DISD’s early education chief, he quickly showed me that a quality pre-K program was not only these things, but so much more. He opened for me an excel spreadsheet that listed each pre-K classroom in DISD. For each one, there were 50 items that needed to be checked off before he could declare it a “quality” pre-K environment.

They still aren’t all checked off (actually, he was marking the boxes green), but they’re a lot closer than they were this summer. Smart, because he needed to shore up the current program before he went before the school board to present his six-year plan to greatly increase the quality, size, and scope of DISD’s pre-K offering. I linked to a smaller 99-page download of the plan earlier. Here’s the full report if you’re so inclined.

How important is it that we fund this plan? The numbers Cohen threw out speak for themselves: Only 38 percent of kids start DISD kindergarten-ready. Think about that: Barely more than a third of all kids start their first day of school with the basic communication skills needed to understand what’s being taught.

How important is this? It’s vital. Right now, even though DISD’s pre-K program is not currently seen as high-quality across the board, a student who attends a DISD pre-K program is 350 percent more likely to be kindergarten ready. Why not just make it mandatory? Well, for one thing, there isn’t capacity to handle it. If 100 percent of eligible kids showed up for their pre-K classes, 2700 students would not have a seat, because the facilities aren’t geographically aligned with need. Also, the population trends are exacerbating this problem. (Not-so-fun fact: DISD currently leaves $60 million in state funds on the table because it doesn’t have space aligned with need.) So at the same time we as a district need to fix our infrastructure to offer every child a seat, we also need to increase the quality so that the money we would be spending will be seen as worthwhile, because it is more likely to show real results.

That’s the underlying message of DISD’s pre-K strategy. At the last school board briefing, Cohen offered an ambitious, multilayered plan to get the program up to par. (The YouTube of it isn’t online for some reason.) It was, according to the early education experts with whom I’ve spoken, an excellent plan, one that understands how every element relies on each other for support. Ignore or fail to properly implement one of them, and the whole plan falls apart.

What DISD needs to do then is this:

• Improve pre-K access for 3- and 4-year-olds.
• Improve parent demand/parent buy-in to program.
• Improve quality of current pre-k program (example: better training for teachers).
• Work with a broad coalition of stakeholders so students get help as early as birth.

To that end, Cohen offered the board a plan with 30 to-dos if the district is going to create a large urban high-quality early education program. This includes a lot of long-range planning. For example, you don’t just train teachers in pre-K procedures. You add 900 more teaching assistants to the program so that you have a) more instructional support and b) a pipeline for the next wave of pre-K teachers.

Now, all this costs money, as I noted earlier. And it’s hard to get money out of taxpayers when it’s for poor kids, because poor kids don’t come from high-taxed homes. That’s why trustee Joyce Foreman – whose very poor district would benefit substantially from such a program – asked Cohen, “Where are we going to get that money? You have to understand, it has to come from somewhere. You should have a sense, we don’t just have money laying around.”

Trustee Dan Micciche has been stumping for more pre-K money for years. He knows that it really doesn’t matter how the board or state funds it, just that they fund it. “[Funding better pre-k is] the single most important thing we could be doing.”

I agree. As Cohen suggested, it’s certainly about improving teaching and matching facilities to need. According to people with whom I’ve discussed this plan — early education experts at places like United Way, Mi Escuelita Preschools, and Momentous, among others — there needs to be better alignment between the school district and the other organizations offering birth-to-kindergarten support and education. Parent engagement goes on now, sure – DISD is developing apps that help parents know how they can help in their pre-K learning process, for example. As well, DISD has the largest HIPPY (Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters) program in the country, reaching 1,000 families at home. But they need better alignment between the district and the many nonprofit organizations (like Child Care Dallas, or Mi Escuelita) that provide these services to poor kids and parents now.

What should be your takeaway from this? Maybe you hate what I write about here because you’re convinced Miles is a bad superintendent. Maybe you love what I write because I slag the school board. Maybe you say you care about kids and DISD but don’t know what you can do about it because the problem seems so massive. Well, here’s something you can do. Educate yourself on pre-K, especially on DISD’s attempts to improve it. Make that your passion. Send emails to your board representative, send them to your city council person, send them to your state rep. Every time you encounter an elected official in Dallas, say, “What are you doing to get DISD’s pre-K program off the ground?” If that person says, “Well, that’s not really my area of –” just say, “Bullshit, answer my question, what are you doing?” Put fear into the elected. That’s the only way we can get something this big and expensive and necessary off the ground. Even if I’ve been wrong about everything I’ve ever written, I’m right about this: This has the power to change our city in a profound way. And you can help make that happen.

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