Guest column: Kathleen Reynolds ... Getting real about early-childhood education investments

By Kathleen Reynolds

Marco Island

Kudos to the Naples Daily News for the article and editorial on early learning. It has taken a little while, but media and leadership are beginning to recognize that our collective futures, including the economic the well-being of our state, will be due in part to the quality of early learning programs.

Kindergarten is too late; about 90 percent of the development of brain architecture is completed by age five. One way to insure a reduction in the massive amounts of money Florida’s taxpayers spend on grade retentions and prisons is to invest in high quality early learning programs. The research attesting to that cannot be legitimately disputed at this juncture.

While we have large numbers of children enrolled in subsidized child care programs that allow parents to work, and in the voluntary pre-kindergarten program for four-year-olds. Taxpayers, unfortunately, really do not have any good ways of knowing if there is a return on their approximately $1 billion annual investment. And that is why I also applaud the guest commentary by Dominic Calabro of Florida TaxWatch that appeared in the Daily News.

Calabro took on the challenging issue of explaining the need for “test validity” in the K-12 system. He explained that this refers to “the extent to which inferences, conclusions and decisions” can be made on the basis of results. In other words, we need to know for sure that any assessment is really measuring what we say it is.

He makes the point that ZIP code or income should not determine the quality of the program a child experiences in an educational setting.

Right on, and I would like to point out that the same is true for pre-school. Unlike the testing that takes place in upper grade levels, pre-school assessments are not high stakes for young children; no one is going to be retained or not graduate at age three. However, they are necessary for teachers to understand where the child is in terms of social-emotional, cognitive, physical, and other areas of development in order to plan effective instruction. However, if the assessments that are used do not have the validity that Calabro refers to, then the results are worthless, and, indeed, a waste of taxpayers’ money. Worse, bad assessments can force instruction in the wrong ways, doing even more harm to an already challenged population of young children.

Floridians have absolutely no way of knowing whether their investments in the subsidized child care program known as School Readiness have any bang for the buck because there are no statewide protocols for determining this. There is no statewide approach to determining the quality of programs, and there is no statewide approach to determining whether children benefited at all from attendance.

My personal belief is that there may be fear in the upper echelons that if Florida’s youngest were compared to a national sample, the results would not be wonderful.

There is a price to pay for the low level of investments being made per child in this program that takes families off of welfare and allows them to go to work. There is a price to be paid for the huge number of children in Florida who are uninsured; who have no access to dental or vision care, and that price will be reflected in the developmental areas identified above.

My support in upcoming elections for the leadership of this state will go to the individuals who will demand per pupil expenditures in early learning that are competitive with other states, and that will put us ultimately in a better position regarding the quality of our workforce.

To do that, as Calabro correctly notes for the K-12 world, we will need high quality pre-school assessments in place that are reliable and valid, that will assist pre-school teachers in adequately planning for the needs of children, and that will give taxpayers some inkling of whether their investments will ultimately lead to the kind of Florida we all want.

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