Dallas ISD’s Pre-K is Making A Huge Impact, And That’s Worth Our Investment

Oct 29, 2018 by

Rob Shearer –

Earlier this week I attended a community meeting hosted by my Dallas ISD board trustee to provide information on Propositions A-D that benefit Dallas ISD on the November ballot.

During the meeting a question was raised about the financial efficiency of the district, and whether there were cuts that could be made to the current budget. The trustee stated that the administrative level of the district is higher than surrounding districts, and then pulled up several slides to demonstrate her point.

The trustee focused on the Early Learning department of the Dallas ISD, and questioned the percentage of the Early Learning team and budget that is not focused on the classroom. The trustee explained that the budget for this department has grown significantly over the past several years, and showed a chart of student Kindergarten readiness over the same time period and said that the increased investment didn’t seem to be creating an impact. The trustee also showed the Early Learning organization chart and stated that she believed all of the more than 200 employees listed were ‘administrative’ and were not working directly with students.

I spent most of the day following the meeting digging through documents from previous school board meetings to better understand the facts of the situation regarding the efficiency and efficacy of Dallas ISD’s Early Learning department.

So is Pre-K in Dallas ISD working?

Texas only funds half-day Pre-K for students who meet a set of qualifying criteria, the most common being students who are economically disadvantaged and students who are learning English as a second language. The chart that the trustee shared during the community meeting, and I’ve included below, shows kindergarten readiness across three groups of students.

Kindergarten readiness is a way that educator’s determine if students are starting at a similar level, and includes skills such as identifying the letters of the alphabet. Research indicates that students who aren’t able to recognize letters and numbers at the beginning of kindergarten will require additional support to help them prepare to read on grade level by the time they are in the 3rd grade.

So on the chart below, the light blue bar is kindergarten readiness for students who don’t qualify for Pre-K. The gray bar is students who do qualify but for some reason didn’t attend Pre-K. And the dark blue bar is students who attended Dallas ISD’s Pre-K. The trustee stated that the fact that the dark blue bars are effectively flat, or even dipping slightly, indicated a lack of return on our growing Early Childhood department budget. But that’s not what this chart shows at all.

According to Education Week, “the ‘achievement gap’ in education refers to the disparity in academic performance between groups of students…It is most often used to describe the troubling performance gaps between African-American and Hispanic students, at the lower end of the performance scale, and their non-Hispanic white peers, and the similar academic disparity between students from low-income families and those who are better off.”

Every school district in America struggles to eliminate the opportunity gap, which most research indicates starts with Kindergarten readiness and persists throughout the K-12 system.

What the trustee is noting, that Kindergarten readiness of students who have attended Dallas ISD Pre-K has remained at or near 60% since 2014, is not the key point of the above chart. This chart shows that high-quality Pre-K in Dallas ISD is effectively eliminating the opportunity gap between students who qualify for Pre-K and their peers who don’t — which is a big deal and not something anyone should minimize. It also speaks to the district’s efforts to increase equity through their investment in our students.

It is also worth noting that Kindergarten readiness is not really the best measure of the impact of Pre-K. To really measure efficacy of this investment you want to look at longitudinal data and understand the impact Pre-K is having on 3rd grade reading scores 5 years later.

Dallas ISD 3rd grade reading has improved 10 percentage points since 2014, which is more than ANY urban district in Texas. That is also more than 3 times the state’s growth during that same period. Students who attend Pre-K in Dallas ISD continually outperform their peers, at every grade level, from Kindergarten to 3rd grade. This should be information that we are all shouting from the rooftops to anyone who will listen, especially the state legislature who don’t believe Pre-K is current worth a full-day investment.

But is this significant progress worth the cost?

Dallas ISD’s investment in Pre-K has increased $15M since 2014, from $50M to $65M (a 30% increase). That is directly in line with enrollment increases over the same period of 3,400 students, from 9,800 to 13,200+ this year, a 35% growth in enrollment. (Some attendees at the trustee’s meeting indicated that they didn’t believe Pre-K enrollment was growing. Obviously that isn’t the case.) The Early Learning department budget has moved in line with the enrollment growth because 95% of the total investment inPre-K is spent at the classroom level, which includes teachers, teaching assistants, classroom materials & supplies, and coaching support.

It turns out only 5% of the Early Childhood department budget is on central costs that could be classified as ‘administrative’.

And how about the Early Learning staff that the trustee didn’t believe worked directly with students?

Only 19 of the 200 people listed on the organizational chart above are not directly working on campuses and impacting students on a daily basis. That is less than 10% of the staff of a department that is clearly having a significant longterm impact on student outcomes.

Our investment in Pre-K is working, and experts such as the Nobel Prize winning economist James Heckman have demonstrated that there is likely not a better investment in our educational system.

I bring this up because of the larger context of the meeting. The trustee stated repeatedly that she wasn’t going to tell people how to vote on Propositions A-D on their November ballot, but instead wanted to give people information that could inform their vote.

I’m afraid that some voters may have left that meeting concerned that the school district is not being a good steward of our tax dollars based on the example that was given in the meeting.

An increased investment in Pre-K to make sure all qualifying students have access to Pre-K is one of the four strategic initiatives that the district has committed to voters they will use the additional school funding that Proposition C will generate. The other priorities include increased teacher pay, increased schools of choice to meet the needs of all students, and an investment in racial equity.

Voters need accurate information about the progress Dallas ISD is making if they hope to make an informed decision in the voting booth, and here are the facts: Dallas ISD is the most improved large school district in Texas, and has more A rated campuses than any district in the state.

Voting for Propositions A,B,C & D is a vote to continue this significant progress, and frankly is an investment in the future of the City of Dallas.

Source: Dallas ISD’s Pre-K is Making A Huge Impact, And That’s Worth Our Investment

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