An Open Letter to House Speaker Austin Knudsen on Early Education

Mr. Speaker:

I read with interest your assertion in the Flathead Beacon that “studies you’ve  read on preschool don’t show it as a worthy investment” and your call for proof that investing in preschool programs will lead to better ACT scores later in life. I’d like to think you are a person who keeps his word, and hope you’ll reconsider your opposition to investing in early education programs after a closer look at the evidence. I hope you’ll even consider supporting Governor Bullock’s proposed Early Edge Montana program as an investment in our state, and more importantly, our kids.

Let’s start with the ACT test. According to the ACT Research and Policy from February 2013, “getting students off to a good start in preschool and the elementary grades is vitally important for several reasons.” Among the reasons cited by the authors are the fact that student interest in education develops early, that students struggle if they begin behind their peers, and that authentic learning simply takes time. In his study entitled “Cognitive Predictors of Achievement Growth in Mathematics: A 5-Year Longitudinal Study, Professor David Geary discovered that “the ability to do simple arithmetic predicts math performance in the fifth grade,” a specific illustration of the importance of early childhood education.  If you want kids to be able to do math on the ACT in 11th grade, the research is definitive: they need to be able to count at first grade and do basic math functions at fifth. Early education programs will make that more likely.

Sean Reardon, a professor of education at Stanford University explains that the reason we are seeing an achievement gap between middle/upper class students and students who grow up in poverty is not because of failing schools, or even because poor students are doing worse on the tests. He argues that the consensus view is that student in poverty are not as successful because they enter school less prepared:

The academic gap is widening because rich students are increasingly entering kindergarten much better prepared to succeed in school than middle-class students. This difference in preparation persists through elementary and high school.

He also argues convincingly that the solution is just the kind of program that Governor Bullock is proposing:

Investments in early-childhood education pay very high societal dividends. That means investing in developing high-quality child care and preschool that is available to poor and middle-class children. It also means recruiting and training a cadre of skilled preschool teachers and child care providers.

Professors Steven Barnett and Jason Hustedt summarized the research on early education funding, saying “that preschool education is a sound investment—academically, socially, and economically.” They further argue three benefits certainly of interest to your constituents and the state as a whole: reduced spending on school, reduced spending on welfare, and reduced spending in the criminal justice system. Their study specifically highlights the benefits of state pre-K programs:

Increasing public investment in effective preschool education programs for all children can produce substantial educational, social, and economic benefits. State and local pre-K programs with high standards have been the most effective, and such programs need not be provided by public schools.

When you suggest that the studies you’ve read cast doubt on the benefit of preschool education, my guess is you are referring to widely-disseminated research that suggests the effects of Head Start are not long-lasting, as those argument have been popular in conservative circles for years.  In response to these arguments, Dr. James Heckman, a University of Chicago economist and Nobel Laureate found that “preschool years are the most productive years for new educational investments.” And a longitudinal study by Lee, Brooks-Gunn, Schur, and Liaw demonstrated that early educations do indeed have lasting benefits for low-income students. The “fade out” research has been repeatedly debunked, and longitudinal studies demonstrate students are more likely to succeed later in life when provided quality preschool.

I’d also argue any “fade out” of the benefits of preschool are far more likely in states with worse educational outcomes than Montana. When you take a disadvantaged student with a quality preschool education and put her in one of Montana’s excellent elementary schools, you’re going to give the background to succeed and a classroom in which she can do it.

The research is actually quite clear: early education programs have long and short-term benefits for students, reduce the cost of government, and do what government should do: give all of the kids in our country a better chance to succeed.

As a final note, perhaps the most compelling argument is simple analysis of behavior: parents who can afford quality preschool education for the children enroll them in quality preschool education. These successful people, certainly capable of making good financial and educational choices, are placing their kids in preschool because they know that early edge will increase the odds that their children will achieve early in elementary school.

In your comments to the Beacon, you expressed an argument based on evidence, and that evidence is clear: many of our kids enter school unprepared for the academic demands of elementary school, and those disadvantages can persist through the the rest of their K-12 education and beyond. When it comes to those kids, let’s put aside ideology, let’s put aside partisan differences, and let’s give all Montana kids the chance to achieve.

Thank you.

If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we would certainly appreciate it.

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About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba has been writing about Montana politics since 2005 and teaching high school English since 2000. He's a former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

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  • Perhaps there is some caution from this study regarding Head Start programs. Read the executive summary key findings. In summary, there were initial positive impacts from having
    access to Head Start, but by the end of 3rd grade there were very few impacts found for either cohort in any of the four domains of cognitive, social-emotional, health and parenting practices. The few impacts that were found did not show a clear pattern of favorable or unfavorable impacts for children.

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