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Does Texas Pre-K work?

One education model — with unproven results — serves almost a third of pre-kindergarteners in Texas. Its grade? Incomplete.

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The battles over Pre-Kindergarten are no place for children. Scarce resources and passionate people make for the political equivalent of street fights.

At the middle of the maelstrom is the State Center for Early Childhood Education, housed within the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston, which has come to dominate Pre-K in Texas. One-third of pre-kindergarten students learn under its model, and its director, Susan Landry, has helped to set statewide standards, create teacher training and bring together public and private facilities.

She’s also made a lot of people very, very angry.

“I always tell people that it’s like finance, except people take it personally,” says Jason Sabo, vice president of the United Way of Texas and a veteran of Pre-K battles.

Landry has come under fire for everything from contracts with private companies to her heavy emphasis on literacy and assessment to the lack of outside evaluations of her programs. Since such a hefty percentage of Pre-K students learn under the framework, one question is natural: just how good is this dominant Pre-K model?

Pre-K in Texas

Last school year, Texas served over 190,000 Pre-K students — more than any other state in the country.  And over 61,000 of them studied in classrooms under Landry’s Pre-K initiative, called the Texas School Ready Project. This year, that number will rise to 80,000 according to the State Center.

Texas spends more than $600 million in general revenue funding for Pre-K in school districts and also offers $90 million in grant money, which can allow districts to offer full-day programs or to include younger children in the program (there's usually not enough money to do both). But to get that money, they have to play by the state’s Pre-K guidelines, created at the State Center. And school districts that have received past funding but failed to meet testing goals must adopt the Center’s full certification program, Texas School Ready.

Landry first gained prominence in 2003 when she received $10 million to begin a pilot Pre-K program for 11 school districts across the state. She leads the Children’s Learning Institute, which oversees the State Center. She sought to create a high quality, exportable program that made the best of economic realities.

The Texas Education Agency gives school districts continuous funding for half-day Pre-Kindergarten based on a formula. Only specific children are eligible — those learning English, the economically disadvantaged, the homeless, military families and children who have ever been in foster care. Any school that’s got 15 eligible students must offer Pre-K services that meet the state learning standards, and there are seven approved curricula districts can choose from.

But most districts are eager for additional funding. State Sen. Judith Zaffirini championed the 2003 legislation to begin offering supplemental grants to programs using Landry’s framework, which was then called the Texas Early Education Model. Now called Early Start Grants, they've grown to $91.8 million.

Districts are rated on how their students do on third-grade tests. Those that don't do as well have to enroll in the Center's certification program, and Landry says about two-thirds of the new grantees also sign up. The program encourages partnerships between public Pre-K and private childcare facilities and emphasizes professional development for teachers. But it requires districts to use a student assessment system via a PDA, laptop or net-book.

The State Center has contracted with several companies to create the software and technology so that each Pre-K teacher can immediately input student data and receive feedback. Each participating district must also offer the approved software and hardware to its Pre-K teachers.

A year ago, the Houston Chronicle wrote about the ties between the project and commercial vendors, and the UTHSC later admitted it had improperly accepted some royalties from vendors whose products it had recommended.

Landry still defends the technology, saying teachers can more easily fine-tune their methods by monitoring progress with technology.

The certification process includes a model for public-private partnerships and a framework for professional development. The partnerships help the program remain politically viable. Rather than building new Pre-K facilities, it allows public school teachers to work in private centers, so long as they only teach students eligible under state guidelines.  As with federally funded Head Start facilities, the districts can add capacity without needing to build new classrooms.

That keeps costs down for the state and also placates private providers, who rely on pre-schoolers to offset the costs of more expensive care for infants and younger kids. The providers need more staff to watch the younger kids; four-year-olds cost far less to supervise.  To offer affordable services for infants, these facilities rely on the revenue from the four year-olds.

“[Private childcare facilities] are the only industry ... that can truly meet the needs of families,” said Kara Johnson, who leads the Texas Early Childhood Education Coalition,and has been successful in bringing various interests together to advocate for Pre-K.

According to TECEC, almost no middle class, let alone poor, families can afford to pay the true cost of infant care. Without the revenue from Pre-K aged students, the facilities wouldn’t be able to operate.

Incomplete grades

But how do people know the model works? Many critics eagerly point to the lack of outside evaluation. Despite six years of dominating public Pre-K, the program has only seen one study by a third party — and it was fairly inconclusive. The report, conducted by EdVance, Inc., looked at State Center data between 2003 and 2006, and didn’t find definitive results. Overall, the study emphasized the need for clearer data reporting.

While the study came out in at the end of October 2007, it did not receive much attention until The Dallas Morning News summarized the findings under the damning headline “Landmark preschool program isn’t paying off.”

The report’s authors quickly disavowed that interpretation, and there have been no external reviews since.

For Cynthia Osborne, an education policy expert at the LBJ School of Public Policy at the University of Texas, the report’s biggest problem was the lack of attention it received. “The evaluation was not widely discussed and it’s not widely disseminated,” she said. “It’s not clear how much learning has gone on based on that evaluation in terms of how we might improve the model.”

But a new study of the State Center's program is in the works. Zaffirini stuck an order for an external evaluation in the current state budget, and forced the Center to report its spending to the Legislature. She said she wants to focus “on quality and accountability and transparency.”

For every dollar spent on high-quality Pre-K, the state sees a $3.50 return, according to work done by Bush School at Texas A&M University. But that’s not true of all programs. “There’s very little bang for a mediocre school,” says Professor Lori Taylor, who oversaw the project.

Landry says the center has taken pains to collect as much data as possible, from Pre-K and kindergarten, all in an effort to find ways of improving the framework. “There have been a number of studies,” she says sharply. And while they’ve all been conducted by the center, they’ve all shown success.

“Surprise, surprise,” grumbles Mike Falick with an implicit eye-roll. Falick is a board member for one of Landry’s biggest rivals — the Spring Branch Independent School District. “The only one judging the State Center’s success is the State Center," he declares.

With over 2,000 Pre-K students, Spring Branch ISD is widely known for serving one of the largest early childhood populations and for giving Landry and TEA headaches. The program lost two-thirds of its funding in the new budget, despite showing marked success with its students, based on their third grade TAKS tests. Lawmakers allowed more districts in, spreading the money thinner, but for Falick, the new grant structure meant punishing those districts that had shown success and rewarding those that failed.

“It makes no intuitive sense,” he said.

But Spring Branch is reluctant to partake of any component of the State Center. The district offers its own professional development framework and chooses not to partner with private facilities.  It even received an exemption from TEA to avoid using the technological assessments.

The national organization Pre-K Now says Texas has low quality Pre-K  because most of its districts — those not receiving grants — do not offer full-day programs. The State Center's only direct impact is on those districts vying for grant dollars, but those are the very districts at the forefront of bringing Texas a high-quality program.

Falick has been public in his opposition the State Center techniques on his blog.  There, he has argued that its focus on assessments amounts to loading more tests on younger students.

“We have fought for a number of [legislative] sessions now to keep that from happening,” said Falick. “To keep a particular curriculum — whether it’s the State Center’s or anybody else’s — from being mandated.”

In the classroom

A "CIRCLE" classroom — one set up under the certification standards — has a specific look to it. There are learning stations that focus on different skills and almost every part of the room is labeled. There’s a letter wall, where kids can re-familiarize themselves with the alphabet and words beginning with each letter. Student work hangs everywhere, so children can see the fruits of their labor around the room. The idea is simple: the more things are standardized, the easier it is to implement them across the state.

“It made sense in a world of constrained resources,” says David Kirp, a Berkeley professor who recently chronicled Texas’ Pre-K battles in his book The Sandlot Investment.

Landry is eager to point out that her situation is far from perfect, with under-qualified teachers and underfunded programs. “We were asked to make something happen by the governor, the legislators. We were told, ‘This is the reality of Texas,’” she says. “They didn’t come to us and say ‘In the best of all worlds, how would you design this?’”

Most districts don’t mind. Take Janice Weston, principal of Lucy Read Demonstration Pre-Kindergarten School in the Austin Independent School District. When Weston first began teaching Pre-K in 1981, she relied on a bright red binder with possible ideas for teaching topics to young children. Once a month, she would get together with other teachers, and they would discuss what had worked and how.

“There was not really a curriculum for young children,” she explained, sitting in the school’s literacy center amidst highly structured classes for four year-olds.

“My new teachers are just, you know, sucking it up,” she says of the CIRCLE program. “The whole thing is how do you support [learning] in the classroom.”

Erin Trent, who teaches public Pre-K at Kandy Stripe Academy Charter School in Houston, agrees. “It definitely teaches a great deal of patience,” she says. And if that’s not enough, she calls her mentor.

“I can’t tell you how many times people have been brought to tears talking about the program,” said TECEC’s Johnson, who also endorses the program. “They feel like they are truly teaching.”

You don’t have to look far to find critics. Many are simply concerned that this State Center model has become too dominant.

“That somebody with an education nostrum gets that kind of political power and gets to run the entire political show strikes me as problematic in the extreme,” says Kirp.

Other experts concur, and say that while Landry’s program may be successful, there should be more variety.

“It’s not necessarily anything about that particular model,” says Christopher Brown, a University of Texas professor who specializes in early childhood education. “It’s that the state’s trying to adopt one pedagogical model — that will limit what we can achieve. “

Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, says the State Center model is unique. “Other states are more distributed and a lot of them leave that completely up to local discretion,” he said.

Johnson says many in Texas hope to offer other formats for Pre-K that might emphasize more social-emotional work or a bigger focus on math.

“People know the [State Center] program works,” she said, “but there are people across the state who say, ‘What about my model?’”

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Public education State government Education Judith Zaffirini State agencies Texas A&M University-College Station Texas Education Agency