Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Evaluating Florida's Universal Preschool Vouchers

This seems like it will be a huge dilemma for the folks at Pre-K Now and other preschool advocacy groups. On the one hand, they lean heavily toward state-run preschool programs with teachers with bachelor’s degrees. Yet, Florida’s new evaluation of kindergartners seems to bode well for a choice-based program where the money follows the child.

Here is the Florida Department of Education press release.

Eighty-two percent of the students who finished pre-K could name random letters as they should, compared with 65 percent of those who did not take part and 71 percent of the children who took some pre-K but did not finish, Goff said.The findings represent students who took pre-K during the 2005-06 school year -- the program's inaugural year -- and are in kindergarten now.

The state screened more than 198,440 kindergartners and found more than 62,000 of them had completed the pre-K program.Based on the results, the state also launched a new Web site Tuesday that allows parents to look up how their child's particular pre-K program did, whether it is part of a day-care center, local church or public elementary school.Each pre-K provider has been given a "readiness rate" from zero to 300. Eighty-five percent statewide scored at least 200. "The higher the number, the better," Goff said.

While these results do not seem overwhelmingly compelling, especially given the research that shows little difference between children in the later grades. The bottom line is I do not see a huge difference between the performance of this choice based system and the more costly programs advocated by preschool advocates.

Yet these advocates still hate the choice-based program. For example, in today's Palm Beach Post, Pre-K Now's executive director, Libby Doggett says in a "Does anyone really think preparing half of Florida's children is a victory?" she asked, referring to the 52 percent of students who were scored the top rating on the inventory - the most reliable of the three tests in her book.

Yet, that is 12 percent more children than the regular school population who are ready for kindergarten. Given that we have zero demographic data about the UPK participants--except that we know lower income children are more likely to participate in "free programs," this doesn't seem like it should be outright dismissed by universal preschool advocates. And the Florida children who went through the program did even better on language and reading readiness assessments. Anyway, this seems pretty snarky from an advocate who regularly trumpets 1-5 point gains for state-funded programs on other assessments of readiness for four year olds.

At least Florida is being super-transparent about performance and, while not the only reliable indicator, parents will have some kind of benchmark to evaluate preschool.

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