State funding spats aside, researchers are pretty clear on the importance of early childhood education. The National Institute for Early Education Research has created its own list of quality benchmarks that outline what a good pre-kindergarten program looks like. In Texas, though there's been a recent push for so-called high-quality programs, that hasn't always come with more funding.
On the ground, this means vastly uneven opportunities when it comes to pre-kindergarten. Two new studies from the Kinder Institute's Houston Education Research Consortium confirm the broad variations of pre-kindergarten offerings across the state's largest school district, Houston Independent School District, as well as the impact high quality programs can have for disadvantaged populations in particular.
The studies looked both at the distribution of quality benchmarks across pre-kindergarten in the district, as well as which student groups were enrolled in the programs with a higher number of those benchmarks and how those students performed on end-of-the-year literacy assessments offered in either English or Spanish. The study used data for 50 of the district’s 164 prekindergarten programs.
Using nine specific quality benchmarks, including things like whether teachers had specialized training in early childhood education, if the maximum class size was 20 students or fewer and what the student to staff ratio was, Erin Baumgartner found that none of the 50 campuses included in the study met all nine of the quality benchmarks and that students of limited English proficiency were less likely to be enrolled in pre-kindergarten programs with six or more quality indicators. However, since the analysis was based on self-report by the campuses of the quality benchmarks, the district noted some may not have been reported correctly or understood by the survey respondents, for example the presence of medical and vision screening services.
The average pre-kindergarten program included in the study met roughly 5.2 of the nine quality benchmarks. Black and white students both tended to be enrolled in programs with more quality benchmarks than their Hispanic and Asian peers, according to the study, which used data from the 2015-2016 school year. Low-income students were also more likely to be enrolled in those programs with six or more quality benchmarks than their peers, suggesting a partly promising story.
But English language learners in particular fared less well. Students with limited English proficiency were more likely to be enrolled in the lowest quality programs - those with just three of fewer benchmarks - and less likely to be enrolled in programs with six or more benchmarks than their peers.
"If the quality of programs was similar across schools, there would be fewer observed differences in both the number of benchmarks reached across programs and the characteristics of students who attend these programs," wrote Baumgartner.
Beyond simple variation in quality, Baumgartner also questioned whether the standard benchmarks were necessarily the best ones to capture a program's effectiveness. In a second study, she found that, on average, the students' scores on literacy tests were not significantly correlated with the number of benchmarks met in their pre-kindergarten program. This second study also included the same 50 out of the district’s 164 prekindergarten programs.
But digging into the numbers, Baumgartner found that there did seem to be a positive connection between test scores and benchmarks for some groups. Non-economically disadvantaged appear to benefit from being enrolled in programs which attained a higher number of quality benchmarks. The same was not true, however, for economically disadvantaged students, suggesting that higher quality programs may actually be exacerbating gaps between low-income and higher-income students. Given that this is contrary to previous studies in the district, more investigation into this outcome is needed.
Complicating that finding, though, was the fact that students with limited English and students enrolled in bilingual programs did seem to benefit from programs with a higher number of quality benchmarks.
"For LEP students they find a benefit to being enrolled in a higher quality program," said Baumgartner, "but they're less likely to be in high quality programs. You have this mismatch."
Baumgartner said the findings also suggest a need to better understand what makes a quality program. It may be that some of the more common benchmarks in the district, including having teachers with at least a bachelor's degree, the provision of at least one meal and the use of some set of early learning standards, may not be the right ones or enough on their own to meet each student group's needs. Less common in HISD, for example, is a 1:10 or better staff to child ratio or teachers with specialized early childhood education training.
"These quality benchmarks are meant to be minimum requirements," said Baumgartner. "But that doesn’t mean that they are all students need. For non-economically disadvantaged students, they may already have some of the tools and resources they need to be successful. Being in a high quality program might be giving them an added boost."
Indeed, Baumgartner found that of the nine benchmarks, teacher professional development and specialized training seemed to be the most strongly associated with higher test scores, yet they were not among the most commonly satisfied benchmarks across pre-kindergarten campuses.
After Harvey, she said, this finding is particularly critical since schools have had to absorb lost days.
"With schools getting delayed, they're taking away some of the teacher in-service time this fall," she said. "Early dismissal days were often used for teacher professional development, so we will need to see whether teachers have the same access to training as they have in the past."