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Op-Ed: What Kind Of Pre-K House Hath Florida Built?

August 23, 2006

Any builder worth his salt knows when you lay a foundation your line must be true from the start. If it’s off half an inch in the first foot, it will be off a couple of feet by the time you’ve run a 50-foot wall. Come time to install windows and a roof, nothing fits.

Looking at Florida’s Voluntary Prekindergarten Program (VPK) one year after its launch, one is left wondering how far off the mark the program really is. I say “wonder” because at present, there is no scientifically sound plan to measure its educational benefits to the children who attend. That’s because when the framers of the program began departing from the recommendations of the blue-ribbon panel appointed to advise them, they not only substituted substandard materials (unqualified teachers and poor pay), but they also stipulated a useless and misleading approach to measuring the program’s effect on children who attend.

This fall every Florida kindergartener will be subjected to the Florida Kindergarten Readiness Screener. The Screener may or may not prove to yield accurate information about what children know when they start kindergarten, but even if perfect the Screener reveals nothing about what children learned in VPK. The problem with the state’s approach is that it only gives a snapshot of what kids know at a point in time with no baseline assessment against which to compare. With no test prior to VPK entry, there is no way to determine how much a child learned during the VPK year, much less determine how much of that learning was due to VPK.

Lacking a rigorous evaluation design, Florida administrators are like the carpenter standing at the end of a 50 foot wall without a tape measure. Now that $350 million in has been spent to serve more than 100,000 children, it would be useful to know how well the public’s money was spent and what we can do to spend it more productively as time goes on. Instead of remedying the problem, the state of Florida intends to link children’s Kindergarten Screener scores back to the VPK programs and pretend that it can attribute differences in children’s scores to specific VPK programs. This is unfair and unwise. It is time for some real VPK accountability, starting with the politicians in Tallahassee.

The National Institute for Early Education Research is a unit of the Graduate School of Education, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ.