Rx for Better Urban Schools: High-Quality Pre-K

Children’s math scores at fourth and eight grade haven’t progressed appreciably in most urban school districts over the last two years, says the most recent report from U.S. Department of Education. Only four of the 11 urban districts the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has been tracking since 2003 showed significant gains. That doesn’t mean progress hasn’t been made. Urban districts, with their higher proportion of minority children and English Language Learners, represent the nation’s biggest education challenge and if we go back to 2003 when NAEP began, the urban districts have made some progress.

Nevertheless the leveling off suggested by the current report should be cause for concern because it tells us more needs to be done to move the needle toward continuing progress in these districts where the achievement gap between blacks and Hispanics and whites remains shamefully wide. We wish an urban New Jersey district were in the report because districts in cities like Newark and Camden have had the benefit of the state’s high-quality Abbott Preschool Program for a number of years. NIEER’s long-term research on the Abbott Program shows children who had two years of the program achieved gains in a variety of math measures including applied problems, calculation and math fluency through second grade.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who ran the Chicago public schools, champions high-quality preschool education as a prerequisite to success in school. That is also a key recommendation in a compelling new report titled “A New Deal for Urban Public Schools” authored by Andrew J. Rotherman and Sara Mead in the Harvard Law & Policy Review. When Secretary Duncan and I released the findings from the State of Preschool 2008 yearbook at the Oyster-Adams Bilingual School in the District of Columbia earlier this year, we read The Very Hungry Caterpillar to a class of enthusiastic kids who shouted out each part of the story as we came to it. We need a lot more of that in urban districts as well as teachers skilled at recognizing and extending the math and science lessons in the caterpillar’s culinary exploits.

Steve Barnett
Co-Director, NIEER

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