MOST POOR children in Baltimore, and throughout America, arrive at elementary school dramatically behind children from more affluent homes. Generally speaking, poor children possess a fraction of the vocabulary acquired by their more affluent peers. They have traveled less and conversed less with adults, have been read to less frequently and have had fewer life experiences. Consequently, they enter kindergarten lacking the necessary skills for learning to read.
Baltimore has two large public preschool programs charged with making headway against these deficits: Head Start and the Baltimore City Public School System prekindergarten program for 4-year-olds. Together, these two agencies expend $32 million a year.
Despite this significant infusion of public funds (going back nearly 40 years in the case of Head Start) and despite the record from other parts of the world that preschools done right are working, no evidence exists that children graduating from the Baltimore City preschools do any better academically in elementary schools than poor children who have never attended preschool. Responsible public officials have not even asked for such evidence.
There is, however, significant evidence that public preschools, in our city as well as other urban centers, fail to seize one of the few opportunities we have to reduce the learning gap between affluent and poor children.
As these young children mature and the physical chemistry of their brains change, they become less capable of absorbing the words and skills more easily absorbed when they are 2, 3 or 4. To delay addressing these deficits is to compound the likelihood of academic failure. Yet this is precisely what is happening to most of the city's poor children.
Why is this? To begin with, Head Start's primary focus is not to prepare children academically for school. Head Start is a social service agency operating under the aegis of the city Department of Housing and Community Development.
Although the public may perceive of Head Start as a preschool, in its eyes its preschool program is one small piece of its mission to serve the whole family.
Nationally, Head Start resists efforts by Congress to make Head Start more accountable for children's school readiness. Less than a third of Baltimore's annual Head Start budget of $24 million is spent on the preschool classroom. Most of the money is allocated to family services and adult education. Head Start teachers earn salaries as low as $14,000 a year and are unlikely to ever earn more than $25,000, a salary scale that results in the hiring of teachers who are not usually qualified to teach in any other setting.
The preschool program provided by the school system lies at the other end of the educational spectrum. Its teachers are college educated and paid on the same scale as all of its teachers.
Its curriculum focuses strongly on academic preparation, undoubtedly because it has to try and educate these same children when they start kindergarten. The school system has made real progress in strengthening its preschool program, but it suffers from one major shortcoming.
Children cannot start preschool until age 4, and all but a few of these programs are half-day. This leaves too much time between birth and the start of formal schooling. Two and a half hours a day is not enough time, and it is too late in the lives of these children to effectively remedy their many deprivations. The school system agrees with this analysis and would like to address it. The problem is the inadequacy of state and federal funding.
The mayor and the city school board should ask the following six questions, the answers to which hold the promise of dramatically raising the academic performance of poor children:
Does attendance at any of the publicly funded preschool programs improve the academic performance of poor children in elementary school and beyond?
Should Head Start shift its focus from operating primarily as a social agency to one seriously committed to improving students' academic preparation?
Should the school system make it a priority to start preschool programs for children earlier than age 4 - at ages 2 and 3? Should the city preschool be full-day? To do either requires significant funding, so the system will either have to obtain more state or federal money or reallocate what it does receive.
Should all of the city's public preschools be placed under one authority, moving the administration of Head Start out of the Department of Housing and Community Development to the city education department?
Should Head Start teachers be required to have a college degree? Should teachers and aides be better trained?
Should a citywide preschool curriculum and a system for measuring its effectiveness be implemented? Neither the school system nor Head Start knows if its preschool programs lead to better academic performance once children enter elementary school.
There is a model for Baltimore that provides ample reason to believe that public preschool can dramatically improve the academic performance of poor students. It is the French model, more than 100 years old and working well, despite the fact that the French school system educates a large underclass of poor North African immigrants.
The French are, and have been, achieving the goal that the city school system is pursuing, narrowing the school performance gap between affluent and poor. French children enter full-day programs as young as 2 and are exposed to an intellectually rich, age-appropriate curriculum that dovetails with the country's elementary school curriculum.
Children who start at 2 are three times more likely to succeed in school than children who never attend preschool.
Baltimore needs to ask itself what it expects from its preschool programs and determine whether the programs are delivering on that expectation.
Robert C. Embry Jr. is president of the Abell Foundation.