Florida’s Next Testing Target: Pre-K Children
FlaglerLive | August 19, 2011
While K-12 teachers have come under increasing scrutiny over their performance, with student test scores now linked to their salaries, voluntary pre-kindergarten providers are skating by with little oversight and accountability, argues one prominent early learning advocate.
Pre-kindergarten programs should test their students more extensively, argues David Lawrence, the head of the Early Childhood Initiative Foundation. Lawrence said this wouldn’t be a “baby FCAT,” but instead a loose assessment of a child’s social, emotional, and cognitive skills in order to determine progress.
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“It really pains me that we haven’t, in this state, subjected VPK to the same rigor and accountability that has been done with K-12 programs and services,” Lawrence said at a Thursday meeting of the Higher Education Coordinating Council. Lawrence is on a campaign to introduce tougher standards to the state’s voluntary pre-kindergarten programs. Earlier this month, he delivered a similar speech to the State Board of Education.
His efforts appear to be gaining some ground. The council, which has the authority to make recommendations to the Legislature and governor, signaled it is on board with many of his suggestions.
And next week, the State Board of Education will take up a draft legislative budget request for next year that asks for $4.6 million to begin offering voluntary pre-kindergarten assessments at a cost of $25 per student.
“There is an urgent need to follow what people voted on and have a quality pre-k program,” said Jon Moyle, a retired attorney and business representative on the Higher Education Coordinating Council. The council was formed in 2010 to help coordinate education efforts across higher education and Pre-K-12.
Lawrence, former publisher of The Miami Herald, is a longtime advocate for early learning and helped lobby for the constitutional amendment that first launched a state-funded voluntary pre-kindergarten program for four-year-olds in 2002.
But Lawrence argues that the promise to voters that the pre-kindergarten system would be high-quality has never come to fruition. “We do not have a high quality system in Florida,” he said, and Georgia offers a better program.
Advocates for early learning say extensive research has shown that the right educational intervention at a very young age can make a big difference in a student’s success. “We learn all of our lives, but the window for learning is open most widely in the years from birth to age five,” Lawrence said.
There are 166,398 students enrolled in voluntary pre-kindergarten in Florida.
Like most state-funded programs, the economic recession has curtailed funding for VPK. This year, the Legislature cut funding for the program by $20 million, leaving about $385 million, or $2,383 per child.
Besides more testing, Lawrence said pre-kindergarten instructors should be required to use curriculum that has proven to be effective, and teachers should be required to have associate or bachelor’s degrees.
Florida already tests kindergarten readiness within the first 30 days of the school year.
That data is used to calculate the kindergarten readiness rate for private and public school providers in voluntary pre-kindergarten, similar to how public schools receive lettered school grades.
But Lawrence said more assessment is needed.
“What we are trying to understand is two things, one, how good the provider is, and number two, where the child is developmentally, behaviorally, socially and cognitively,” Lawrence said.
Lawrence said he has been advocating this issue for years and was hopeful it would lead to legislative reforms.
“My hope is that the (lawmakers) will say “Oh, I get it,” Lawrence said.”We need to fix this so it’s the high quality people voted for. And you could make a significant number of fixes at a very small monetary cost.”
–Lilly Rockwell, News Service of Florida