"State of Preschool" report doesn't paint whole picture for Ohio

Ohio recently received distinction from the National
Institute for Early Education Research in its State of Preschool 2010 report, but
not in a good way. As the Cincinnati
the co-director for institute issuing the report said of the Buckeye State:

For a couple of years, [Ohio] was
moving up [in the rankings], but last year the state eliminated a major
program. Enrollment went way down and spending per child went way down. The
program the state does have meets only two of 10 benchmarks for state standards
for quality. That puts Ohio in last place. Nobody has a program that is that
weak, except for 10 states that don’t have any program at all.

According to The State
of Preschool
, funding for public preschool dropped by almost $30 million
nationally (funding would have fallen by another $49 million if not for federal
stimulus dollars). In Ohio,
state spending per child dropped by almost half (from almost $7,000 per child
to $3,900), and access to preschool, especially among four-year-olds, puts Ohio
among the worst in the nation (the Buckeye State ranks 36 out of 40 states with
public preschool programs).

At first glance, such statistics are alarming. Funding early
learning programs, especially for low-income children who otherwise come to
kindergarten ill-prepared and already behind their wealthier peers, is a
worthwhile (and preemptive) investment that reaps long-term gains not just for
students but society at large.

However, it’s worth considering several factors and trends
before sounding the alarms on Ohio’s preschool landscape. First, as the Enquirer rightly
points out
in the same article, many of Ohio’s preschool programs are
licensed and funded via the Department of Job and Family Services and thus are
not included in The State of Preschool,
which only looked at those programs licensed and funded through departments of
education. Thus Ohio’s less-than-stellar profile is based on an incomplete
portrait of early learning initiatives.

Second and more importantly, as Fordham President Chester E.
Finn, Jr. pointed
in the Education Gadfly in
his review of the report:

NIEER’s definition of ‘quality’
preschool, while faithful to widely held views in the early-childhood field,
continues to emphasize inputs and processes, not outcomes…. Of their ten big
‘quality standards,’ at least eight are mainly about spending, credentials,
ratios, and services, not about kindergarten readiness and other (increasingly
measurable) signs that such programs are actually preparing their wee charges
to succeed in school.

Especially during times of austerity, Ohio has to do a
better job measuring quality than just counting dollars and inputs. This
sentiment was captured
recently by the Columbus
Jennifer Smith Richards, who compared the number of poor
children and non-poor children in various central Ohio districts scoring in the
bottom range on the state’s kindergarten readiness assessment (KRAL). In every
district studied there was a significant gap in readiness between poor kids and
non-poor kids, with the largest gap at 35 percent. Based on these trends,
several central Ohio groups are focusing on increasing readiness in
high-poverty areas and even plan to track effectiveness
(by examining kindergarten test results of the students who attended their
early learning program).

Cynics might argue that advocating for more preschool
funding should be paramount to parsing through kindergarten test data (then
again, cynics would argue we shouldn’t even bother to test children at such a
young age). But given Ohio’s fiscal reality, and the fact that enormous gaps in
readiness persist between poor and non-poor kids, the state should focus less
on NIEER’s rankings on universal access and spending and more on developing
creative initiatives to improve effectiveness for the kids who need early
learning programs the most.