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Learning Curve

  • Indiana lawmakers fail pre-K
    Brandon Smith's Q&A interview with state Sen. Luke Kenley for StateImpact Indiana so perfectly sums up Indiana's backward views on preschool education that it should be required reading for every parent.
  • Bad math: Equating public schools and welfare
    Wendy Robinson, superintendent of Fort Wayne Community Schools, gave voucher proponent Robert Enlow a math lesson he won't likely forget.
  • Feeding the creationist pipeline
    Indiana Gov. Mike Pence is participating in show and tell today: Showing how his sputtering preschool initiative can funnel tax dollars to faith-based programs and telling lawmakers they should get on board.
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Years of lost learning

Better late than never, the Indianapolis Star has discovered the value of preschool. It's a good thing – perhaps voters will begin to ask why Indiana's school reform agenda seemed to include everything but early learning programs.

Here's a 2004 article from The Journal Gazette's editorial pages, as a reminder of how long Indiana has been struggling to match even the lowest-performing states in ensuring children are ready to learn. Consider that the first students who might have benefited from Gov. Kernan's Early Learning Trust are now in middle school. Hundreds of thousands of Indiana students have missed out on the early learning opportunities it held while lawmakers criticized teachers and schools and found ways to direct education dollars to for-profit companies and education entrepreneurs:

Kindergarten capital

The ABCs of economic development

Sunday, Feb. 1, 2004

Corralling a classroom of unruly 5-year-olds might be an easier task than Gov. Joe Kernan faces in selling his full-day kindergarten plan. It passed the Indiana House by a 56-40 vote Thursday, but the tantrums already have begun in the Republican-controlled Senate.

The lawmakers say the problem is Indiana is broke, but other critics complain that full-day kindergarten amounts to free child care, that it doesn't benefit children and that it's too costly. The evidence is strong that full-day kindergarten is worthwhile and it's an investment Indiana must make.

Kernan's Early Learning Trust program, which eventually would require a constitutional amendment, would extend full-day kindergarten from 6,000 students to 26,000 this fall and would make it available statewide in 2007. In addition, the program would establish public-private partnerships for preschool programs and help parents promote reading and literacy at home. The cost is $150 million a year.

Polls are showing great support for the concept of full-day kindergarten. But there are questions swirling -- some of them with political underpinnings and some from the same camp that doomed former Gov. Frank O'Bannon's full-day plan whenIndiana carried a budget surplus. Here's the run-down from the detractors:

Full-day kindergarten isn't any more beneficial than half-day kindergarten.

That's not what the research shows. James Elicker, an associate professor in Purdue University's department of child development and family studies in West Lafayette, qualifies his support for full-day kindergarten by noting that the quality of the program, not the length of the school day, is what really makes a difference. But provided the class offers a strong curriculum and effective instruction, a full-day program is best, Elicker said.

"I've looked at the published research and what I've concluded is that there are advantages for children, families and teachers," he said. "It's pretty clear that given that extra amount of time, kids progress further. ... It gives children a richer, more relaxed introduction to school."

Elicker's own research includes a two-year study of 179 Wisconsin children in four full-day and eight half-day programs. What he found is that students in the full-day program spent more time in individual activities and less in teacher-directed large group instruction. Using quantifiable measures, he found the full-day students were more often actively engaged in activities and that they showed more positive emotions than their half-day counterparts.

"At the end of the second year, teachers reported significantly greater progress for full-day children in literacy, math, general learning skills and social skills," Elicker concluded.

That progress is important because expectations for students are much higher than they were when snack time, recess and naps took up a large proportion of the kindergarten school day. Increasingly, children are expected to learn to read while in kindergarten.

A report released last year by the National Center for Education Statistics found that full-day kindergarten students demonstrate greater reading knowledge and skills than their half-day counterparts. Further bolstering Kernan's Early Learning plan, the report found that children exposed to books and other literacy activities at home were more likely to do well in kindergarten than children who didn't have the same exposure.

It's free child care for two-income families.

Sure it is -- if that's how you want to look at early childhood education. Kindergarten teachers -- and all elementary school teachers and administrators, for that matter -- certainly do more than watch children, but overseeing the safety and well-being of children outside of a parent's care is an important part of the jobs. Call it child care, if you must.

Elicker's study noted that similar proportions of full-day and half-day kindergarten families required child-care services outside of school. The full-day program merely reduces the hours required.

But the child-care gripe is one that should go away. It rings of a judgment call against working mothers, suggesting we all would be better off if they were home minding the kids. According to the Indiana Youth Institute, 70 percent of Hoosier children come from households where a single parent or both parents work. The reality is that society has changed and the structure of school generally has not, even though its very structure can be traced back to the nation's agrarian roots. No one complained that a September-to-June school calendar benefited farmers, but full-day kindergarten is seen as an unnecessary accommodation for working moms.

Five-year-olds are too young to spend a whole day in school.

This one again hearkens back to the days when the kindergarten school supplies list included a mat for naps. Elicker said his observation of full-day students was that in the early weeks some were "pretty darn tired" by the end of the day, but by about November, they had made the adjustment to a full-day program. He said that first-grade teachers report the same adjustment period is required for students coming from half-day kindergarten programs.

Kindergarten long served as the bridge between home and school. Today, however, it's likely that children have already been introduced to early education programs through preschool or child care, and kindergarten increasingly represents the transition period to more structured academic work.

Kernan's proposal raids retired teacher pension funds.

No, it does not. The governor's original proposal was to redirect lottery and gambling revenues from the pension stabilization fund -- not the same thing as teacher retirement funds. House Bill 1234, which establishes the Early Learning Trust, was amended so that it doesn't touch money in the stabilization fund. Instead, it would use $25 million from the state's unclaimed property revenues that normally go to the Common School Fund.

Steve Moberly, a former legislator who is now executive director of the Indiana Retired Teachers Association, said the organization has taken no position on the Early Learning Trust bill, but he said "We were pleased that the House voted to change the funding mechanism."

Indiana can't afford full-day kindergarten.

Indiana can't afford not to. Kernan promotes the Early Learning Trust as a tool in workforce development, and business leaders across the country concur. James Heckman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist who studied ways to create productive workers, concluded: "The best evidence supports the policy prescription: Invest in the very young. ... Recent research in psychology and cognition demonstrates how vitally important the early preschool years are for skill formation."

The Committee for Economic Development, an organization representing more than 200 business and university leaders across the country, has called for universal preschool.

"Nearly every state faces tight budgets, forcing tough choices," writes Charles E.M. Kolb, president of the group. "In the coming year, it will be more important than ever to protect and push to expand early education programs across this nation. ... Our future depends on it."

But early childhood education has economic development advantages beyond workforce development. A statewide full-day kindergarten program suggests to prospective employers and employees that Indiana is serious about education and serious about offering comprehensive school programs.

Indiana has a bad reputation in this area. A few years ago, many families were astonished to move into the state and try to enroll their 5-year-olds in school, only to learn that the cut-off date for enrollment was June 1 -- the earliest in the nation. Because of complaints from parents, the legislature agreed to move it back to Sept. 1, phasing the change in over three years.

Indiana already is a latecomer to the early education effort. By a landslide, Florida voters approved a 2002 ballot initiative to provide preschool for every 4-year-old by the fall of 2005. Georgia is using lottery revenues to expand free preschool programs from low-income families to all families.

The fate of Kernan's Early Learning Trust rests with the Republican-controlled Senate, where its chances look dim. The excuse will be money, but politics are the real reason. Polls show that Hoosiers want full-day kindergarten. GOP lawmakers don't want Kernan to get credit for giving it to them in an election year.

Ultimately, universal preschool and full-day kindergarten will prevail.

"This is a national trend," Purdue's Elicker said. "We are eventually going to get there. It's going to happen because we all have an interest in an educated workforce. It's not going away."

Karen Francisco is an editorial writer for The Journal Gazette. She has covered education and government issues in Indiana since 1981. Her e-mail address is kfrancisco@jg.net

Karen Francisco, editorial page editor for The Journal Gazette, has been an Indiana journalist since 1981. She writes frequently about education for The Journal Gazette opinion pages and here, where she looks at the business, politics and science of learning as it relates to northeast Indiana, the state and the nation. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by e-mail at kfrancisco@jg.net.

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