The Seattle Times has a great article in today’s paper on racial disproportionality in outcomes for kids in the Seattle School District. The article talks about efforts to change things and makes a point that well-meaning approaches if not carried out with rigor and consistency over time don’t have much impact. The data series in the article starts at 3rd grade. I totally agree that the district needs to have a substantial strategy focused on improving outcomes for children who start out behind. The Times should keep digging into the effectiveness of what the district does, and also into the effectiveness of all the districts in the area, all of whom have the same problem, albeit to greater or lesser degrees.
What the entire article misses is the most effective long-term way to approach the problem. The white kids in Seattle are much more likely to be more economically advantaged than children of color, and are consequently much more likely to have access to high quality preschool. The chart to the left shows the scores in the Seattle School District on an assessment Washington State does for every entering Kindergartner broken down by race and ethnicity. These kids are 5 years old and you can see significant differences in their development.
You can play around with the data and look up your own district by clicking on the chart, or clicking here, which takes you to an OSPI website with the full data set for all the kids in the state. There are some weirdnesses with the data based on the rollout schedule of all-day kindergarten which tilts the data to underreport higher income kids. This will work itself out in the next few years.
Only about 28% of kids below 110% of the federal poverty level (about 20% of the three and four-year-olds in the state) will meet all six metrics on the WAKIDS assessment. If they have two years of ECEAP, Washington’s high-quality state-run preschool program, about 67% will meet that same metric. I’m using slightly different measures than the chart above from OSPI so the numbers are not directly comparable. This is because I’m writing this on a Sunday and don’t have access to all the data in the office to make them line up, but they’re similar.
In the chart to the right you still see racial disparities (that we are working on eliminating) but you can see that “Black 4-year-olds” do better than “All 4-year-olds.” This is black 4-year-olds who are below 110% of the federal poverty level and had ECEAP, compared to all income 4-year-olds who might or might not have had preschool. This is the power of high quality preschool. You can see the entire 2016-17 outcome report for ECEAP here.
What if low-income kids could have the same access to high-quality preschool that their higher-income friends do? Seattle is embarked on a journey to find out and I think it will make a tremendous difference. This is not a cheap strategy – but spending the money early can result in long-term savings in special education and other costs to the system presented by kids who are not ready. The anecdotal stories we hear from kindergarten teachers who all of a sudden get a wave of kids who are all ready to succeed are both uplifting and helpful. They say that they can teach to the entire class, without having some kids two or more years behind other kids. Everyone does better.
You can get buried in this data and lose perspective easily. If all you do is look at costs to the system you can forget the moral imperative we have to ensure that all kids have access to what they need educationally to be successful in the world. Fortunately the data wonks and the moral imperative people come to the same outcome – we should invest in more high-quality preschool for kids that need it.
Seattle (and all the other school districts in the state) should absolutely focus on what they can do to ensure that outcomes for kids are not pre-determined by the race and family income of kids entering the system. I particularly agree with the no-expulsion policy.