Andrew Halcro: Pre-K advantage vital for Anchorage's economic growth

Andrew Halcro

This year, members of the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce identified education and workforce development as a top priority. With more than 92 percent of Anchorage's potential workforce attending public schools, there needs to be a greater commitment to preparing students for college or career.

One of the most widely recognized contributors to student success is pre-K education. However, early learning has its critics, who feel the program is glorified day care. Studies may show children who've had pre-K arrive better prepared for kindergarten, they say, but any advantage those students have disappears within a few years.

One of the biggest indicators of a student's chances for success in school is third-grade reading scores. Statistics show that students who cannot read at grade level fall behind their class and require more resources to remediate. Students who begin their schooling behind are also at greater risk for dropping out and costing taxpayers through corrections or other social programs.

At the beginning of the 2013-14 school year, 35 percent of Anchorage School District kindergarten students arrived on the first day of school testing below grade-level readiness. In addition, the Alaska Development Profile shows this is a statewide problem, with far too many children entering kindergarten without all of the skills and knowledge experts say is needed to be successful.

In a recent survey of 1,200 Alaskan teachers, a lack of student preparedness was identified as the biggest inhibitor to learning.

Over the last three years, the percentage of Anchorage School District parents who exposed their child to pre-school has remained stagnant, even as the complexity of teaching an increasingly diverse student population has increased. Local data shows that low-income minority students, those whose parents cannot afford pre-K, consistently score the lowest, bringing down the average for the entire school. This not only impacts the individual student, but the entire class due to the amount of resources needed to bring students up to pace.

Between 2010 and 2013, the percentage of Anchorage School District parents who reported their child attended some kind of pre-school dropped from 66 to 65 percent. During that same period, third grade reading scores remained flat. The lack of upward movement in third grade reading scores has fueled public school critics to argue that education reform needs to include funding private alternatives. However, changing the funding stream won't address the primary barrier to improved student outcomes.

Every study on a child's brain shows that during the first few years of life hundreds of new neural connections are made every second. As the child's brain matures, becoming able to execute more complex tasks, it is less capable of adapting. Studies also show a growing gap in the knowledge of words between those who have pre-K and those who don't. In some cases the difference in vocabulary can be up to 4,000 words on the first day of school.

Studies have clearly shown that if more children showed up for kindergarten ready to learn, they'd keep pace with their class. This would improve third-grade reading scores, reduce the risk of dropouts and strengthen Anchorage's workforce.

A recent survey of Anchorage Chamber of Commerce members made it clear that employers are getting frustrated. "A lack of creative thinking skills," and the "inability to clearly communicate verbally and in writing," were common responses from human resource directors. With an unemployment rate of just 4.8 percent and an aging workforce, change needs to happen now.

The research is clear that pre-K isn't glorified day care. This is a long-discarded ideology at odds with consistent scientific evidence showing that early learning is critical to improving education outcomes. pre-K helps kids show up ready to learn.

There are endless possibilities for the delivery of an effective pre-K experience from a mix of private and public providers. If we shed the misinformation about pre-K and focus on the data, a skilled and educated workforce for Anchorage's employers should be one result.

Andrew Halcro is president of the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce.

Andrew Halcro
Anchorage Business