On September 6, 2017, an article on the front page of the Arizona Daily Star broadcast the disappointing news that TUSD and Sunnyside students performed well below the state average on the AzMERIT, the state’s standardized test of English language arts (ELA) and math. Statewide, 39 percent of students passed the ELA portion of the test administered last spring, while 40 percent of students passed the math portion. For TUSD, the comparable figures were 28 and 29 percent respectively; in Sunnyside, which scored the lowest of any of Pima County’s nine major districts, the percentages were 23 and 27.
Obviously, there are many possible reasons for these results (e.g., a high proportion of English language learners, a lack of resources, the possibility that curriculum is not aligned with the test). But another significant factor may be the lack of access to high-quality preschool. Studies have shown that enrollment in high-quality pre-K programs can improve children’s early language, literacy, and mathematics skills, but only 16% of Tucson’s three- and four-year-olds attend high-quality early education. Those whose families cannot afford preschool may be lagging behind before they even start. And then remediation becomes necessary.
The superintendents of both school districts immediately announced plans for improving students’ performance on the AzMERIT. For example, TUSD Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo said the district will emphasize teacher training, provide special guided instruction for K-3 students who are falling behind in math or language arts, and implement programs for middle and high school students who need additional assistance.
These are worthwhile remedies, but remediation costs money, to say nothing about the personal cost to students of lower self-esteem, feelings of failure, and alienation from school. Waiting until students have fallen behind just doesn’t make sense. We all know the homily, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” and it certainly applies here. Strong Start Tucson will provide scholarships to 8000 children who otherwise would not be able to afford preschool. If we pay now so children can reap the benefits of preschool, we are less likely to have to pay later for remediation.
Emerita Professor of Early Childhood/Elementary Education
Rutgers Graduate School of Education