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As an outsider, I would never tell Mississippians how to run their state and public education system.

But as a native Tennessean—that makes me a neighbor and fellow Southerner—and a researcher on the achievement gap, I’d ask my friends in the Magnolia State (and in the 10 other states that do not offer public pre-K programs) to consider how much better off they would be if they finally gave early childhood education the attention it deserves.

Michael T. Nettles

Another neighboring state shows what can be accomplished. Oklahoma only began its statewide pre-K program in 1998. Its model uses public schools andprivate providers such as churches, day-care centers, and community organizations. And it works.

Oklahoma currently ranks second nationally for access to public pre-K. The state spends about $3,500 a year on each four-year-old in the state’s pre-K program, which has been judged by the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University to meet nine of 10 quality benchmarks. The program costs the state about $133 million a year, which may sound like a lot. But it enrolls most of the state’s four-year-olds, about 74 percent, giving it consistently one of the highest enrollment rates for a state pre-K program in the nation.

And the state is receiving returns on that investment many times over.

Without a longitudinal tracking system it’s virtually impossible to link student achievement in school directly with preschool programs. But the signs for Oklahoma are promising. In 2011, the state had a higher percentage of fourth-graders performing at the Basic  level in math than the nation and the South, according to an analysis by the Southern Regional Education Board of data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

In addition, the state’s American Indian, black and Hispanic fourth-graders narrowed achievement gaps numerically with white students in reading from 2002. And the state has higher high school graduation rates than the region and the nation as a whole.

It makes sense on many levels for Mississippi to follow a path similar to Oklahoma’s. For one, the state has a high percentage of low-wealth black residents comparable to the high percentage of low-wealth native Americans in Oklahoma.

Too many poor children, many of them black and male, lack access to high-quality education from birth to age 5. Mississippi has the nation’s highest percentage of its population comprising young black boys. Imagine how that state’s economy and quality of life might change with much-improved educational opportunities for minority toddlers and youth.

As a researcher, I’ve found that much of our work to narrow achievement gaps between black males and their white and Asian—and female—peers should focus on eliminating or compensating for poverty and economic/financial deprivation. Poor people need education the most; they receive the least.

In fact, narrowing the achievement gaps between poor and rich people—and African-Americans and their peers of other racial/ethnic backgrounds—has happened before.

For instance, my colleagues and I at ETS found that the black-white achievement gap narrowed greatly in reading and math from the early 1970s to the late 1980s: A 39-point gap in reading decreased to an 18-point gap for 13-year-olds on the NAEP.  A 53-point gap decreased to a 20-point gap for 17-year-old students. Why did this happen? As researchers, we were not certain but possible reasons include school desegregation and some fixing of inequalities in school curricula of that era.

Since then, however, the narrowing of achievement gaps has stalled and indeed, the gaps have grown somewhat. Between 1988 and the late 1990s, an 18-point gap in reading increased to 29 points for 13-year-old students on NAEP, for example. There are many reasons for that change, including growing socio-economic disparities between black students and other student groups.  In fact, socioeconomic status is mainly why the achievement gap exists—not because of skin color. Research also now gives us more details about why many black students’ achievement has stalled, including disadvantages in vocabulary development and a lack of high-quality after-school programs and extracurricular activities.

High quality pre-schools that emphasize academic learning of numeracy, literacy and science, and non-cognitive social and emotional development and executive functioning, should contribute to leveling the playing field for socioeconomically disadvantaged students when they enter school.

Benefits of early childhood education
Mississippi early education students

If buttressed with high-quality elementary schools, curricula and teaching and learning, high-quality pre-school education for disadvantaged children offers the best hope for closing achievement gaps in early elementary grades and on 3rd and 4th grade assessments. There is also growing evidence from the National Institute for Early Education Research and others that high-quality pre-schools that yield better educated students contribute ultimately to more valuable economic outcomes and more productive citizens who contribute to local, state and national economies.

But I’d argue none of this is possible unless we take reasonable actions to improve children’s early learning. This only makes good sense, and it’s an action Mississippi can take immediately.

We can narrow the achievement gap. Indeed, history tells us it’s possible and  some promising signs have emerged in in recent years. We must seize this opportunity to improve education quality and reduce achievement gaps by telling our elected representatives how important it is to all of us.

And to my former neighbors in Mississippi: Push your leaders to solve this. Most people regardless of political party agree that good preschool helps children, families and our communities.

Michael T. Nettles is the senior vice president and the Edmund W. Gordon chair of the Educational Testing Service’s Policy Evaluation & Research Center in Princeton, N.J. A native of Nashville, Tenn., he graduated from the University of Tennessee and earned his master’s and Ph.D. degrees at Iowa State University.

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