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After 15 Years, How Are We Doing? (Hugh McDonald Commentary)

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Arkansas made dramatic funding increases to the Arkansas Better Chance pre-K program beginning in 2004, raising annual appropriations from $13 million annually to now $114 million. This policy change was based on widely accepted national evidence that such an investment for our at-risk children pays huge dividends to narrow the education achievement gap, reduces dropouts, increases post-secondary education, drives higher incomes and workforce participation rates, better prepares participants to be productive members of our communities and a host of other direct and indirect benefits.

I was supportive of this effort then and still am. So after more than $1 billion of increased funding has been added to the program, and requests for additional funding continue, we should understand how that increased investment is working so critical decisions can be made about the program’s strengths, weaknesses, what improvements are needed for the future and ultimately what are the costs. That’s a reasonable expectation for anyone tasked to make decisions for the future.

In life and in business, making the right decision is essential for future success. These decisions are informed by experience and understanding of what the data are telling you. If you showed me a business whose CEO and team members didn’t have data that allowed them to measure progress and make informed decisions, I’d tell you that organization was set up for failure. The larger and more complex the organization, with separate silos, egos, turfs and even conflicting goals, the more difficult aligning measures become. Too often is the case that all sorts of data are collected throughout an organization but the analytics are not organized to provide relevant, accurate or timely management decisions to continually improve.

So, where are we on objectively determining the effectiveness of our pre-K investment? The initial class of pre-K students that enrolled in the 2004-05 school year would have graduated from high school last spring. How are they doing compared to students who didn’t enroll in pre-K? Did they stay in school longer? Were their school absentee rates reduced? Did they go on to college or the workforce? Is the achievement gap closing?

These are fundamental questions for which we should know the answers to make informed decisions about program effectiveness and resource allocation decisions for the future. Without it, we are nearly blind and throwing darts at the wall.

The reality is we don’t know where those kids are today because the state’s education longitudinal tracking systems aren’t coordinated. Generally, we know that access to high-quality pre-K for low-income kids has dramatically improved, trends on education attainment are improving, and we know where Arkansas ranks on certain pre-K measures vs. other states.

But there is no way to know what happened to the pre-K students because there is no longitudinal tracking of these kids from pre-K to K-12 and beyond.

The good news is the Arkansas Department of Education has a quality longitudinal tracking system for K-12. Unfortunately, access to quality, integrated data between pre-K, K-12, postsecondary education/training and workforce participation does not exist in Arkansas as it does in other states. If we are serious about addressing inequities and improving educational outcomes, integrating these quality data analytics is essential.

While strides are being made, we can and should do more. We need quality student longitudinal data from across all the education systems to inform decision-making, drive policy, align investments, improve efficiencies and accountability and answer the question whether or not our education investments are at the right level and at the right place.

At a Data & Policy Symposium being convened in Little Rock on Thursday, stakeholders are coming together to discuss what it would take to create a comprehensive statewide data consortium that could power research, policy, practice and decision-making in educational, workforce and economic development with real-time application and longitudinal perspectives along the cradle-to-post-secondary-to-career continuum. Let’s work together and finish the job.

Hugh McDonald, former CEO of Entergy Arkansas, chairs the Arkansas Career Education & Workforce Development Board and formerly co-chaired ForwARd Arkansas’ Steering Committee. Email him at HMcDonald@ForwardArkansas.org.
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