What We Talk About When We Talk About the Achievement Gap

What We Talk About When We Talk About the Achievement Gap

Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

San Diego Unified students appear on stage during the State of the School District address in October.

San Diego Unified Superintendent Cindy Marten has a dream. A dream where one day all students will have equitable access to educational opportunities, no matter the color of their skin. Where they will be judged not by the score of their tests, but by what they can contribute to society.

But for San Diego Unified, as it is for large urban districts nationwide, that dream is a beautiful phantom — one cloaked in noble ideals and opposing socioeconomic forces.

We poked fun at some of the feel-good moments in Marten’s state of the district address. But in fairness, Marten broached a very serious and complicated topic: the racial divide between students who succeed and those who struggle.

Marten, who’s been openly skeptical of using test scores as the key measure of academic progress, said it’s important to use assessments as a “flashlight” to illuminate what’s working and what’s not.

“When we look at what’s happened in San Diego Unified, we have much to celebrate. We can boast about our graduation rate — 87 percent. Highest rate in the state. That’s something to celebrate,” she said in the address.

“And we need to be honest with ourselves and say, ‘but in that number, only 64 percent graduation rate for our English-learners. That’s data we need to pay attention to. Or 54 percent graduation rates for our special education students,” she said.

Alberto Ochoa, a professor emeritus at San Diego State University who’s researched student achievement and school desegregation, said “in its most basic sense, the achievement gap refers to those who are making it and those who are not.”

The problem, he said, is that the achievement gap is a complicated issue surrounded by a lot of “fuzziness” about what it means and how we should address it.

Marten said in the address that starting in December she and top administrators will be holding “data dialogues” to discuss attendance rates, suspension rates and the academic performance of student “subgroups” that are lagging behind.

In the coming weeks, we’ll also explore the possible roots of the disparities in the district, but for now it’s helpful to unpack some of what we’re actually talking about when we talk about the achievement gap.

Test Scores

Based on California Department of Education numbers from 2011-2012, the most recent year with complete data, many of the racial disparities in the district can be summarized like this: White and Asian students have been on the positive side of the statistics, while Hispanic, black and American Indian students fare worse.

While the state has since nixed the California Standards Test and is preparing for a new formal assessment, test scores from that year show us that only 21 percent of Latino students and 17 percent of black students tested proficient or better on their 11th grade math sections.

Compare that with the 76 percent of Chinese students and 47 percent of white students who tested proficient or better in those sections.

Graduation

At first blush, the graduation rates for students in the San Diego Unified School District are impressive. Overall, about 87 percent of students graduate on time.

Even graduation rates for black and Latino males, two subgroups that traditionally lag behind in achievement data, graduate at 79 percent and 76 percent, respectively.

But if we take a closer look, and consider the number of students who graduate prepared to enter the University of California system, we start to see some separation.

While students across the county and state scored poorly on this measure, only 1 in 5 Latino and American Indian males, respectively, met University of California admission standards when they graduated from San Diego Unified in 2011. The district average was about twice as good.

Dropouts

The flipside to graduation rates, of course, is dropout rates. And for Ochoa, this is where the “fuzziness” that prevents us from tackling the achievement gap is most evident.

After all these years, he said, California still lacks a precise way of tracking which students leave the system.

Here’s some of what we do know: Overall, the district had a 6.2 percent dropout rate in the 2011-2012 school year. The rate for Latino males, who had the highest dropout rate, was over twice that. The rate for black males wasn’t much better, at 8.6 percent.

From Ochoa’s perspective, it’s also important to talk about two different ways students can stop participating in the education system.

“There are the explicit dropouts,” he said, “those who just stop going to school. And the implicit dropouts — those who stay because they have no place else to go. They just survive.”

Ochoa said there are no Band-Aid solutions to keeping kids in schools, or any quick fixes for the achievement gap.

“It might take 50 years to solve (the problems)” he said. “We might never solve them. But if we truly believe in equal access to education, we could provide support and interventions for students from the time they enter kindergarten.”

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Mario Koran

Mario Koran

Mario reports on hospitals, nonprofits and educational institutions, digging into their impact on the greater San Diego community. Reach him directly at 619.325.0531, or by email: mario@vosd.org.

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43 comments
Omar Passons
Omar Passons

This is a helpful starting place and I hope to see Voice of San Diego really dig in on the foundational issues because there is a ton of rhetoric that doesn't match the data. I'm no expert, but fortunately this county has Sandra MacBrayer, who is, and the City Heights Partnership for Children. The local United Way held a forum on education earlier in the month and I took the photo below. The guy in the photo is Tad Parzen, who runs the City Heights Partnership for Children and is doing some very important work. But if we are going to talk about achievement gaps, please notice the presentation slide behind him. And here's a link to the work they are doing, a cradle to career approach that puts everyone involved inside and outside of the classroom on the same team for these kids: http://www.chpfc.org/resources/Resourceshttp://www.chpfc.org/resources/The estimated average annual incarceration costs of California's 3.8 million dropouts would decline by $374 per person had they graduated from high school, a potential cost savings of more than $1.4 billion.

Omar Passons
Omar Passons subscribermember

This is a helpful starting place and I hope to see Voice of San Diego really dig in on the foundational issues because there is a ton of rhetoric that doesn't match the data. I'm no expert, but fortunately this county has Sandra MacBrayer, who is, and the City Heights Partnership for Children. The local United Way held a forum on education earlier in the month and I took the photo below. The guy in the photo is Tad Parzen, who runs the City Heights Partnership for Children and is doing some very important work. But if we are going to talk about achievement gaps, please notice the presentation slide behind him. And here's a link to the work they are doing, a cradle to career approach that puts everyone involved inside and outside of the classroom on the same team for these kids: http://www.chpfc.org/resources/Resourceshttp://www.chpfc.org/resources/The estimated average annual incarceration costs of California's 3.8 million dropouts would decline by $374 per person had they graduated from high school, a potential cost savings of more than $1.4 billion.

James Wilson
James Wilson

It is good that Cindy is going to review the differences in achievement. It is clear from the chatter below that there is a great deal of ignorance in education generally and specifically in evaluation. There is a bell shaped curve and half the kids are below average. These kids are not going to get into any four year college-period. The actual statistical deviation is higher for success in college. About a third of high school students will go on and graduate from a four year college. However, in an urban district like San Diego, that proportion will be far less.

The dropout proportion nationally is thirty percent and forty percent in urban school districts so The San Diego numbers are suspect. Since the super majority of kids will never graduate from a four year college, programs like career academies make the most sense. They graduate 90-95 percent of their kids, all with an employable skill.
If you are interested in career academies, Please buy my book, Disposable Youth: Education or Incarceration? on Amazon. One last item is preschool. There are numerous replicated studies on the beneficial impact of preschool on poverty children.
James C. Wilson, Ed.D.

James Wilson
James Wilson subscriber

It is good that Cindy is going to review the differences in achievement. It is clear from the chatter below that there is a great deal of ignorance in education generally and specifically in evaluation. There is a bell shaped curve and half the kids are below average. These kids are not going to get into any four year college-period. The actual statistical deviation is higher for success in college. About a third of high school students will go on and graduate from a four year college. However, in an urban district like San Diego, that proportion will be far less.

The dropout proportion nationally is thirty percent and forty percent in urban school districts so The San Diego numbers are suspect. Since the super majority of kids will never graduate from a four year college, programs like career academies make the most sense. They graduate 90-95 percent of their kids, all with an employable skill.
If you are interested in career academies, Please buy my book, Disposable Youth: Education or Incarceration? on Amazon. One last item is preschool. There are numerous replicated studies on the beneficial impact of preschool on poverty children.
James C. Wilson, Ed.D.

VeronicaCorningstone
VeronicaCorningstone

Wow, there's a lot of commentary blaming the families or "culture" of underachieving students (or poor teachering, or social promotion, or whatever ax you have to grind). This data is important so that educators can identify at-risk students and do some early intervention. The achievement gap is disturbing, and I am glad the district is tackling it.
Thank you, Mr. Ochoa, for this sentiment: "But if we truly believe in equal access to education, we could provide support and interventions for students from the time they enter kindergarten.”

VeronicaCorningstone
VeronicaCorningstone subscriber

Wow, there's a lot of commentary blaming the families or "culture" of underachieving students (or poor teachering, or social promotion, or whatever ax you have to grind). This data is important so that educators can identify at-risk students and do some early intervention. The achievement gap is disturbing, and I am glad the district is tackling it.
Thank you, Mr. Ochoa, for this sentiment: "But if we truly believe in equal access to education, we could provide support and interventions for students from the time they enter kindergarten.”

JLDodd
JLDodd

If you look into the "gap" you find that it tracks the average IQ of the groups (B,H, W, & A). When the progressive educates noticed how low the Bs scored they stopped recording the IQ scores for that group. When I was serving in the Navy we grouped our sailors by the military version of IQ into five groups. The outcomes mirrored what San Diego Unified gets too, and we spent a sh*tpot (technical term) of money trying to fix the IQ distributions. No amount of federal money fixed that, and no amount of state money will either…jim dodd

Bit-watcher
Bit-watcher

Pointing simply at race is disingenuous (but will play well to Western society's penchant for objective guilt). If parents don't care about their kids' education, yes, society will pay. How to fix that? Rap the parents over their knuckles with a ruler? If the society folks come from doesn't care about education, how to fix that? If society has been encouraging single-parent families, then society will pay (and is paying).

Bit-watcher
Bit-watcher subscriber

Pointing simply at race is disingenuous (but will play well to Western society's penchant for objective guilt). If parents don't care about their kids' education, yes, society will pay. How to fix that? Rap the parents over their knuckles with a ruler? If the society folks come from doesn't care about education, how to fix that? If society has been encouraging single-parent families, then society will pay (and is paying).

shawn fox
shawn fox

Of course kids with parents who care about their education, will perform better but that doesn't excuse teachers from doing their jobs. Teachers within a particular school, that are teaching the same students can be measured against each other. You don't measure performance by comparing teachers in La Jolla vs. teachers in a struggling school. You compare the results of teachers who are all working with kids from the same community. Moreover, you don't try to protect teachers when they clearly aren't doing their job or when they are involved in illegal activities. Firing a teacher for behavioral problems needs to be easier; plain and simple. Implementing teacher performance measurement is just as easy as it is for any other profession, but the unions always try to make it seem impossible. It really isn't that hard.

shawn fox
shawn fox subscriber

Of course kids with parents who care about their education, will perform better but that doesn't excuse teachers from doing their jobs. Teachers within a particular school, that are teaching the same students can be measured against each other. You don't measure performance by comparing teachers in La Jolla vs. teachers in a struggling school. You compare the results of teachers who are all working with kids from the same community. Moreover, you don't try to protect teachers when they clearly aren't doing their job or when they are involved in illegal activities. Firing a teacher for behavioral problems needs to be easier; plain and simple. Implementing teacher performance measurement is just as easy as it is for any other profession, but the unions always try to make it seem impossible. It really isn't that hard.

Erik Bruvold
Erik Bruvold

In a fantasy world in which Cindy Martens chooses to speak truth to power she would highlight the pernicious (and one might say EVIL) system of "post-and-bid" in SDUSD. For those that do not know, "post and bid" is a provision in the collective bargaining agreement that governs how vacancies are filled. The result is experienced teachers are in a much better position to fill vacancies over the objection of principals who, to avoid that, have to "game the system? Guess what, teachers with limited experience almost always can be found in struggling schools - often "south of 8" while more experienced teachers migrate to suburban schools in La Jolla, Scripps, and Tierrasanta. In a better world, post and bid would be torn from the contract and principals would fill their own staff. All teachers should be allowed to apply, but principals should have the power to ultimately decided and in SDUSD in particular we need to end a system which encourages teachers to receive their On the job training at schools most in need of experienced and high-quality instructors.

Erik Bruvold
Erik Bruvold subscribermember

In a fantasy world in which Cindy Martens chooses to speak truth to power she would highlight the pernicious (and one might say EVIL) system of "post-and-bid" in SDUSD. For those that do not know, "post and bid" is a provision in the collective bargaining agreement that governs how vacancies are filled. The result is experienced teachers are in a much better position to fill vacancies over the objection of principals who, to avoid that, have to "game the system? Guess what, teachers with limited experience almost always can be found in struggling schools - often "south of 8" while more experienced teachers migrate to suburban schools in La Jolla, Scripps, and Tierrasanta. In a better world, post and bid would be torn from the contract and principals would fill their own staff. All teachers should be allowed to apply, but principals should have the power to ultimately decided and in SDUSD in particular we need to end a system which encourages teachers to receive their On the job training at schools most in need of experienced and high-quality instructors.

richard brick
richard brick

Hello Oscar, I feel that the achievement gap starts in the home and how the parents feel about education. Are their kids ready for Kindergarten, do the parents read to their children? In some cultures work and earning money are far more important than education. In some cultures education is the top priority. Unlike Jim Jones, who has never said anything good about a teacher, I feel the gap rests with the parents and what priority is placed on education.

One comment on evaluating teachers and test scores. Why aren't the parents and students held accountable for their test scores.? As of today only teachers and administrators are held accountable.

richard brick
richard brick subscribermember

Hello Oscar, I feel that the achievement gap starts in the home and how the parents feel about education. Are their kids ready for Kindergarten, do the parents read to their children? In some cultures work and earning money are far more important than education. In some cultures education is the top priority. Unlike Jim Jones, who has never said anything good about a teacher, I feel the gap rests with the parents and what priority is placed on education.

One comment on evaluating teachers and test scores. Why aren't the parents and students held accountable for their test scores.? As of today only teachers and administrators are held accountable.

Oscar Ramos
Oscar Ramos

"Compare that with the 76 percent of Chinese students and 47 percent of white students who tested proficient or better in those sections."

Do we have a breakdown of all Asian groups by national origin? I wonder if Chinese students are performing better than other Asian groups who have immigrated to the US under for challenging situations (refugees from Southeast Asia).

We should also look at the breakdown by income, immigration cohort, and parental education within all of these racial/ethnic groups. Looking at achievement levels by race and ethnicity while ignoring these other relevant subgroups is going to lead people to conclude that achievement is the result of racial/ethnic culture, which I think is the wrong conclusion to draw. If people earn more and schools have programs to guide students through the college application process, students will achieve at a higher level, regardless of race.

Oscar Ramos
Oscar Ramos subscribermember

"Compare that with the 76 percent of Chinese students and 47 percent of white students who tested proficient or better in those sections."

Do we have a breakdown of all Asian groups by national origin? I wonder if Chinese students are performing better than other Asian groups who have immigrated to the US under for challenging situations (refugees from Southeast Asia).

We should also look at the breakdown by income, immigration cohort, and parental education within all of these racial/ethnic groups. Looking at achievement levels by race and ethnicity while ignoring these other relevant subgroups is going to lead people to conclude that achievement is the result of racial/ethnic culture, which I think is the wrong conclusion to draw. If people earn more and schools have programs to guide students through the college application process, students will achieve at a higher level, regardless of race.

Jim Jones
Jim Jones

Heck, all we need is more "credit recovery" and everyone can graduate 12th grade with a 7th grade education!

Jim Jones
Jim Jones subscriber

Heck, all we need is more "credit recovery" and everyone can graduate 12th grade with a 7th grade education!

Kirk E
Kirk E

Looking at the numbers, it's clear that there is a "cultural gap" that contributes to them, and one people who fear political correctness will not bring up. Curing the effects of this gap will not be easy since it starts in the home.

Catherine Green
Catherine Green

I'm sorry. I take issue with a parallel you've drawn here: that single parents, by nature, across the board, doom their children achievement-wise to the same degree as those who don't value education at all.

Catherine Green
Catherine Green

Dan Quayle called - he wants his dated opinions back.

shawn fox
shawn fox

They are Richard. If you don't do well in school, and if you don't graduate then chances are that your earning potential significantly decrease. People are certainly held accountable for not putting their all into "free" education opportunities. Tell me what else you would like to do to those students who you don't think try hard enough. I'm finding your statement to be very illogical.

Jim Jones
Jim Jones

Teachers and administrators are certainly not held accountable. I have long spoken against social promotion among the students, where they are not held accountable to actually learn the material, nor are they put in at their grade level, and that needs to be fixed, but more pressing is actual accountability for teachers on an individual basis. Every teacher should have a publicly accessible record of the student test scores entering and leaving their classes.

You can't hold parents responsible when they have no idea if the teacher their kid has is up to the job or not. It only takes oone bad teacher and one social promotion following the bad teacher to snowball into a kid who fails, even if they graduate.

shawn fox
shawn fox subscriber

They are Richard. If you don't do well in school, and if you don't graduate then chances are that your earning potential significantly decrease. People are certainly held accountable for not putting their all into "free" education opportunities. Tell me what else you would like to do to those students who you don't think try hard enough. I'm finding your statement to be very illogical.

Jim Jones
Jim Jones subscriber

Teachers and administrators are certainly not held accountable. I have long spoken against social promotion among the students, where they are not held accountable to actually learn the material, nor are they put in at their grade level, and that needs to be fixed, but more pressing is actual accountability for teachers on an individual basis. Every teacher should have a publicly accessible record of the student test scores entering and leaving their classes.

You can't hold parents responsible when they have no idea if the teacher their kid has is up to the job or not. It only takes oone bad teacher and one social promotion following the bad teacher to snowball into a kid who fails, even if they graduate.

Mario Koran
Mario Koran

Hi, Oscar. That's a good point. Math scores, for Asian 11th grade students who took the CST in 2011, would be 56 percent. To parse out Chinese students might have given an impression that I didn't intend to give. My reason for including Chinese student scores, however, was so that we could see more of the range in scores.

Oscar Ramos
Oscar Ramos

But why wait to measure teacher performance when kids are already lagging when they get to high school? Kids aren't born with an achievement gap. That gap manifests itself at the earliest stages of the educational system. Target and monitor the gap at the earliest stages and we save ourselves a lot of money and effort when they hit high school. That doesn't mean you let high school teachers off the hook, but it does mean we should create programs that address the gap when the kids are in pre-school.

Jim Jones
Jim Jones

We should look at individual teacher performance first and foremost, and leave the race blaming for later.

Oscar Ramos
Oscar Ramos subscribermember

But why wait to measure teacher performance when kids are already lagging when they get to high school? Kids aren't born with an achievement gap. That gap manifests itself at the earliest stages of the educational system. Target and monitor the gap at the earliest stages and we save ourselves a lot of money and effort when they hit high school. That doesn't mean you let high school teachers off the hook, but it does mean we should create programs that address the gap when the kids are in pre-school.

Jim Jones
Jim Jones subscriber

We should look at individual teacher performance first and foremost, and leave the race blaming for later.

Leah Placido Dutra
Leah Placido Dutra

Head Start's own data shows achievement is the same by 3rd grade. Many of the studies cited to push public pre-school are limited to high risk kids from extreme situations like having addict/criminal parents, and others have limited, real academic, scientific value. I am a child development teacher and it is not rocket-science, very simple theory, relatively little cutting edge research or huge shifts in best practices. It IS an art, either you are DiVinci or you are not, no amount of mentoring/management/professional development/continuing education can make it so, it can only foster a natural talent. Plaguing the field with further regulation and state mandates has already made it less functional. Preschool for all will only serve to pollute the profession with crap teachers who can never be fired, far more dangerous for young kids who are more vulnerable to abuse. You can be an extrmemely effective CD teacher without a BA/masters or earning a huge union wage. The money and policy focus should be spent on helping parents who are poor access childcare for their kids while they pursue further education. Research consistently shows the better educated mom and dad are, the better the child will do academically. Money also would well be spent requiring high school kids to take a child development course, making them better and more effective parents in the future and possibly using this knowledge to improve their own family.

Oscar Ramos
Oscar Ramos

According to The Wall St. Journal, "Many Oklahoma children now arrive in elementary school so well prepared that some districts have overhauled their kindergarten curricula."

http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887324539404578342514090722542

The idea is that instead of waiting until kids start falling behind, Oklahoma has bolstered early-age programs so that schools can eventually raise academic expectations as kids progress through k-12 since fewer kid will need remedial attention.

We wouldn't need as many expensive high school intervention programs if we prevented kids from falling behind in the first place, and we would probably save money in the long-term when a more educated population is healthier and not getting into prison as often.Public Preschool's Test Casehttp://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887324539404578342514090722542When President Barack Obama unveiled plans to vastly expand preschool access across the U.S., he singled out Oklahoma as a model-a state that shows the promise and the challenges of the undertaking. In 1998, Oklahoma lawmakers passed one of the natio...

Oscar Ramos
Oscar Ramos

Jim, I agree with you on that point. Rather than dilute our requirements when kids reach high school with academic deficiencies, I think we should have programs that develop students' academic and social skills at the earliest stages so that low-income students don't start school already lagging behind kids who are born into families with educated, wealthier parents.

Oscar Ramos
Oscar Ramos subscribermember

According to The Wall St. Journal, "Many Oklahoma children now arrive in elementary school so well prepared that some districts have overhauled their kindergarten curricula."

http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887324539404578342514090722542

The idea is that instead of waiting until kids start falling behind, Oklahoma has bolstered early-age programs so that schools can eventually raise academic expectations as kids progress through k-12 since fewer kid will need remedial attention.

We wouldn't need as many expensive high school intervention programs if we prevented kids from falling behind in the first place, and we would probably save money in the long-term when a more educated population is healthier and not getting into prison as often.Public Preschool's Test Casehttp://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887324539404578342514090722542When President Barack Obama unveiled plans to vastly expand preschool access across the U.S., he singled out Oklahoma as a model-a state that shows the promise and the challenges of the undertaking. In 1998, Oklahoma lawmakers passed one of the natio...

Oscar Ramos
Oscar Ramos subscribermember

Jim, I agree with you on that point. Rather than dilute our requirements when kids reach high school with academic deficiencies, I think we should have programs that develop students' academic and social skills at the earliest stages so that low-income students don't start school already lagging behind kids who are born into families with educated, wealthier parents.

Bit-watcher
Bit-watcher subscriber

No need to be rude. If you have something meaningful to contribute, state it. As one of the editors at VOSD, I would expect better of you.

One of the difficulties with some populations is having children surpass the the educational achievements of their parents. How do you solve that, especially when parents happen to not particularly care about education?

shawn fox
shawn fox

Teachers are paid professionals with excellent pay and benefits. It is their job to teach, and to teach well. Trying to blame kids for the failure of schools is pretty ridiculous. Teachers are supposed to be motivational leaders. That is why we pay them.

shawn fox
shawn fox subscriber

Teachers are paid professionals with excellent pay and benefits. It is their job to teach, and to teach well. Trying to blame kids for the failure of schools is pretty ridiculous. Teachers are supposed to be motivational leaders. That is why we pay them.

Jim Jones
Jim Jones

For every link you have that shows it works, I can post one that shows it doesn't:

Giving kids a "head start" doesn't mean anything when they end up in the same K-12 that fails them now. The "head start" ends up being meaningless.

http://www.texaspolicy.com/center/education-policy/opinions/pre-k-fails-perform
http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2009/05/does-universal-preschool-improve-learning-lessons-from-georgia-and-oklahomaPre-K Fails to Performhttp://www.texaspolicy.com/center/education-policy/opinions/pre-k-fails-performResearch has shown preschool can actually hinder social development, especially for children from the poorest families.

Jim Jones
Jim Jones

Sorry Oscar, I can't agree with you there, if you are referring to public preschool programs. I have not seen any evidence that they address the issues that hold these kids back in K-12, and honestly, the first few grades of school are not academically difficult, all students should be leveled out by the end of first grade if they have good schools and teachers.

It seems to me the drive to put preschool under public union control is more about power and money than about education.

Jim Jones
Jim Jones subscriber

For every link you have that shows it works, I can post one that shows it doesn't:

Giving kids a "head start" doesn't mean anything when they end up in the same K-12 that fails them now. The "head start" ends up being meaningless.

http://www.texaspolicy.com/center/education-policy/opinions/pre-k-fails-perform
http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2009/05/does-universal-preschool-improve-learning-lessons-from-georgia-and-oklahomaPre-K Fails to Performhttp://www.texaspolicy.com/center/education-policy/opinions/pre-k-fails-performResearch has shown preschool can actually hinder social development, especially for children from the poorest families.

Jim Jones
Jim Jones subscriber

Sorry Oscar, I can't agree with you there, if you are referring to public preschool programs. I have not seen any evidence that they address the issues that hold these kids back in K-12, and honestly, the first few grades of school are not academically difficult, all students should be leveled out by the end of first grade if they have good schools and teachers.

It seems to me the drive to put preschool under public union control is more about power and money than about education.