The research says high quality preschool does benefit kids

October 21, 2014

In a response for the Washington Post Answer Sheet, Steve Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research deconstructs a new Cato Institute policy brief by David J. Armor, professor emeritus of public policy at George Mason University, who also has a piece on washingtonpost.com arguing his position under the headline “We have no idea if universal preschool actually helps kids.” We do know. It does. Here are some excerpts from the post, which can be read in its entirety here, outlining what the research really says:

First, if one really believes that today’s preschool programs are much less effective than the Perry Preschool and Abecedarian programs because those programs were so much more costly and intensive, and started earlier, then the logical conclusion is that today’s programs should be better funded, more intensive, and start earlier. I would agree. Head Start needs to be put on steroids. New Jersey’s Abbott pre-K model (discussed later) starts at 3 and provides a guide as it has been found to have solid long-term effects on achievement and school success. Given the high rates of return estimated for the Perry and Abecedarian programs, it is economically foolish not to move ahead with stronger programs.

Blog set 3Second, Armor’s claims regarding flaws in the regression discontinuity (RD) studies of pre-K programs in New Jersey, Tulsa, Boston, and elsewhere are purely hypothetical and unsubstantiated. Every research study has limitations and potential weaknesses, including experiments. It is not enough to simply speculate about possible flaws; one must assess how likely they are to matter. (See the extended post for more details.)

Third, the evidence that Armor relies on to argue that Head Start and Tennessee pre-K have no long-term effects is not experimental. It’s akin to the evidence from the Chicago Longitudinal Study and other quasi-experimental studies that he disregards when they find persistent impacts. Bartik points to serious methodological concerns with this research. Even more disconcerting is Armor’s failure to recognize the import of all the evidence he cites from the Tennessee study. Tennessee has both a larger experimental study and a smaller quasi-experimental substudy. The larger experiment finds that pre-K reduces subsequent grade retention, from 8% to 4%. The smaller quasi-experimental substudy Armor cites as proof of fade-out finds a much smaller reduction from 6% to 4%. Armor fails to grasp that this indicates serious downward bias in the quasi-experimental substudy or that both approaches find a large subsequent impact on grade retention, contradicting his claim of fade-out.

Among the many additional errors in Armor’s review I address 3 that I find particularly egregious. First, he miscalculates cost. Second, he misses much of the most rigorous evidence. And, third he misrepresents the New Jersey Abbott pre-K programs and its impacts. (See the extended post for more details.)

When a reviewer calls for policy makers to hold off on a policy decision because more research is needed, one might assume that he had considered all the relevant research. However, Armor’s review omits much of the relevant research. (See the extended post for more details.)

Those who want an even more comprehensive assessment of the flaws in Armor’s review can turn to Tim Bartik’s blog post and a paper NIEER released last year, as little of Armor’s argument is new. For a more thorough review of the evidence regarding the benefits of preschool I recommend the NIEER papers and WSIPP papers already cited and a recent review by an array of distinguished researchers in child development policy.

If all the evidence is taken into account, I believe that policy makers from across the political spectrum will come to the conclusion that high-quality pre-K is indeed a sound public investment.

–Steve Barnett, NIEER Director


If Everyone Wants Preschool, Why Isn’t It Growing?

October 21, 2014

This entry is cross-posted to The National Journal’s Education Insiders blog in response to the prompt “If Everyone Wants Preschool, Why Isn’t It Growing” from Fawn Johnson:

What catalyst is needed to dramatically grow preschool enrollment? Why has it stalled? What can state and city governments do to increase enrollment? Does it matter what kind of preschool kids enroll in? Should preschool enrollment be required, as K-12 is? Should lower-income households get priority when preschool slots are limited?

As always, Fawn Johnson poses insightful, but difficult, questions. One reason that preschool policy has not advanced more successfully despite overwhelming popular support is that those who oppose it wield considerable clout. Opponents across political leanings often assert that no public money should be used to help the middle class, though research shows that children of all income levels can benefit. Special interests of all stripes prioritize their needs over those of young children generally, and researchers and advocates are forced to set the research record straight.

Also, politicians are adept at giving the appearance of more support than they actually deliver. Very few voters have direct experiences that would help them sort out truth from fiction in this regard.Children with potted plants

Increasing public awareness is the primary reason that NIEER publishes an annual state-by-state review of preschool policy. Even so we encounter considerable difficulty setting the record straight, as politicians seek to confuse the electorate with their own media strategies. They introduce bills supporting preschool that they have no intention of passing. They propose budgets and spending plans that never fully materialize. They authorize expenditures in excess of appropriations and cut budgets mid-year. Final tallies are rarely released with the fanfare that accompanies all of the initial proclamations of support. And, all too many politicians are not above simply misstating the facts.

Finally, the impact of the Great Recession should not be underestimated. More than anything else, it took the wind out of the preschool movement’s sails. The recovery has been slow, but as revenues rise at local, state, and federal levels we can expect to see the growing support for preschool programs manifest in expansions of both enrollment and quality.

- Steve Barnett, NIEER Director


Overcoming the Pitfalls of Early Childhood Assessment

October 3, 2014

In the age of accountability, data collection seems to be in vogue. Data are now routinely collected nationwide on children, classrooms, and teachers. The data help teachers and schools improve their programs to meet the needs of children attending. Most states are conducting child assessments in early childhood classrooms (including Kindergarten Entry Assessments). The relevant literature has classified two types of assessment for children, summative and formative. Summative assessment provides teachers with a snapshot of student’s understanding which is useful for summarizing student learning. Formative assessment occurs during instruction and provides teachers with a tool to improve student achievement by informing instruction with these data in an ongoing process.

Assessing children is often “unreliable” as young children’s performance is not necessarily consistent over even short periods of
time, and contextual influences and emotional states are especially relevant for this group. For these reasons, tests administered teacher teaching numbers at one point in time alone may not provide an accurate picture of the child’s concept knowledge, skills, or understanding. Teachers need an effective assessment to understand children’s development and to help guide their instruction. This instrument should allow them to collect evidence about what students know, determine their skills, and measure their strengths and weaknesses. Researchers at NIEER have developed the Early Learning Scale (ELS) for preschool children, and have recently completed developing and evaluating the Kindergarten Early Learning Scale (KELS) to do just this.

The ELS and KELS observation-based scales offer teachers:

  • The opportunity to assess learning in the children’s natural environment during typical instruction;
  • An assessment of children’s development and skills across several domains;
  • An assessment approach that focuses on strengths and interests of children;
  • Information on children’s progress, to share with parents, that is understandable and complete; and
  • Data to inform their teaching practices and report on student growth.

The ELS and KELS are used by teachers of young children as they become participant-observers and engage in an iterative process over time. They can implement a formative assessment process that includes:

  1. observing and investigating young children’s individual behaviors as a seamless part of instruction;
  2. documenting and reflecting on the evidence;
  3. analyzing and evaluating the data in relation to set goals or a trajectory of learning;
  4. hypothesizing and planning which considers what the children are demonstrating and the implications for instruction; and
  5. guiding and instructing where the data helps the teacher target the needs of the children and scaffold their learning to the next level.

The ELS and KELS fill a need for a succinct and manageable way to assess preschool and kindergarten children across domains. NIEER researchers developed these instruments to be responsive to teachers request for a multi-domain assessment that can be used to improve teaching and learning, without overburdening the teacher. The ELS and KELS provide this by spanning several domains (math, science, social and emotional, language and literacy, and physical development), but maintaining a manageable number of items to evaluate.

Items are included in the ELS and KELS for skills that:

  • are measurable/observable;
  • develop on a continuum; and
  • are critical to present and future learning, as defined by research.

A new report from NIEER confirms that the KELS is a reliable and valid measure. Teachers were able to achieve acceptable reliability with a mean of .70 on the instrument. This indicates that teachers are able to effectively score data consistently across programs. Further, results demonstrated acceptable levels of validity with moderate relationships with standardized measures in appropriate and meaningful ways. This means that the items on the KELS that align with the content of the standardized test relate well and those same items appropriately do not relate well to standardized tests that measure different constructs.

For more information about using the ELS or KELS contact me at sayers@nieer.org.

–Shannon Riley-Ayers is an Assistant Research professor for NIEER/CEELO.


Is New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio’s method for expanding Pre-K a model for other cities?

September 19, 2014

In this week’s edition of The Weekly Wonk, the weekly online magazine of the New America Foundation, experts were asked: Is New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio’s method for expanding Pre-K a model for other cities? NIEER Director Steve Barnett and Policy Researcher Coordinator Megan Carolan were among those who weighed in. Their responses can be read below. Please visit the original post here to see all responses.

Steve BarnettSteve Barnett, NIEER Director:

Whether NYC offers a good model for other cities to follow in expanding pre-K is something that we will only know after some years.  However, it is not too soon to say that NYC offers one important lesson for other cities.  When adequate funding is available, cities (and states) can expand enrollment quickly on a large scale at high standards.

A key reason for that is there is a substantial pool of well-qualified early childhood teachers who do not teach because of the field’s abysmally low financial compensation and poor working conditions.  When we offer a decent salary, benefits, and a professional working environment many more teachers become available.  Of course, NYC also put a lot of hard and smart work into finding suitable space and recruiting families to participate.   Whether NYC achieves its ultimate goal of offering a high-quality education to every child will not be known for some time, but this will depend on the extent to which NYC has put into place a continuous improvement system to build quality over time.

It would be a mistake to assume that high quality can be achieved at scale anywhere from the very beginning no matter how slow the expansion. Excellence in practice must be developed on the job through peer learning, coaching and other supports.  If NYC successfully puts a continuous improvement system in place and quality steadily improves over the next several years, then it will have much to offer as a model for the rest of the nation.

Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator

When New York City opened the doors to expanded pre-K for thousands of 4-year-olds earlier this month, it marked a huge departure from the scene just a year ago, when Mayor de Blasio was still seen as a longshot candidate and Christine Quinn was focusing on preschool loans. Other cities looking to expand their early childhood offerings may wonder how New YorkMeganColor changed so quickly.

Preschool wasn’t a new expansion for de Blasio: expanding pre-K was a hugely personal priority for the Mayor and his wife, and de Blasio has been highlighting the shortage of seats when he served as Public Advocate from 2010 until his mayoral election. The de Blasio camp built partnerships both at a personal and political level from the start; the public debate with Governor Andrew Cuomo was never over whether to fund preschool, but how to fund it to balance the needs of the state and the city. Coalition-building didn’t stop there. In order to both solidify political support for this endeavor, and to build on existing capacity, the Mayor was clear about including community- and faith-based providers.

Despite the image of tough-talking New York swagger, what really aided the rapid expansion was compromise and building partnerships (some of the very social skills kids will learn in pre-K!). Bring together diverse stakeholders as well as local and state officials in an effort so clearly supported by residents put pre-K in the fast lane. No two cities will have the same mix of existing systems and political ideologies, but collaboration and compromise are key to meeting the needs of young learners across the country.


“Fadeout” in Early Childhood: Does the hype match the research?

September 16, 2014

As teachers and students alike head back to classrooms, the hopes and dreams of another school year lie on the horizon. Parents are sending their children off to preschool for the big “first day of school,” especially in New York City, where 50,000 children have enrolled in the city’s expanded pre-K program, nervous and excited to see the difference in their child a year from now. Kindergarten teachers frequently say they can tell the difference between children who attended high-quality preschool from those who did not, but what does the research tell us about the lingering benefits of pre-k?

Yearbook set 4

As part of its “FastFact” series, CEELO has released Facts about Fadeout: The Research Base on Long-Term Impacts of High Quality Pre-K, addressing some of the most frequent questions we at NIEER and CEELO are asked, on what we know about the lasting impact of pre-K. The FastFact series seeks to synthesize relevant information on “hot topics” in early childhood education and provide resources for additional reading. This document is certainly not the definitive guide to the topic but rather a primer to move beyond accusations of “fadeout” as a punditry talking point, and into a meaningful conversation on how to ensure long-term gains from early education.

There is a large body of research exploring the impacts of pre-K, ranging from the immediate to the long-term, including a study of High/Scope following subjects until age 40, which demonstrated significant benefits to participants. There are also studies showing results that give researchers some pause, such as the Head Start follow-up finding that effects diminish by the third grade. Given the multitude of studies, each looking at different programs and using different methodologies, the FastFact summarizes key points, to clarify:

  • High quality prekindergarten programs have meaningful impacts on children’s development.
  • “Fadeout” is, more accurately, other children catching up.
  • Certain features of high quality programs, such as intentional teaching and well-educated teachers, produce larger initial effects which, in turn, can lead to larger long-term effects for children.

What, then, to make of the less-than-compelling findings from Head Start’s third grade follow-up? As NIEER Director Steve Barnett wrote in 2010 (and it still holds true today):

“One prediction I make confidently is that most responses to the new report on Head Start’s effects will be wrong. Advocates of Head Start will try to ‘kill the messenger’ by attacking the study and rejecting any notion that Head Start needs serious reform. Opponents of Head Start will claim that the program has been shown to be a complete failure. People on both sides will claim that the report shows ‘fadeout’ and many will blame poor public schools.”

As discussed in our new paper, the Head Start Impact Study is not the sole study of the effects of Head Start, and it does not take into account changes to the program’s operation occurring since 2007, due to actions by both the Bush and Obama administrations. Instead, the Head Start Family and Child Experience Surveys (FACES) study looks at data from (so far) 2003, 2006, and 2009, which covers the time period during which the program began phasing in more stringent teacher credential requirements. It found that “children made greater gains in language and literacy in 2006 and 2009 than in 2003. Language and literacy gains are larger for all three major ethnic groups in 2009 compared to 2003, sometimes two or more times as large.” Clearly, the story of what impacts Head Start has is still being written.

What of the idea that long-term impacts are only sustainable in intensive, “boutique” programs, as has been suggested by some bloggers-who-shall-not-be-named? The results of these programs seem to speak for themselves: providing children with high-quality early childhood programming, often for two years; ensuring well-qualified teachers and small class sizes; and providing additional supports, such as extended-day and -year programming leads to impressive long-term benefits for children. This does not, however, mean that these are the only programs that are worthwhile for children. As studies in Arkansas, Boston, New Jersey, Tulsa, and many others, demonstrate, large-scale programs serving a mix of children can still provide the base children need to build a strong education.

Ongoing evaluation and quality improvement are both essential to ensuring children are reaping long-term benefits from programs, but it is our hope this FastFact can provide policymakers with the foundation we need for productive conversations on how to ensure all children have access to these benefits.

- Megan Carolan, NIEER/CEELO Policy Research Coordinator


Anticipating quality for all children

September 10, 2014

I remember the anticipation each fall as school was about to begin. So much was going on in my mind. Who was going to be in my class? What kind of year was it going to be? What were we going to learn? I was excited. I was nervous. These memories are not from when I was four or five, but rather when I was a teacher in the classroom. Twenty years ago this fall I began my tenure as an early childhood teacher. Although I no longer teach in the classroom, I still feel this excitement through my children’s eyes and through the work I do with teachers and leaders in the field.

I see young children filled with excitement and anticipation around the towns hopping on buses, jumping into cars, and lacing up their shoes to walk to school. So, it is this time of year that I pause to reflect on what young children deserve in their educational lives to maintain this excitement, and to increase their success both now in their early education career and later, in their learning down the road.

Yearbook set 6

  • All young children should have access to a high-quality preschool experience. Roughly 75 percent of all young children attend preschool at age four and half of these children attend preschool at age three. Unfortunately, most programs are not of high quality. Only 18 percent of low-income children and 29 percent of high-income children are enrolled in good pre-K.
  • All young children should be taught by qualified teachers who are well-trained, dedicated and caring. These teachers should know the science of teaching and understand the art of educating young children. States vary in teacher preparation requirements. These include teacher degree, preparation specifically in early childhood, and the in-service support provided.
  • All children should feel safe and healthy at school. Early care and education can improve children’s health both directly in the short-term and indirectly through long-term effects of education on health, health-related behavior, and access to health care.
  • All children should have access to materials and opportunities to advance their learning. This learning should be across domains, including language and literacy, science and math, and social studies. Children should also have ample opportunities to persist through difficult tasks, develop social problem-solving skills and self-regulation with support from an adult, and to be curious and solve problems.
  • All children should engage in play and hands-on meaningful learning. This provides children opportunities to learn, demonstrate their skills and development, and apply their learning flexibly to new and unique situations in a safe environment. Children often exhibit higher level skills in language and math through their play than in other didactic learning situations.
  • All children deserve individualized attention from teachers who know what the children know and understand how to bring their learning to the next level. Formative assessment is a process that teachers employ to collect and use assessment information to tailor instruction to the individual needs of children. Collecting information from multiple sources and analyzing it in light of children’s individual learning needs can support teaching whereby all children learn and develop.
  • All children should feel welcomed and valued in classrooms. Welcoming all children and valuing their home language and culture is an important part of early schooling. Moving forward, a concerted effort must go into educating and hiring bilingual staff with special attention to enhancing practices supportive of dual language learners.

I wish you a wonderful year and thank you as you continue to support early education so that all children have multiple opportunities to succeed.

-Shannon Riley-Ayers, NIEER/CEELO Assistant Research Professor


Transitions

September 3, 2014

It’s back-to-school time. This week guest blogger Lindy Buch, Ph.D., discusses transitions. She retired in June as the director of early childhood education and family services, after almost two decades with the Michigan Department of Education.  Prior to joining the department, she was a preschool and preschool special education teacher and director, and faculty member in early childhood and elementary education.

I’ve been thinking a lot about transitions this week. We talk about transitions all the time in early childhood–how to help a group smoothly transition from one activity to another, from home to school and back each day, helping children move from one group to another. But I’ve been thinking about more than that.

School starts the day after Labor Day in Michigan, so summer vacation is finished. Teachers, of course, have been preparing for their new groups all summer. Grade promotions ostensibly happen at the end of the school year, but kids have the status of “rising” until the next school year actually starts–rising first graders or rising seniors–they’re in-between, not quite in the grade they’re going to, but all finished with the one before. Even in early care and education programs, kids often make transitions at this time of year–when the “big” kids make that grand transition to kindergarten, it makes space for those who’ve been in the 3-year-old group to move up to the 4s, and the transitions cascade down. Even in more stable mixed-age programs, some kids “age out” and younger children are enrolled.

Lindy Buch embraces her "promotion" to grandmother

Lindy Buch embraces her “promotion” to grandmother

Lots of transitions. We think about them, plan for them, see them for the growth the “promotion” represents–and still in every gain, there’s a little loss, a little nostalgia for what’s now just a memory . . . .

I got promoted this summer, too–that’s just how it feels! At first, it felt almost like graduation. My colleagues hosted a really lovely retirement party.   There was a little bit of that transition angst–I know it was the right time to retire from the state Department of Education–but I don’t know that I can ever give up being an early childhood specialist. So, armed with my new business cards proclaiming myself an independent “early childhood consultant,” I felt like a “rising” retiree.

My husband Ray and I wanted to see our son and daughter-in-law in San Francisco. I thought we’d fly and maybe stay a little longer than we could when we were working. Then Ray said he thought we should drive–time not being a problem. He said he’d like to go from Michigan to San Francisco via his cousins’ place in British Columbia, because Barry had invited him to try out his new kayak. And we could see some more friends and family, and some national parks (some re-runs and some new ones). North, west, south, east–five weeks and 7,000 miles later–I’d have to say it was a perfect transitional activity.

Now it’s fall in Michigan, for all intents and purposes. Big 10 football started this weekend, and I’m not teaching either preschoolers or preschool teachers; or getting grant programs sorted out as I have for the last 43 falls. Instead, we’re still planning and preparing for a big transition. We’ll be on our way back to San Francisco in early October–this time heading south and west and then back north, and visiting more family and friends and parks on the way. But this time we’ll stay until the spring.

You see, the really big “promotion” came on June 29, while we were in B.C.: Violet Raizel Buch promoted us that day to the status of grandparents. We’ll provide “high quality early education and care,” as Violet’s nannies this fall and winter. (That was “we.” Lest you think I might be the only early childhood expert here, you should know that some of Ray’s experience as a clinical social worker/children’s therapist was as an infant mental health specialist. The only thing I’m actually better at is laundry.) There’s nothing “rising” or tentative or nostalgic about this status; it felt perfect the minute we held Violet in our arms. I knew I could never leave early childhood. This transition really feels like an upgraded promotion!


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