Formative Assessment:  Points to Consider for Policy Makers, Teachers, and Researchers

April 16, 2014

Formative assessment is one area in early childhood education where policy is moving at lightning speed. There’s been a lot of support for the appropriateness of this approach to assessment for young learners. Many policy makers and data users have “talked the talk,” perfecting the lingo and pushing the implementation of policies for this approach. Yet there are essential questions to consider when rolling out a plan or process for a state. In the brief released by the Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes (CEELO), I outline several considerations for policy makers in moving such initiatives. They’re briefly outlined below, along with considerations for teachers and researchers.

For Policy Makers

Policies around formative assessment in early childhood education will be most successful when the below “top 10” items are considered thoughtfully before implementing.

Overall Considerations for Policymakers Responsible for Formative Assessment Systems

  1. Does the purpose of the assessment match the intended use of the assessment? Is it appropriate for the age and background of the children who will be assessed?
  2. Does the assessment combine information from multiple sources/caregivers?
  3. Are the necessary contextual supports in place to roll out the assessment and use data effectively? (e.g., training, time, ongoing support)
  4. Does the assessment have a base or trajectory/continuum aligned to child developmental expectations, standards, and curricula?  Does it include all key domains?
  5. Does the assessment have a systematic approach and acceptable reliability and validity data?   Has it been used successfully with similar children?
  6. Are the data easily collected and interpreted to effectively inform teaching and learning?
  7. What technology is necessary to gather data?
  8. Are the data useful to teachers and other stakeholders?
  9. What are the policies for implementation and what is the roll-out plan for the assessment?
  10.  Will data be gathered and maintained within FERPA and other security guidelines? Are there processes in place to inform stakeholders about how data are being gathered and held securely to allay concerns?

I encourage all stakeholders in assessment (policy makers, administrators, parents/caregivers, etc.) to exercise patience with teachers learning the science of this process and perfecting the art of implementing such an approach. Although many effective teachers across the decades have been doing this instinctively, as we make the approach more systematic, explicit, and transparent, teachers may have a steep learning curve. However, with the considerations above as a part of the decision-making process, teachers will find it easier to be successful.  This policy report provides a guide and framework to early childhood policymakers considering  formative assessment. The report defines formative assessment and outlines its process and  application in the context of early childhood. The substance of this document is the issues for  consideration in the implementation of the formative assessment process. This guide provides a  practical roadmap for decision-makers by offering several key questions to consider in the process of  selecting, supporting, and using data to inform and improve instruction.This policy report provides a guide and framework to early childhood policymakers considering formative assessment. This guide provides a practical roadmap for decision-makers by offering several key questions to consider in the process of selecting, supporting, and using data to inform and improve instruction.

For Teachers

The intent of formative assessment is to implement the process of using data (observation or other) to inform individualized instruction. The link between this type of embedded assessment and instruction should be seamless. Teachers work with great effort at this on several different levels. Effective early childhood teachers:

  • use immediate feedback from children in the moment and adjust the interaction based on this feedback.
  • collect evidence over time to evaluate the child’s growth and to plan long-term learning goals. These goals are reviewed periodically and adjusted based on new evidence.
  • look at aggregate data across their classrooms.  They examine the data for trends and self-reflect on their teaching practices based on what the data are showing.

For Researchers

We must move forward by setting a strong research agenda on the effects of formative assessment in early childhood classrooms–and not allow policy to outpace research.  We need further research around using formative assessment processes to collect, analyze, and use the data to improve teaching and learning in the early childhood classroom. This must first include randomized trials of formative assessment, to examine the impact on classroom quality and child outcomes. The field needs a clear understanding of how teachers are trained and supported in collecting and using the data, and just what supports are needed for success. This should be coupled with a qualitative understanding of how teachers are using data in their classrooms. Finally, an understanding of who is using the data, in what capacity–and how it fits within the larger assessment system–should be components of any examination of formative assessment.

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


Children and Poverty: the Role of Preschool

April 3, 2014

This guest post was written by NIEER Senior Research Fellow Cynthia Lamy. Dr. Lamy is a developmental and educational psychologist whose research and writing focuses primarily on children at risk of school failure, due to the many influences of poverty. She is currently working for the Robin Hood Foundation.

High quality preschool generates measurable, long-term impacts on children.  Many of us have known this for a long time, and have heard it or have said it ourselves many times. This is vital, valuable information for policymakers and for families. And for early childhood professionals, on days when boisterous 3-year olds are testing their teacher’s patience, and stressed parents are showing up late for pick-up, and policy advocates are explaining the graph to Congress one more time, it means that our career choice to focus on young children and their families, and our daily struggle to produce our best work, is truly worth every effort. kids in line

But in recent opportunities to speak about children and poverty to groups of people who could be loosely defined as potential child advocates–not researchers or policymakers, but knowledgeable or interested professional laypeople–when I asked how many people in the audience knew of preschool’s long-term effects or had heard of the longitudinal studies of preschool effects on children’s later adult outcomes, I was shocked to find the number of raised hands in the single digits.

Perry, Abecedarian, Chicago–they had never heard of any of them. An audience of educated, interested people was once again astonished to learn about the long-term impacts, as I told them about the longitudinal studies, including New Jersey’s Abbott district findings.

Once again I found myself describing, in lay terms, the wonder of it all. It may seem astonishing, I say, but high quality preschool is a powerful weapon against poverty. Rigorous research has found that children lucky enough to attend a wonderful preschool program–with warm and knowledgeable teachers who are specially certified to teach young children as they play or are busy with activities, incorporating new vocabulary into dramatic play, heading off behavior problems with a timely tete-a-tete about sharing, scaffolding math skills during snack time–these children go on to be retained in grade or placed in Special Education at nearly half the rate of their less fortunate peers; to graduate high school at much higher rates; to engage in less crime; and to earn more money as adults, becoming contributors to society and depending less on the national safety net.

Having made the conceptual journey from early childhood education to adult outcomes, the remarkable idea that high quality preschool is actually poverty-fighting is a short leap.

The benefits of high quality preschool exceed the costs of the programs, which is great for the children, their families, taxpayers, and for everyone, but this means much more than benefits to individuals, or even to school districts, or criminal justice systems.  This positive social return on investment also signals to us the possibility of an effective and efficient fight against poverty on a societal scale.

How different would American poverty be if every child had equal access to high quality educational experiences from as early as possible in their development, before the impact of poverty diminishes their potential? What if every child received warm, playful, informed, individualized early education no matter who their parents are or where they live? Excellent preschool, carefully implemented to maintain high quality, on a scale wide enough to provide access to everyone in need, is an essential policy lever to protect the developmental potential of vulnerable children. That broad protection will lessen the chronic, inter-generational nature of American poverty. It sounds like a grand statement, but it’s just the natural consequence of strong early support for human development.

There are a few mechanisms by which preschool can powerfully contribute to the fight against poverty, as reported by Barnett and others, Heckman and others, and here. One mechanism is the effect, direct or indirectly through the family, on children’s educational success.  It is obvious that children must succeed in school to grow up and out of poverty. The direct path of the effect of preschool is through a positive impact on some combination of children’s cognition, skills, and expectations for themselves. The indirect path is through improved parenting and increased parental awareness, engagement in, and support of their children’s educational experiences and school success, due to the preschool. These are the goals of every good early childhood program.

Another mechanism is an impact on increased parental earnings. With their children happy and safe in good early childhood programs, parents work more hours.

Then there is the potential for improving the quality of public educational systems, especially in high-poverty school districts, as best practices in preschool ‘trickle up’ to elementary schools.  This is not easy to accomplish, but pre-K-3rd grade models are an example of this effort, as are transition programs that bring preschool and early elementary staff members together to share their best practices. Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS), with their cross-auspice implementation and focus on information sharing, program standards, and quality supports, may also help spread the best of early childhood widely, including to early elementary schools, alerting parents to the importance of high quality programs all along the continuum of their children’s development.

Taking the concept out one more contextual level: when schools improve, neighborhoods can begin to turn around in a virtuous cycle, further attracting education-oriented families. Without school improvement, there is little chance of that.

But there is another way that excellent early childhood programs can contribute to the fight against poverty, adding a timely and direct push against poverty just when many families are motivated to make a change–when their kids are very young. It is a tradition within the early childhood field that goes back all the way to the original objective of Head Start, to support the whole child and to respect the family. It arises from the capacity of early childhood professionals to perceive and understand the influence of problems in the family system on children’s development, and to be sensitive and supportive family partners. Early childhood programs are perfectly positioned to more effectively link families to the supportive opportunities they need, tailored specifically for them and their set of challenges.

Poverty is a complicated tangle of problems. Not all, but many, families in poverty need serious help. Parents need jobs that pay a living wage, or the adult education and training to move toward better employment. Families need stable, affordable, healthy homes. Often, families fighting poverty need a good pro bono lawyer. Everyone needs timely, affordable access to doctors and dentists. Families may be eligible for programs such as SNAP or WIC, but may be unaware. Family members with addictions or mental health issues; people living in fear of violence; older youth who need a safe, supportive haven after school; family members struggling with incarceration or reintegration into society–all need access to the assistance that would help them solve their problems, and help their young children grow to be healthier, happier, and more successful in school. Early childhood programs are in a unique position to tune in to families’ needs and to partner with families as they strive to do better for their children on a daily basis.

This is not a call to expand services. Asking early childhood program staff to extend their job description to the direct support of families at risk is asking too much, stretching resources thin, and creating distraction from the main educational mission. We have learned this lesson. Moreover, the support of families in need often requires specific knowledge and deep, often clinical, expertise, not typically housed in early childhood programs. Early childhood professionals should do for children and families what they do best. This is not a call for early childhood programs to take on even more responsibility, in addition to all that they already do.

But, this is a call for early childhood professionals to more explicitly recognize, understand, and value their natural position in the fight against poverty. It is a call to develop stronger working relationships between early childhood programs and other helping organizations. It is a call for early childhood professionals to be even smarter about the risks the families of their young students face, knowing where to send them for the support they need. And when there is little or no local capacity for the needed services, this is a call for early childhood professionals to be a voice for the expansion of those services–high quality services only, of course. If there is one thing we appreciate in the field of early childhood, it is the value of best practices.

It turns out that other programs, when they are of high quality, also produce measurable and cost-effective improvements for families, doing their part to push back against poverty. And across many poverty-related fields there is a growing recognition of the value of strong collaboration to create a true safety net–or, really, an opportunity net–for vulnerable families.  Early childhood programs, in fact all schools, should be part of that, taking a stronger stance in support of the families they serve.   No one program can solve all the complex problems of poverty. But, on a policy level, early childhood programs could take up what is actually a very natural, and potentially a particularly cost-effective, role, becoming powerful and persuasive proponents of young families in need, catalyzing and encouraging the development of best practice supports for families in their communities, and solving many more problems that are detrimental to children’s development, while children are still young.

We know that high quality preschool is a critical component in a set of policies and programs that have measurable impacts and that protect the development of children from the destructive effects of poverty. Preschool could be even more than that. It could fight poverty in real time.

 

References

Barnett, W. S., Young, J., & Schweinhart, L. (1998).  How preschool education influences long-term cognitive development and school success.  In W. S. Barnett & S. S. Boocock (Eds.), Early care and education for children in poverty: Promises, programs, and long-term results.  Albany, NY:  State University of New York Press.

Barnett, W.S., Jung, K., Youn, M. & Frede, E.C. (2013).  The Abbott preschool program longitudinal effects study: 5th grade follow-up.  New Brunswick, NJ: NIEER.

Bayer, P., Ferreira, F. & McMillan, R. (2007).  A unified framework for measuring preferences for schools and neighborhoods.  The Journal of Political Economy, 115(4), 588-638.,

Camilli, G., Vargas, S., Ryan, S., & Barnett, W. S. (2008).Meta-Analysis of the effects of early education interventions on cognitive and social development. Teachers College Record, 112 (3). Retrieved March 31, 2014, from  http://spot.colorado.edu/~camillig/Papers/38_15440.pdf

Cellini, S., Ferreira, F. & Rothstein, J. (2008).  The value of school facilities: Evidence from the dynamic regression-discontinuity design.  Working paper # 14516.  Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Forry, N. & Hofferth, S. (2011).  Maintaining work: The influence of child care subsidies on child care-related work disruptions.  Journal of Family Issues, 32(3), 346-368.

Heckman, J., Malofeeva, E., Pinto, R. & Savelyev, P. (2010).  Understanding the mechanisms through which an influential early childhood program boosted adult outcomes.  Presentation at the Measuring Education Outcomes: Moving from Enrollment to Learning Conference at the Center for Universal Education at Brookings, June 2, 2010, Brookings Institution, Washington, DC.

Lamy, C. E. (2012).  Poverty is a Knot and Preschool is an Untangler. In R. C. Pianta, W. S. Barnett, L. M Justice and S. M. Sheridan (Eds.) Handbook of Early Childhood Education.  NY: Guilford Press.

Matthews, M. (2006).  Child care assistance helps families work: A review of the effect of subsidy receipt on employment.  Washington, DC: CLASP.


What the new OCR early childhood data do and do not tell us

March 26, 2014

Recently released to great interest is the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) Early Childhood Data Snapshot. I want to call additional attention to this document and the survey behind it for two reasons. First, these new data identify serious educational problems that deserve more than one day in the sun. Second, these OCR data have significant limitations that policy makers, the media, and others should understand when using them. Public preschool education is delivered by a complex, interagency, mixed-delivery system that makes it more difficult to measure than K-12. Unless key limitations of the OCR survey are taken into account, users of the data can reach incorrect conclusions. For example, it was widely reported that 40 percent of school districts do not offer preschool. This is untrue: at the very least, every preschooler with a disability is offered a free appropriate education. The OCR survey also undercounts the provision of preschool education nationally, and its accuracy varies by state, which makes cross-state comparisons particularly perilous. Finally, definitions of such key terms as “suspension” are not what most people would assume, which complicates the interpretation of some high-profile findings.

Data from this OCR survey point to problems with access to preschool education and with policies regarding suspensions from preschool programs and retention (grade repetition) in kindergarten.

  • Every child should have access to high-quality preschool education. Yet, nearly half of all 3- and 4-year-olds do not attend any preschool program, public or private, and even at age 4, when attendance is more common, just 64% of 4-year-olds not yet in kindergarten attend preschool, according the 2012 Current Population Survey.
  • The only “zero tolerance” policy that should apply in preschool is that there should be no preschool suspensions. Yet, a substantial number of preschoolers are suspended each year, with boys and African-American children more likely to be suspended than others. States and LEAs should examine their data, practices, and policies closely to prevent this problem.
  • States should look closely at their policies regarding kindergarten grade retention. Does it really make sense to pay for more than 1 in 10, or even 1 in 20, children to attend kindergarten twice? Better access to high-quality preschools, and added services in kindergarten such as tutoring for children who are behind, could be much more cost-effective. States with high kindergarten retention rates should be looking into why they are retaining so many children and what can be done to reduce these rates.

Universal access to high-quality public preschool addresses all of these problems. Better teachers, smaller classes, and more support from coaches and others would reduce suspensions. Such preschools would have more appropriate expectations for behavior, and teachers who can support the development of executive functions that minimize behavior problems. The lower quality of preschools attended by African-American children may partly explain their higher rates of preschool suspension. Finally, good preschool programs have been shown to reduce grade repetition, though bad policies are likely behind many of the high rates of kindergarten retention.

The importance of the problems identified by the OCR data raises another key issue to which most of this article is devoted: to use the data appropriately we must understand the limitations of the data and make sure we interpret them correctly.

Access is Complicated

Let us begin with the finding that “40 percent of school districts do not offer preschool.”  Federal and state laws require that every child with a disability be offered a free, appropriate education from ages three to five. Yet OCR data do not seem to consistently include these children when reporting preschool special education at either the LEA or school level. One reason is that some “school districts” include only older children, e.g., high school districts and vocational school districts. (About 1 percent of high school districts also provide preschool, typically to serve children of teen parents or as a vocational training program.) Limiting the analysis to districts with kindergarten, 70 percent report that they provide preschool, which still seems low. This is partly because some agencies other than LEAs are responsible for preschool special education services. It is also possible that some LEAs mistakenly stated that preschool was not provided. Turning to the number of children reported served, rather than the number of districts serving them, we find a similar problem. School reports undercount the numbers of preschool children receiving services, and the undercount is a bigger problem in some states than others. (A complete copy of the questionnaire can be downloaded here.)

The most obvious explanation for these undercounts is that the OCR survey respondents interpret the questions asking about children served in public school buildings.  At the district level, the OCR survey asks LEAs to first report the number of schools and then to report on their provision of preschool services. This may have led some districts to respond positively only when they served preschool children in public school buildings. At the school level, the OCR survey asks individual schools to report on whether they offer preschool programs and services “at this school” and the enrollment count table specifies “only for schools with these programs/services.”  Whether or not this has any influence on LEA interpretation of the survey, it seems likely that each school reports only preschool offered physically in that school.

Different Data Sources Yield Different Counts

Just how different are the OCR numbers on enrollment from estimates of total enrollment in preschool education offered by states and local education agencies derived from other data sets?  The OCR survey reports 1.4 million enrolled. Data from the Current Population Survey, minus Head Start enrollment, leads to an estimate of about 1.8 million children attending state and local preschool education programs, indicating that the OCR survey is low by about 400,000 children or 22% of the total. In terms of preschool special education services, the OCR data report about 300,000 children, but the Office of Special Education Programs reports 430,000 3- and 4-year-olds receiving special education services under IDEA, and there are additional preschoolers served who are older (while younger children are included in the OCR data). Preschool special education may account for a substantial portion of the undercount, but it seems unlikely to account for the majority of the problem. In sum, the OCR survey undercounts of numbers of children receiving public preschool education from states and LEAs when those served outside public schools are included.

State Approaches Vary

As states differ in how they fund and operate preschool education, the extent to which the OCR data comprehensively capture preschool enrollment varies greatly by state. Looking state by state, it appears that the OCR survey performed fairly well in measuring regular preschool enrollment in most states. However, it grossly undercounted preschool provision in Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Vermont. These states make extensive use of private providers for public preschool education. In addition, the OCR figures diverge significantly from the IDEA counts for 10 other states. There are a number of possible reasons for more widespread “undercounting” of preschool special education including: contracting with private providers for special education, responsibility for preschool special education in agencies other than LEAs, and service delivery in homes and other nonpublic school settings. Some preschoolers receive only individualized therapy or other services under IDEA, rather than a publicly provided classroom experience, but neither the OCR nor other data sets allow for the determination of how many children receiving IDEA services are in classrooms funded by public education.

For some states, the data appear to be reasonably accurate when compared to data for the same year from NIEER.[1] Data from the NIEER Yearbook as well as the OCR report are compared below for select states. For states like Georgia and Florida, where many programs are not funded through LEAs, this comparison indicates that the OCR numbers are very incomplete measures of the number of children provided with public preschool education. Relative to total enrollment in state-funded preschool education (which does not include all LEA provision or all preschool special education), Florida is undercounted by about 120,000 and Georgia by more than 30,000. Even in states where funding flows through districts, many children seem likely to have been unreported because they are not served in public schools, which seems to be the case in New York. Also interesting is the case of Wyoming which served 2,207 preschoolers aged 3 and 4 under IDEA, yet the OCR report has Wyoming serving just 13 children under IDEA. While the discrepancies could result primarily from OCR school level respondents counting only children served in public school buildings, this may not be a complete explanation.

State

NIEER Preschool Yearbook OCR Report
State-Funded Pre-K Enrollment
IDEA Enrollment, 3s and 4s (from Office of Special Education)
Public School Preschool Enrollment
Special Education Enrollment
Florida 175,122 21,007 57,286 16,351
Georgia 82,868 8,561 50,779 8,612
New Jersey 51,540 10,683 48,186 9,839
New York 102,568 45,390 56,540 3,857
Wyoming 0 2,207 624 13

New Jersey allows us to conduct a more fine-grained comparison of OCR data with data from LEAs that include children served by private providers. A simple statewide comparison might suggest reasonably full reporting for New Jersey. New Jersey enrolled about 51,000 children in state-funded pre-K which is not very different from the OCR number. However, about half of the 51,000 in state-funded programs attended private providers (including Head Starts) contracted with districts. New Jersey’s districts vary greatly in the extent to which they serve preschoolers through private providers.  When we look at the numbers district by district, we find that the OCR and district totals closely correspond for districts serving children only or overwhelmingly in public school buildings, but  for districts relying heavily on contracted private providers the OCR numbers correspond closely only to the numbers in public school buildings. The OCR report identifies more than 20,000 preschoolers served in New Jersey public schools who are not funded through the state pre-K programs, which just happens to be close to the number served under contract who are not in the OCR data. This strengthens our conclusion that the OCR data represent only children in public school buildings. This is not to fault the OCR survey in the sense that this is what it is designed to do, but this is not how the OCR data have been widely interpreted, nor is it adequate as a survey of preschool education offered through the public schools (and not just in their own facilities).

Suspension and Retention Data

Given the limitations of the OCR data on numbers of children served, the total numbers should not be used as estimates of all children provided preschool education by the states and LEAs. They much more closely approximate the numbers served in public school buildings. Comparisons across states, LEAs, and schools, should be approached with great caution. It is unclear exactly how this might affect the percentage of children reported as suspended, but it seems unlikely to overturn either the general conclusion that suspensions occur at a disturbing rate or that they are higher for African American children and boys. However, comparisons of suspensions across states or districts might be distorted by limitations of the data.

Another aspect of the survey with the potential for misunderstanding is presented by the definition of “suspensions.”  In the OCR survey the definition includes not just children who have been sent home, but also those temporarily served in other programs offering special services for children with behavior problems. Such placements are not necessarily bad for children or to be avoided. However, the data do not allow for any division between children sent home and children sent to more appropriate placements. Nevertheless, the high rate at which children are temporarily removed from their regular classrooms for behavior problems is cause for concern.

The accuracy of the kindergarten retention data also deserves scrutiny. Earlier this year, NIEER collected state data on grade repetition by grade level from state sources of information, though not all for the 2011-12 year. Across all 27 states for which we obtained data, our figures averaged 8/10 of a percentage point lower. Comparing only those for which we had 2011-12 data, our figures averaged ½ of one percent lower. At least judged relative to the only other source we have, the OCR retention data seem reasonably accurate. That the OCR data are slightly higher might reflect efforts to minimize the appearance of a problem.  There are some large discrepancies for a few states. Arkansas had 12 percent kindergarten retention in the OCR data and 6 percent in the state data we obtained; Michigan had 7 percent kindergarten retention in the OCR data and 12 percent in the state data we obtained. For such states, it may be useful to review the data on a district-by-district or school-by-school basis to identify reasons for the discrepancies. Even with kindergarten retention there can be differences due to interpretation. For example, should children who enter a transitional kindergarten program after kindergarten be considered retained?  What about children who enter kindergarten after a year of transitional K?  Any problems with the data would not negate the conclusion that some states have very high rates compared to others and that this deserves consideration by policy makers.

Overall, OCR has provided a valuable service by collecting these early childhood data. Without the OCR data, there would be no basis for raising the issue of preschool suspensions and no way to track progress on this issue in the future. Similarly, without the OCR data there would be no basis for comprehensive state-by-state comparisons on grade retention at kindergarten. Nevertheless, great care must to be taken to recognize the limitations of the OCR data, and the federal government should do more to reduce those limitations. OCR is already working to improve the next survey. Ultimately, they may have to go beyond a school-based survey, because much of public education for preschool children takes place outside of public school buildings even when it is under the auspices of the state education agency (SEA). And, in some states public preschool education is not entirely under the SEA. Possibly, states could supplement LEA data by providing the same basic information for preschoolers they serve outside public school buildings. In addition, procedures might be added to verify that respondents properly understand all questions, especially for states where the responses seem at odds with data from other sources. Some data might be collected in more detail: preschoolers suspended at home with no services separated from those in alternative placements; preschool education children in classrooms separated from those served elsewhere; and, transitional K separated from repetition in regular K.  If you have additional suggestions, particularly based on knowledge of your state’s preschool services systems, OCR would undoubtedly welcome them.

- Steve Barnett, NIEER Director

 

[1] Though NIEER data report on enrollment in state-funded pre-K enrollments, they do not include LEA preschool services that are not part of state-funded pre-K or IDEA; NIEER data will not capture the full undercount.


The Empire State Leads the Way

March 18, 2014

Two of New York’s most distinguished leaders who shared a family name (Roosevelt) were strong advocates for the 99 percent, long before that term was common with their campaigns for the “Square Deal” and the “New Deal.” Today’s leaders are poised to echo their efforts with what might be called the “Real Deal.” A key element of the real deal is to give every child access to a world class 21st Century education, beginning with high quality pre-K for all.  New York State has been promising universal preschool to its children for 20 years. With leadership from the NYC Mayor, the Governor, and Legislators in the Senate and Assembly they are finally moving to fulfill that promise–a victory for New York’s young learners and the middle class. Last week, the State Senate proposed supporting free full-day prekindergarten and after-school programs in New York City with $540 million per year in state funds over 5 years.  The Assembly has already endorsed Mayor de Blasio’s plan for expansion with a pre-K and after-school tax on NYC’s wealthiest.

The next step is for leaders to come together behind a single plan to move forward, with a firm commitment to financing and a timeline for delivering on this promise. Recent statements indicate that New York’s leaders are prepared to put partisanship and personal ambition aside to do right by the state’s children.  The Assembly and Mayor have indicated they can accept the Senate plan. The Governor has repeatedly said he supports fully funding pre-K and should join them and make this plan a reality. If he does so, he will have propelled the preschool-for-all movement to a major turning point, not just in New York, but in the nation.  New York is the third most populous state.  If it were an independent country it would have the world’s 16th largest economy. With high-quality public education beginning at age four for all, New York will become a model for other states and even countries beyond our borders.

As we reported in our 2012 State of Preschool Yearbook, New York State has some way to go to achieve this goal of national and international leadership in early education.  It currently serves about 44 percent of its 4-year-olds, ranking ninth in the nation for enrollment, but funding per child has not kept pace with program expansion, jeopardizing quality.
NY state enrollment
NY state spending

Providing adequate funding and a timeline for implementation is a major step toward the real deal in pre-K, but political leaders must also support the hard work needed to successfully implement this plan and deliver the promise.  This will require a relentless focus on quality, and a shift from campaigning to governing that will provide pre-K programs with the support and accountability required to achieve and maintain excellence in every pre-K classroom.  At this stage it is important to ensure that state and local agencies have the resources to guide this continuous improvement process, as in other states where pre-K has produced the promised results (Michigan, North Carolina, and New Jersey, to name a few).

When well implemented, pre-K is a valuable and important long-term investment.  At NIEER we estimate that by offering all children quality pre-K, New York will actually realize a net reduction of more than $1 billion in its education budget by 2030. This figure includes cost-savings as a result of reducing special education placement and grade retention.  It does not include other long-term benefits from improving the education of New York’s children–increased productivity and economic growth and better health outcomes, among them.

New York isn’t alone in the pre-K push. Even states that have not historically supported pre-K are getting in on the investment, including: a small program in Hawaii; a pilot program in Indiana; and a new program legislated in Mississippi.  Yet, New York’s UPK initiative, if done well, could become the nation’s leading example of good early education policy because of its proposed quality and scale.  It’s time for every New Yorker to get behind this initiative and work with the Governor, Mayor, and legislative leaders of both parties, to carry through on New York’s 20-year-old promise.

- Steve Barnett, Director

Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator

Kirsty Clarke Brown, Policy and Communications Advisor


Play and Mathematics: An Equation that Works

March 14, 2014

In honor of “Pi Day,” a day to celebrate math concepts, named for the mathematical symbol pi (3.14 . . .), NIEER presents a guest blog post on the importance of play-based learning in mathematics from Deborah Stipek, Stanford University Professor. For a full review of our forum on play-based learning, please click here.

Often, the resistance to teaching by advocates of play is based on an image of “instruction” as drill-and-kill activities which, in addition to being boring, do not help children develop deep understanding of discipline-based knowledge and skills (although they may produce better performance on traditional tests of a limited set of skills). Because this image comes to many preschool teachers’ minds when you mention teaching, they resist. But basic skill drills are not the only alternative to play. Teachers who resist instruction might change their minds if they had an image of the teaching strategies that most experts advocate.

A Pi Day Pie, from Flickr user Robert Couse-Baker :http://www.flickr.com/photos/29233640@N07/8561590798/

A Pi Day Pie, from Flickr user Robert Couse-Baker :http://www.flickr.com/photos/29233640@N07/8561590798/

Consider math, for example. The field of early math teaching has evolved to provide many examples of research-based instruction that should please people who advocate play for young children. Most experts now endorse purposeful instruction that supports the development of deep mathematical understandings and that children enjoy—what I call “playful learning.”

But effective (and playful) math, as well as effective literacy teaching, requires considerable skill – more than is needed to hand out ditto sheets. Teachers need to understand math themselves, and they need to know how to assess children’s understandings in different domains of math, and determine appropriate activities and scaffolding to bring them to the next level. The same is true for literacy. Even the most structured curriculum depends on teachers’ judgment and skill for effective implementation. And while teachers engage with children in math or literacy learning, they need to provide an emotionally secure social context and support the development of self-regulation and social skills.

Most preschool teachers in the US do not get an opportunity to develop these skills. Even teachers who have bachelor’s degrees—the current gold standard—do not necessarily have any relevant training in pedagogy. The focus in preparing preschool teachers has traditionally been on child development, which to be sure is relevant, but does not prepare a new teacher to help children develop an understanding of the many facets of early mathematics or develop early literacy skills. Until we invest in pedagogical training that prepares preschool teachers to provide children with playful, but also purposeful and effective, learning opportunities, the debate about play will continue.


Reflections on Play: A Resource Guide

March 7, 2014

NIEER is concluding a two-week blog forum on the importance of play in early childhood education. As we stated in our kick-off postboy playing with blocks 2

“The early childhood field has a history of conflict over means and goals that periodically erupts into public debates about the role of play versus academics and construction versus instruction. Concerns about whether preschool and kindergarten have become too stressful and regimented are met head on with concerns that they are academically weak and fail to cognitively challenge children. These conflicts have been intensified by increased demands for assessment and Common Core State Standards driving curriculum in the early grades.” 

In the last two weeks, we’ve considered play from a number of different perspectives from experts in the field, looking both at what the research says about play’s importance in the classroom, and at how play-based learning can be used on the ground. These posts focus on key issues in the field and serve as valuable resources as parents, teachers, and policymakers strive to ensure play has its place in pre-K:

What does play looking like in an early childhood setting? How can meaningful learning be fostered without forcing out room for creativity, imagination, and fun?

In addition to the posts we’ve featured, NIEER has compiled a list of resources–a recommended reading list–to help keep the conversation going:

Are there others you think provide a great perspective on the importance of play? Please share links and recommendations in the comments!

Thanks for joining us in this important discussion.

 


Teacher-led? Child-guided? Find the Balance in Preschool Classrooms

March 7, 2014

By Kimberly Brenneman, NIEER Assistant Research Professor

“Stick to the rules that I say.”  It’s a refrain from my childhood, uttered by my next-door neighbor to make clear that while we were playing at her house, she got to choose what we did and how we did it and to change her mind any time she pleased. I’m sometimes reminded of these backyard days when I read the debates on play in early childhood classrooms.  It’s almost as if some believe that a teacher who plans and leads learning experiences is telling children to “stick to the rules that she says.”

In a recent study[i], colleagues and I explored the possibility that, rather than limiting children’s free play science interactions, a planned, whole group lesson might actually enhance them.  We introduced kids to the function of a balance scale during morning meeting.  The lesson was interactive, and kids got to hold items to feel which was heavier, then put them on the scale to find out that the side with the heavier item always tipped down.  Then we tested a few pairs of items that were hard to distinguish by felt weight.  It became clear that the function of the balance scale was to help us know which of two things was heavier when our sense of felt weight could not.  After the lesson, we adults placed the scale back in the science area with no comment and children were let loose to interact with centers as they wished.  Meanwhile, we observed the science area and counted the number of minutes that children were present there.  We had done similar counts prior to the balance scale intervention and found few children went to the science area, and no child ever touched the balance scale.  After the intervention, many children went to the science area to explore the balance scale and, while doing so, found lots of other interesting objects and possibilities for play.  Their knowledge of the function of the scale also increased, compared to their earlier knowledge and to that of children who hadn’t participated in the balance scale intervention.

A balance scale in action in a classroom. Photos courtesy of Kimberly Brenneman.

A balance scale in action in a classroom. Photos courtesy of Kimberly Brenneman.

We don’t know how much of what kids learned about the scale originated in the large group experience, and how much from interacting with the scale during choice time.  What we do know is, that without an adult intervention to introduce kids to this tool, it is unlikely any of them would’ve learned about it on their own.  None of them ever went near it. Using an engaging and interactive planned lesson to show and explain how a tool or material is used need not mean that play and self-guided exploration have been stifled.  Instead these teaching strategies could mark the beginning of higher quality play and increased learning, guided by children, but inspired by their teacher.

[i] Nayfeld, I., Brenneman, K., & Gelman, R.  (2011).  Science in the classroom: Finding a balance between autonomous exploration and teacher-led instruction in preschool settings. Early Education & Development, 22(6), 970-988.


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