Betting on Public Support for Preschool

July 21, 2014

This entry is cross-posted to The National Journal’s Education Insiders blog  in response to the prompt “Early Education Polls Well With Republicans, Swing Voters” from Fawn Johnson.

 

The new polling data from the First Five Years Fund are a source of hope that major new investments in early care and education will take place in the near future. This may even have presaged by recent advances in preschool investment across the country from New York to Michigan to California. Particularly interesting from a policy perspective is that the public has come to solidly support investments in our youngest children and to recognize the value of early child care, not just preschool education. Yet, the new polling data also point to some important concerns and, in particular, policy pitfalls that must be avoided as more politicians jump on the early care and education bandwagon.

Despite strong, broadly based support for government action, the public is also committed to reducing the tax burden on families. Support for a major new federal investment drops sharply, and I suspect does not succeed with the Republican base, if funded by even a targeted tax increase. Nevertheless, unless Congress is willing to fund it by increasing the deficit, some kind of loophole closing or targeted tax increase is likely to be necessary. A sunset provision on the targeted tax increase, requiring it to end or be reapproved after 10 years, might raise support. The other alternative is to fund new investments in early care and education by cutting other programs; as a majority of voters disapprove of this strategy, any proposal funded in this manner should be viewed as a poison pill.

However, the most serious concern is that politicians seeking voter approval will favor expansion of slots over quality and sloganeering over substance. The history of state pre-K and federal child care and Head Start policy provide ample reason for concern. High quality programs that provide long hours of care and a good education are expensive. Poor quality care and preschool programs that provide only a few hours a week are cheap. Given the resistance to tax increases, it will be tempting for politicians–Democrats and Republicans, the White House and Congress–to encourage wishful thinking and spread too little money over too many children and families. The result will be an increase in spending, but no real investment. Hope will be expressed that once the expansion is achieved, added resources can be obtained for quality or that somehow efficiencies will be obtained that will allow us to produce high-quality at a much lower cost than has ever been achieved before.

This next year could prove to be a turning point in the quest for public investment in high-quality early care and education. As nation emerges from the recession, resource constraints will ease. With economic growth, there will be possibilities for new investments without commensurate increases in tax rates. Will early care and education remain a top priority? And, will quality remain part of the formula? The importance of putting quality first cannot be overemphasized because the expansion of poor quality programs only creates a larger interest group that favors a continuation of poor quality. One early tell-tale sign will be the Obama Administration’s action on preschool development grants–will they emphasize increased numbers over quality, given the relatively modest budget available? Another will be Seattle voters’ preferences regarding their ballot initiative on quality preschool for all. I would like to bet on quality, but children’s advocates will need to work harder than ever if I am going to win that bet.

- Steve Barnett, NIEER Director


State prekindergarten programs: A decade of progress

July 9, 2014

By Alison May

Alison May is a staff coordinator of the National Conference of State Legislature’s Children and Families program. This  post originally appeared on June 30th on the blog of NCSL. 

Steve Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), highlighted some of the key findings of NIEER’s annual State Preschool Yearbook during a June 24 NCSL webinar entitled State Prekindergarten Programs: A Decade of Progress. Specifically, Barnett talked about the data and national trends for enrollment in, quality of, and spending on state-funded preschool programs.

The webinar was designed for current and alum members of the Early Learning Fellows program, which is NCSL’s premier program for legislators and legislative staff who are experienced or emerging leaders on early childhood and early learning issues.

This year marked a decade since the first Yearbook was published on data collected from the 2001-2002 school year. Barnet also highlighted notable recent studies of pre-K effects and talked about what works and doesn’t work in prekindergarten to produce larger gains in young children. “As policymakers, you might want to have some input on what we know works and some of the approaches that don’t work very well,” said Barnett. He also indicated that policymakers might want to consider designing programs with intentional teaching, individualization and small groups.

The full webinar is available on NCSL’s YouTube channel. We would direct your attention to the question-and-answer session (beginning roughly 40 minutes in) between Steve and the Early Learning Fellows, which touches on digging in to quality standards, access issues for younger children and utilizing funding sources, including federal funds.


“First you work and then it’s play.”

June 19, 2014

The words of 4-year-old Misty still ring in my ears, as she described her impending rite of passage to kindergarten. When asked what she would do in kindergarten, she replied, “Play and learn. Actually, learn and play, ’cause it’s learn first and then play.”

Misty was one of two dozen “graduating” preschoolers I interviewed in North Carolina and Vermont while researching my (unpublished) dissertation about preschoolers’ perceptions of, and attitudes toward, kindergarten. I wanted to understand and give voice to an important perspective missing from the school readiness debates–the children themselves. I learned much in the process, realizing that even at this early age, children were aware of the distinction between play and work as they prepared to enter “the big school.”

Through their words and drawings, children conveyed that kindergarten would be a learning experience filled with numerous activities.  Very few children expressed any uncertainty about what to expect; the majority had very clear ideas about the activities they would be doing in kindergarten. These activities fell into two categories–learn and play.

The children described learning as the work of kindergarten. They would be working earnestly to acquire new information and skills. Oddly reminiscent of the three R’s of traditional schooling, they described learning activities centered around reading, writing, and arithmetic. They were expecting to be immersed in an academic learning environment which promoted literacy above all else. Little or no reference was made to science, social studies, music, or other areas. The children were looking forward to acquiring these skills and meeting the expectations of teachers. Even when it came to art, I was told artists need to go to school “to learn how to draw like they’re supposed to.”

Playground, from a child’s perspective

Wardrobe considerations were also important when it came to learning. As Marci confided “I had to buy a new backpack because I’ll need homework.” A thousand miles away, Brie confirmed that homework was coming. “You learn how to do homework and how to do letters. If you’re big people, you’ve got to do homework.”

Not everyone was excited about the prospect about learning, though. When I asked Dawn how she was feeling about going to kindergarten, she lamented “Well, I don’t think it’s going to be so good because you know it’s hard to really listen and, you know, stand around and learn something. It’s not going to be so good, because I know that it’s really hard to just learn because learning is a really hard job to do.”

In addition to the hard work of learning, children created a very strong association between going to kindergarten and playing.  They perceived kindergarten would be fun, linking it closely to the opportunity to play. Casey explained, “Kindergarten is really fun. You get to do fun things. You get to play. You get to play a lot.” Heading to school in the fall with her third-grade brother, Twyla was glad that she was going to be a kindergartner. “I think it’s going to be . . . big kids learning stuff and little kids playing.”

The importance of play in the lives of kindergartners was evident throughout the interviews and in their drawings, and they fully expected it to continue when they arrive in the fall.  Preschoolers envisioned kindergarten as an environment filled with toys, many new playmates, and opportunities to play both indoors and outdoors.  Although learning would take place in kindergarten, they were anticipating ample opportunities for play. And that meant being able to make some of their own choices. Learning was imposed, play was freely chosen. Many were resigned to the realization that they’d be making a transition to a more teacher-directed agenda, but hopeful that play wouldn’t have to be sacrificed.

In the end, children perceived kindergarten to be a place where they would both learn and play. They expected to acquire new skills and information in kindergarten and, although learning may be difficult, they wanted it and expected to be successful with it. They also made it clear how important play remained in their lives, as if pleading their case for retaining play in kindergarten.

The play debates are likely to continue for years to come. No one disputes the value of play in the lives of young children; nor do we dispute the need for children to gain important intellectual skills, not always gained independently. As discussions continue about the appropriate balance of each, let’s not forget that there is an additional stakeholder group involved–those who were born in 2009 or later.

Illustrator James Estes may have captured it in a cartoon conversation between two  preschoolers building castles in the sandbox, “Next year we have to start school . . . You realize that’ll be the end of life as we know it.” If it weren’t so true, it would be funny.

–Jim Squires, NIEER Senior Research Fellow


One state’s bold step toward the future

June 6, 2014

Whether they know it or not, future generations of Vermont’s preschoolers are much better off this week. Last week Gov. Peter Shumlin signed H. 270- An Act Relating to Providing Access to Publicly Funded Prekindergarten Education  to guarantee every 3- and 4-year-old living in the Green Mountain State voluntary access to state-funded pre-K. In so doing, Vermont joins a handful of states (FL, GA, IL, NY, OK, WV) and the District of Columbia who have made similar commitments, at least on paper.

Building upon Act 62 (2007) which permitted school districts to provide publicly funded pre-K for age-eligible children to attend high quality programs either through a public school or qualified private provider, the new law requires all school districts to either provide or pay for at least 10 hours/week of prekindergarten education for 35 weeks/year for all 3-, 4- and 5-year old children who are not enrolled in kindergarten in their district in a “pre-qualified program.” For a state already ranked fourth nationally for 4-year-olds and second for 3-year-olds attended state-funded pre-K, things got even better.

There are numerous positive features contained in the law: parental selection of qualified providers; geographic portability for families; greater access through regionally coordinated, mixed-model delivery systems; financial stability through the state’s education fund; uniform data collection for planning, program improvement, and accountability, including data on child progress to “help individualize instruction and improve program practice;” and joint monitoring by the Agencies of Education and Human Services. Most important, all means all for Vermont’s young children when it comes to early learning opportunity.

There is a downside to the new law, however. It missed an opportunity to improve quality.

Although Vermont is a perennial leader for access in NIEER’s State of Preschool Annual Yearbook, it also sits among the bottom tier of states for policies assuring quality and consistency. In 2012-2013, the level of quality remained unchanged as Vermont’s two early education programs continued to meet only four of NIEER’s 10 quality standard benchmarks. Only three states (CA, FL, TX) meet fewer benchmarks.

State leaders failed to resolve the issue quality with the passage of H. 270, and, as a result, children will not necessarily benefit from direct interactions with qualified educators in all settings. It let stand an Act 62 provision permitting vaguely defined “regular, active supervision and training” from a licensed teacher for unqualified educators, and allowing a loophole requiring a program to employ a qualified teacher who may have no direct teaching responsibilities. The low dosage, of 10 hours per week, remains inadequate to improve Vermont’s static kindergarten readiness figures, particularly for those more disadvantaged children, and parents may be required to pay additional fees to private providers to receive even the minimum 10 hours. Reimbursement for schools and participating providers remains well below the kindergarten rate, which also requires only 10 hours per week to generate full funding (the majority of districts provide FDK, however). Further, there is an apparent lack of consistent or complimentary curriculum models even within a district. The act takes one important step in the right direction by requiring state agencies to develop rules (they cannot take effect until 2016 at the earliest); however, the golden opportunity to establish quality on equal footing with access was lost, at best “kicked down the road,” with the Governor’s signing.

Ascribing to the notion that one should not let perfect be the enemy of good, I still tip my hat to Vermont for its bold commitment to becoming a universal pre-K state. Once they figure out how to insert “high-quality” between the words “universal” and “pre-K” with the resources to make it happen, the state will be atop everyone’s list.

–Jim Squires, NIEER Senior Research Fellow. Squires was the early childhood programs coordinator at the Vermont Department of Education, and was involved with development and passage of Vermont’s Act 62, an Act Relating to Prekindergarten Education.

 


STEM Challenges

June 2, 2014

From the National Journal: ” .  . . And let’s not forget the optics. Science is still for nerds, Bill Gates’ fame aside. These are teenagers we’re talking about, after all. To the average girl on the street, meeting the Seattle Seahawks is still way cooler than meeting a superstar rocket scientist. Even if she rooted for the Broncos.”

If that girl’s in preschool, though, she doesn’t yet think that the Seattle Seahawks are cooler than Sid the Science Kid.  She also hasn’t figured out that science and math are boring, difficult, and something that “other” (supersmart, nerdy) people do.

How can we ensure that she never does learn these lessons about STEM?  One way is to give her, and her peers, teachers who understand science and math, who understand how children learn them, and who understand how to support children as science and math learners. No argument from me that we need to improve STEM teaching in high school, but it’s far too late if we wait ’til then to engage students with decent science and math teaching.  Young kids are naturally drawn to math and science.  They count blocks and stairs and say, “no fair!” when they don’t get the same number of cookies as their sister. They question where cow babies come from, why leaves change color, what happens when you flush. They deserve teachers who can support–and maybe even share–this curiosity and enthusiasm.

Yet, many of the challenges for upper grades teaching plague earlier grades, too.  Anyone who understands math understands that they could do much better financially than teaching elementary school or, even worse, preschool. Teacher training programs for early education rarely require in-depth coursework in science and math, nor do they provide teacher candidates with enough opportunities to practice teaching these in real classrooms, with real kids.

Consider this a plea for putting a fair amount of these newly committed teacher training dollars into early education. Every child, in every year of his or her life, is a STEM learner. To create the STEM-literate society we want, to build the STEM workforce we need, to get kids as excited to meet physicists as football players, requires an overhaul of STEM teaching from pre-K to graduate school. Most of those Seahawks and Red Sox played Pee Wee and Little League. Don’t budding STEM professionals–and all those kids who will never go pro–deserve similar opportunities to build their skills and a lifelong love for science and math from their earliest years?

–Kimberly Brenneman, Assistant Research Professor, NIEER

This entry is cross-posted to The National Journal’s Education Insiders blog  in response to the prompt “Stem Challenges” from Fawn Johnson.


Raising the Bar for Early Education

May 28, 2014

Is early education and care a profession or not? The debate has dogged the field for decades. Positions taken by the workforce and organizations representing their interests seldom come to full agreement in scenarios reminiscent of the “tastes great; less filling” debates. This in-fighting, often played out between public pre-K, Head Start, and child care, does not center around the acknowledged value of the workforce’s intentions, efforts or contributions; rather, it stems from the field’s failure to consider what actually qualifies as a profession and its willingness to take it to the next level. Too often, terms such as “job,” “occupation,” and “career” are used interchangeably with “profession,” only clouding the issue.

Sociologist Byrne Horton (1944) provides an interesting lens to examine the issue. Based on an analysis of characteristics found across professions, his “Ten Criteria or Earmarks of a Genuine Profession”[i] contend, that a profession must:

  1. Satisfy an indispensable social need and be based upon well­ established and socially acceptable scientific principles.

    Even stock photos make it clear: this job is tough. But is it a "profession?"

    Even stock photos make it clear: this job is tough. But is it a “profession?”

  2. Demand adequate pre-professional and cultural training.
  3. Demand a body of specialized and systematized knowledge.
  4. Give evidence of needed skills that the general public does not possess.
  5. Have developed a scientific technique that is the result of tested experience.
  6. Require the exercise of discretion and judgment as to the time and manner of the performance of duty .
  7. Be a type of beneficial work, the result of which is not subject to standardization in terms of unit performance or time element.
  8. Have a group consciousness designed to extend scientific knowledge in technical language.
  9. Have sufficient self-impelling power to retain its members throughout life. It must not be used for a mere steppingstone to other occupations.
  10. Recognize its obligations to society by insisting that its members live up to an established and accepted code of ethics.

Other sociologists and scholars (Katz, 1985; Moore, 1970; Rich, 1984) have echoed Horton’s criteria.

Obviously, for early childhood teachers, we can check off some of the above. The commitment to expanding a scientific knowledge base for early education is burgeoning and the work addresses an indispensable social need. Based on all the criteria, however, I’d be hard-pressed to issue a resounding “Yes” if asked whether the field of early education and care currently qualifies as a profession.

Many of Horton’s criteria, particularly those addressing professional training and knowledge, are not uniformly expected, met, or enforced across our field. In a field where high school graduates lacking adequate pre-professional training or specialized knowledge work immediately and independently on par with others who have invested years in specialized training and degrees, we have a problem.  When people enter the field without knowledge and skills beyond that of the general public, we have a problem. With a track record of high attrition confirming our field’s inability to retain its members throughout life – due in part to demanding responsibilities for which they were not prepared and low compensation – we have a problem. Let’s be honest: as a result of a well-meaning effort to open a wide early education and care umbrella inviting all comers with and without qualification, our field fails to meet requisite criteria to be recognized as a profession. The lowest common denominator defines our field and as such we stumble in advancing as a profession. More important, we do a disservice to children, families, and colleagues.

A profession establishes the gate through which only qualified and competent individuals may enter to provide service. We have too many gates lacking uniform standards of quality. The NIEER 2012 State of Preschool Yearbook reported only 30 publicly-funded preschool programs in 25 states require lead teachers to have a BA; New York requires a Master’s degree. Programs in 4 states (Florida, Massachusetts, Texas, one program in Vermont) did not require lead teachers to have either a BA or specialized training in pre-K. Several state-funded pre-K programs operating in partnership with community-based child care programs permit lead teachers to have high school degrees or certificates, creating an uneven professional field within the same state or community.  Head Start has made tremendous strides in advancing the qualifications and skills of its teaching corps, surpassing ambitious targets through a combination of policy and support. Alternate pathways are made possible for para-professionals who commit to becoming professionals. Years in the field may provide valuable experience, but if not systematically approached to attain knowledge and skills well beyond those held by the general public, such experience may simply reinforce unprofessional or ineffective behaviors.

In Early Childhood Education for a New Era: Leading for Our Profession, Stacie Goffin portrays early education and care as a field of practice where reform is driven by external and internal forces, arguing that we need to assume responsibility for elevating and accelerating internal change. Speaking at the Maryland Department of Education Research Forum (January 2014), she warned “(v)oluntary strategies (are) not leading to practitioners collectively capable of competent practice” and that change must come from the “inside out.” I agree. As a profession, we must hold ourselves to high standards of excellence and accountability, not justifications for mediocrity. The gauntlet has been thrown.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention the need for adequate resources to elevate early education and care as a profession. Each of Horton’s 10 criteria has an associated price tag if an indispensable social need is to be addressed by knowledgeable, skillful, effective professionals who remain committed and supported throughout their professional lives. Parents cannot be expected to carry the full price any more than we can expect the children. As columnist Thomas Friedman said in a recent interview, “If we will the end, we must also will the means.” States, communities, business, and the federal government need to step up.

Certainly, we are further along the path to being recognized and valued as a profession, but now is not the time to rest. Until the field of early education and care comes to agreement on criteria for its “profession” and commits to meeting exemplary standards differentiating it from a “job” or “occupation,” we are destined to be viewed by the public as a lesser profession and reap commensurate benefits. It’s time for us to raise the bar.

- Jim Squires, Senior Research Fellow

[i] B. J. Horton. (1944). Ten criteria or earmarks of a genuine profession. Scientific Monthly, (58), p. 164.


Readiness and Opportunity Gaps in Early Education, 60 Years After Brown v. Board of Ed

May 19, 2014

Saturday marked the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, declaring that separate educational facilities are inherently unequal, and marking a major step forward in the Civil Rights movement. Yet 60 years later, equal access to high quality education remains a significant issue, and nowhere more so than in the preschool years.

A new report posted at the Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes (CEELO) describes readiness and opportunity gaps in access to high quality early education, reporting that access to quality “is highly unequal, despite the extent to which public policy at federal and state levels targets disadvantaged children. In part, this is because targeted programs too often are not high quality. Also, targeting is not as effective in reaching disadvantaged populations as policymakers naively assume.”kids learning 3

“Inequality of opportunity for good early education is a particular concern for African American, Hispanic, and non-English-speaking children,” conclude the authors, Milagros Nores and Steve Barnett (NIEER and CEELO). The brief includes a description of readiness gaps at kindergarten, opportunity gaps in early education that may contribute to the kindergarten readiness gap, access to care arrangements for young children, and the impact of state pre-K policy on child outcomes.

NIEER has covered promoting access to quality preschool for Black children in our blog, and in a paper on Equity and Excellence for African American children, and the National Journal recently featured an article on discrimination starting as early as preschool.

In discussing this anniversary, President Obama has no
ted
that “Brown v. Board of Education shifted the legal and moral compass of our Nation,” yet  “the hope and promise of Brown remains unfulfilled” in education. Preschool, especially high quality preschool supported by states, could provide a strong opportunity to begin fulfilling that promise before children even start kindergarten.


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