Preschool and politics

November 4, 2014

In a recent post, Fawn Johnson of the National Journal’s Education Insider asked

If everyone wants preschool, why isn’t it growing? What catalyst is needed to dramatically grow preschool enrollment? Why has it stalled? What can state and city governments do to increase enrollment?

There is ample evidence the public, across the country and across political orientations, strongly supports early childhood education; some states and cities are seeking ways to provide it:

Just before children started back to school this year, Gallup surveyed Americans on their attitudes towards the importance of education, including preschool education. Results continue to indicate strong backing for early childhood education programs, supported by federal funds, even when Americans believe that preschool (and college) are less important to long-term life outcomes than the K-12 years. Together, 73 percent of Americans polled indicated that they believe preschool is very important for future success in life.

Figure 1: How important would you say the education a person receives at preschool is to a person’s ability to succeed in life?

Figure1preKandPolls

Image from Gallup.

There are differences in perspective along political lines, (53 percent support from Republicans, 87 percent from Democrats); as well as by income (81 percent in low-income families compared to 65 percent in both middle- and high-income families); and by status as parents of young children (75 percent among families with children under 18, compared to 68 percent for those without), but overall, approval is strong, with 70 percent supporting the use of federal money to “make sure high quality preschool programs are available for every child.”

Since at least 2013, polls have been showing growing, strong, bipartisan enthusiasm for early childhood programs. Polling in July showed similar results. NIEER Director Steve Barnett wrote then about the importance of maintaining high quality standards when increasing access to programs—providing care is not enough, without quality, to lead to the short- and long-term outcomes the public now expects from preschool.

A poll in North Carolina also showed strong public affirmation (88 percent) across parties for investing more in preschool. Specifically, they support home visiting, teacher training to improve quality, and improved access to preschool (65 percent). There is variation by political party on preschool viewed generally (51 percent of Republicans, 58 percent of Independents, and 82 percent of Democrats) but strong agreement across affiliation for investing in classrooms and teacher training (81 percent of Republicans, 86 percent of Independents, and 94 percent of Democrats).

The Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students (GEEARS) just hosted an early education summit for candidates in the upcoming election. They discussed results of in-state polling indicating strong agreement on expanding voluntary pre-K in Georgia. Among those polled, 83 percent approved of using Georgia lottery funds to increase access to preschool.

Figure2govtexpand

Image from GEEARS.

Among Georgia respondents, 52 percent indicated they would be more likely to vote for a legislator who had worked to expand access to preschool. Overall, support was stronger among Democrats responding, although almost half of Republicans polled said they supported expanding access to preschool.

Politicians at all levels are responding to this public interest. This year, New York City has offered 50,000+ new preschool spots (not without some challenges) and states and cities across the country are wondering whether New York’s quick implementation can serve as a model for their own plans to scale up preschool programs. Across the country, states and cities are stepping up to find their own ways to increase access, along with quality. Politico recently reported on the role of pre-K in several high-profile races, including those in Maryland, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Texas. Several ballot initiatives as also focused on pre-K, including two separate initiatives in Seattle and San Francisco.

Preschool is on the rise in areas where it has historically not fared as well. Hawaiians are voting on a Constitutional amendment to allocate state funding to private preschools, an important question as the state seeks to expand public access to pre-K. The mayor of Indianapolis (in a state with no state-funded pre-K) has been working on an initiative introduced in July to provide scholarships for 4-year-olds to attend high quality preschools, and funds for programs to improve service quality. The scholarship program would be funded by reducing a tax credit to homeowners, at a cost of about $22 per home. Indiana has also introduced a 5-county pilot preschool program, and business and nonprofit leaders are strongly encouraging increased funding for that program to expands access.

At the federal level, there has also been movement toward expanding access to preschool programs. Two bills related to early childhood care and education have been addressed in Congress; the Child Care and Development Block Grant, which adds an increasing focus on quality in child care; and Strengthening Education Through Research, which will make data more accessible to schools, and research more relevant to policy decision-making. At least 30 states have also indicated their intent to apply for federal funding through Preschool Development Grants to introduce or expand state preschool programs; including Texas, which declined to participate in a previous round over Common Core concerns.

Along with improved access, voters also clearly want high-quality opportunities, as can be seen in a series of infographics from Grow America Stronger.

Figure3whatvoterswant

Image from Grow America Strong.

Grow America Strong also shows results by state. (Learn more about what makes a program great here.)

So the public is asking for high quality preschool. Some states and cities are looking for ways to make that happen. If yours isn’t one of them, maybe you should be asking why not.

—Kirsty Clarke Brown, NIEER Policy & Communications


Keeping early learning at arm’s length

October 29, 2014

We are a nation intrigued by lists, and I am no exception. I scour lists from top to bottom on any number of topics, from best companies to work for to international rankings for educational performance. I also look for any underlying trends that may tell the story behind the list.

It should come as no surprise that I eagerly reviewed the recently released list of states applying for $250 million in federal Preschool Development Grants. These grants–ranging in size from $5-20 million per state to develop a preschool program to $10–35 million annually for 4 years to expand existing preschool services for low- and moderate-income children–present an opportunity for states to reach children who have fallen between the cracks when it comes to participating voluntarily in a high-quality preschool, an opportunity the majority of Americans are clamoring for. Fifteen states and Puerto Rico were eligible to receive development funds with the remaining 35 states and District of Columbia eligible to expand existing programs.

As the list was released, 8 states and Puerto Rico submitted development applications and 27 states sought funding for program expansion. Eighteen states applying for expansion funds currently receive Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge (ELC) grants, with only ELC recipients Michigan and Wisconsin choosing not to apply.

States That Submitted Applications for the FY 2014 Preschool Development Grants

Screen Shot 2014-10-28 at 9.12.53 PM

Image from the US Department of Education Office of Early Learning

There are many lenses one can use to look for underlying story lines; geographic and political leadership being two common sets. Looking at a map of applicants, a swath across the Midwest extending from Canada to Mexico appears desolate if not for Texas’ application, and there must be something in the water leaving a bad taste for 3 of 4 states touching Lake Michigan–or all 3 states surrounding Yellowstone’s Old Faithful–causing them to keep this opportunity at arm’s length.

Governors were required to submit the application for these funds and, as such, wield a great deal of power and influence. And, if one were looking to pit Democrats against Republicans, she’d be disappointed, sort of. Half of the states seeking development grants, and 11 of 27 states going for the expansion gold, are red states, to demonstrate that early education is a bipartisan, perhaps nonpartisan issue for most states. Yet the glass looks half-empty as one considers the list of states not submitting applications. All 7 states eligible for development grants and 7 of 8 states eligible for expansion have Republican governors. Indiana was poised to submit an application, but Governor Pence’s decision to withhold his signature at the last moment, for reasons explained as the state initiates a pre-K pilot, moved it to the other side of the ledger. The hidden story behind decisions by Florida, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia may stem not from political disinterest, but from recognition that policies and resources have already resulted in achieving near-universal access for 4-year-olds.

Opportunities like this do not come along often. I’d be naïve to think that politics play an inconsequential role in this day and age. Based on the actions of states to pursue Preschool Development Grant funds, one can reasonably conclude that support for pre-K is bipartisan; however, the opposition to pre-K still remains partisan. As a result, the opportunity gap is alive and well, when it could be addressed with political will and leadership, and, I fear, we are destined to admire the problem of straight-arming children who continue to fall through the cracks.

–Jim Squires, NIEER Senior Research Fellow


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


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.


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


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


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