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


Why preschool critics are wrong

February 28, 2014

In a recent blog on his Brookings Institution site, Grover Whitehurst claims that the preponderance of scientific evidence does not indicate lasting positive benefits from preschool.  Others disagree, he says, because they are not as “picky” about the evidence. As there is no disputing taste, I assume he means that the research he prefers is more rigorous and relevant, not just better aligned with his personal preferences.  Hence, we would be looking for a valid and reliable process when he arrays the research and grades each study.  In fact, his list of studies and his analyses are appallingly inaccurate for someone who claims to be an expert.  As shown in detail below, Whitehurst omits much of the relevant research, and he misrepresents the studies that he includes. Steven Barnett

Whitehurst claims that “Not one of the studies that has suggested long-term positive impacts of center-based early childhood programs has been based on a well-implemented and appropriately analyzed randomized trial.”   This claim is false based even on the studies he does cite.  His own statements in the blog regarding the Perry Preschool study and its re-analyses by Jim Heckman contradict this claim, as do older analyses demonstrating that minor departures from random assignment in the Perry study had no substantive effects on the results.[1] No study is perfect, so it is seems odd that Perry receives an A- for an inconsequential fault when other less than perfect studies get an A. Then there is the Infant Health and Development program (IHDP) study, which Whitehurst assigns higher grades than Perry, but which he seems to forget when making his “not one” study claim.

Yet Whitehurst’s credibility problem is far more serious when one turns to the studies that are missing from his analysis.

In fact, a number of other well-implemented and appropriately analyzed randomized trials find lasting effects from preschool education.  For example, a study of long-term effects conducted by the Institute for Developmental Studies (IDS) included 402 children randomly assigned to a public school pre-K program or to a control group at age 4 for one year.[2]  A teacher and an aide staffed each preschool classroom of 17 children. Positive effects were found through at least third grade.  Even longer term follow-up indicates adult gains in achievement, educational attainment, and employment, but suffers from severe attrition. So while we can have strong confidence in the results through third grade, we have less confidence in the very long-term results.  However, the findings for adults are consistent with the earlier results in the elementary grades and with findings in Perry and other studies.  Another randomized trial of preschool education is noteworthy because it was conducted with relatively advantaged children, and it also found evidence of lasting effects on achievement into the early elementary grades.[3]

Inexplicably, Whitehurst fails to recognize a large number of studies (once again including well-implemented randomized trials) that compare one form of preschool education to another to study the effects of curriculum, length of day, and other features.  When such studies find lasting differences due to the type of preschool program, from the end of kindergarten to the end of high school, they add to the evidence that high-quality preschool education per se has long-term effects.  This literature includes studies (herehere, and here) over many years, some begun decades ago with very long-term follow-ups and some very recent with much shorter follow-ups.[4]  These studies also add to the evidence for successful scale up in large-scale public programs.

As preschool research is conducted in other countries, not just the United States, there is a broad range of research Whitehurst omits that finds lasting benefits from quality preschool education, including rigorous studies in countries with universal programs and additional well-implemented, appropriately analyzed randomized trials.[5]  When similar outcomes from quality pre-K are found with different populations in different contexts, such studies are confirmatory—not irrelevant.  Taken together, they indicate that the relationships between quality preschool education and long-term outcomes are quite robust with respect to variations in the children and families served.

Returning to the matter of how Whitehurst represents the few studies he prefers to include, the ongoing Tennessee evaluation of pre-K effectiveness is one of only two to receive double A grades.  He calls this study a well-implemented and analyzed Random Control Trial (RCT) and reports that it finds no differences later in elementary school.

This description of the Tennessee study and its findings is shockingly inaccurate.

The Tennessee pre-K evaluation includes both a large randomized trial of pre-K that follows children using the data routinely collected by schools, and a smaller intensive substudy (ISS) in which randomization failed.  The results Whitehurst cites come from that substudy, which is not analyzed as a randomized trial.  Let me quote directly from the study authors: “The nonconsent rates for the two cohorts in the ISS sample mean that we do not have data on the main ISS outcomes for many of the children who were initially randomized, so analysis on the basis of that randomization is not possible.”[6]  To be perfectly clear, because so many fewer parents in the control group agreed to have their children tested in the substudy, randomization was not used to analyze the data.  Instead, the substudy used a quasi-experimental approach of the type that Whitehurst otherwise gives lower grades.

Yet it is not just the Tennessee study’s methods that are misrepresented, but also its results.  While the full randomized trial will not provide test score results until children reach the state’s third grade tests, it does provide results for grade retention.  Let me again quote the study’s authors directly:

For the Intensive Substudy sample, there was a statistically significant difference between the 4.1% of the TN‐VPK participants who were retained in kindergarten compared to the 6.2% retention rate for the nonparticipants. This effect was confirmed in Cohort 1 of the full randomized sample, with retention data still unavailable for Cohort 2 of that sample. In Cohort 1, 4.0% of the TN‐VPK participants were retained in kindergarten compared to 8.0% of the nonparticipants, also a statistically significant difference.[7]

In other words, analyses of both the compromised Tennessee substudy and the full randomized trial find that the pre-K program significantly reduced grade retention in kindergarten.  The only finding from this adequately randomized part of the Tennessee study is this persistent positive effect, and this effect is twice as large as that found in the quasi-experimental substudy (which still finds a significant positive effect of pre-K).  Yet, Whitehurst reported the study found “no differences later.”

I could go on to list additional problems with Whitehurst’s review, but surely these suffice to demonstrate that his summary of the evidence is just plain wrong–not picky.

- W. Steven Barnett, Director, NIEER and CEELO

This entry originally appeared in Valerie Strauss’ education blog “The Answer Sheet” at the Washington Post.

[1] Weikart, D.P., Bond, J.T., & McNeil, J.T. (1978). The Ypsilanti Perry Preschool Project: Preschool years and longitudinal results through fourth grade. Ypsilanti, MI: HighScope. Barnett, W.S. (1996). Lives in the balance: Age 27 benefit-cost analysis of the High/Scope Perry Preschool Program. Ypsilanti, MI: HighScope.

[2] Deutsch, M., Taleporos, E., & Victor, J. (1974). A brief synopsis of an initial enrichment program in early childhood. In S. Ryan (Ed.), A report on longitudinal evaluations of preschool programs Volume 1: Longitudinal evaluations (pp. 49-60). Washington, DC: Office of Child Development, US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Deutsch, M. , Deutsch, C. P. , Jordan, T. J. , & Grallo, R. (1983). The IDS program: An experiment in early and sustained enrichment. In Consortium for Longitudinal Studies (Ed. ). As the Twig is Bent: Lasting Effects of Preschool Programs(pp. 377-410). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. Jordan, T. J. , Grallo, R. , Deutsch, M. , & Deutsch, C. P. (1985). Long-term effects of early enrichment: A 20-year perspective on persistence and change. American Journal of Community Psychology13(4), 393-415.

[3] Larsen, J. M. , & Robinson, C. C. (1989). Later effects of preschool on low-risk children. Early Childhood Research Quarterly4, 133-144.

[4] Schweinhart, L. J. & Weikart, D. P. (1996). Lasting differences: The High/Scope Preschool Curriculum Comparison Study through age 23. Ypsilanti, M: High/Scope. Chambers, B. , Cheung, A. , Slavin, R. E. , Smith, D. , & Laurenzano, M. (2010). Effective early childhood education programmes: a best-evidence synthesis. Reading, England: CfBT Education Trust. Robin, K. B. , Frede, E. C. , & Barnett, W. S. (2006). Is More Better? The Effects of Full-Day vs Half-Day Preschool on Early School Achievement. New Brunwick, NJ: National Institute for Early Education Research. Preschool Curriculum Evaluation Research Consortium (2008). Effects of Preschool Curriculum Programs on School Readiness (NCER 2008-2009). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Research, Institute of Education Sciences, U. S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: U. S. Government Printing Office. Clements, D. H. , & Sarama, J. (2011). Early childhood mathematics intervention. Science333 (6045), 968-970.

[5] Ruhm, C. J. , & Waldfogel, J. (2012). Long term effect of early childcare and education. Nordic Economic Policy Review. Economics of Education, 23-51. Apps, P. , Mendolia, S. , & Walker, I. (2013). The impact of pre-school on adolescents’ outcomes: Evidence from a recent English cohort. Economics of Education Review37, 183-199.

Raine, A. , Mellingen, K. , Liu, J. , Venables, P. , & Mednick, S. A. (2003). Effects of environmental enrichment at ages 3–5 years on schizotypal personality and antisocial behavior at ages 17 and 23 years. American journal of psychiatry160(9), 1627-1635.

[6] Lipsey, M. W. , Hofer, K. G. , Dong, N. , Farran, D. C. , & Bilbrey, C. (2013). Evaluation of the Tennessee voluntary prekindergarten program: Kindergarten and first grade follow-up results from the randomized control design (pp. 22-23). Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt Peabody College.

[7] Lipsey, M. W., Hofer, K. G., Dong, N., Farran, D. C., & Bilbrey, C. (2013). Evaluation of the Tennessee voluntary prekindergarten program: Kindergarten and first grade follow-up results from the randomized control design (p. 50). Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt Peabody College.


The Profound Impact of Early Education

February 10, 2014

Every family in the United States should be able enroll their child in good preschool program, beginning at age three and ought to have access to good child care–including that provided by themselves at home–for infants and toddlers.  The benefits would be profound for our children and the larger society, especially children from low-income families–half of all young children–but not only for them. Today we are far from achieving this vision of a more nurturing society and our progress has been painfully slow over the last two decades.  All levels of government will have to increase their support for young children and families, including the federal government which can best lead the way by priming the pump–providing financial support and incentives that encourage and enable state and local governments to develop sustainable quality programs.  For example, federal matching funds that start off big and gradually decline are well-designed to address the major challenge to state and local funding of pre-K: states must pay for pre-K now, but the off-setting cost-savings grow year by year as children progress through the grades.

Only about half of 3-and-4-year-olds attend a preschool program. From a national observational study where the quality of care for 4-year-olds was directly observed, we know that few children attend good preschool programs. Public programs improve quality somewhat for children in poverty, so children in middle-income families actually attend worse programs on average. However, many young children are in family day care homes that provide even worse care, so much so that the family day care homes attended by most African-American and Hispanic children are of low quality. Our under-funded child care subsidy systems are perversely designed to encourage this and may actually increase the number of children in settings that harm their development.  As Cindy Lamy and I point out in our chapter in the recently published book Closing the Opportunity Gap, edited by Prudence Carter and Kevin Welner, much of the educational failure and inequality that plagues our country is rooted in children’s experiences before they enter kindergarten.

In recent debates some have claimed that the federal government already spends a great deal on the care and education of young children and that most of this is wasted on ineffective programs. These claims are based on faulty math and misrepresentation of the evidence. Take for example, Grover Whitehurst’s estimate that the federal government spends $5,000 on every young child in poverty. He begins with $20 billion in annual spending on children–fair enough, Ron Haskins and I calculated that number together. But there are 5 million children in poverty, which yields $4,000 per child in poverty. And, of course, all of this is not spent just on children in poverty, so it would be much more reasonable to divide by the number of children under 5 in low income families = about 10 million children, and a  figure of $2,000 per child.

How does federal spending on disadvantaged young children’s care and education compare with federal largesse more generally?  Let’s consider two examples. The tax break for capital gains and dividends which allows wealthy hedge fund managers to pay a 15% income tax rate costs taxpayers $83 billion annually. In 2012, the federal government spent more than $20 billion on farm subsidies received by a small, relatively wealthy population. The 2014 farm bill increases so-called “crop insurance” subsidies that are actually open-ended revenue insurance for farmers.  If Congress set evidence-based priorities for all programs based on returns to the taxpayers, young children would see more money, not less.

What about the claims that federal money spent on young children is wasted?  I would have to agree that lost opportunities abound, but not as the critic’s suppose. Let’s get this clear: the Head Start national impact study’s oft cited intent-to-treat estimates grossly underestimate the program’s actual impacts, and even modest Head Start benefits likely generate benefits that exceed costs. Critics also seem to be in some kind of time warp that missed the last decade of Head Start reform and the evidence that these reforms increased effects on language and literacy development (if only Congress would call an expert in early language and literacy development to testify, surely this would be noted).

The biggest problems with federal programs for young children are that they ask too much of too little money. Nevertheless, both child care and Head Start spending could be better focused on learning and teaching. No amount of wishful thinking will permit this to be accomplished by reducing their budgets or just giving the money to states. The first step to improve Head Start should be doubling notoriously low salaries for highly effective teachers. The second step should be to dramatically reduce bureaucratic compliance requirements for any Head Start that agrees to be judged instead by teaching quality and children’s learning gains. The President’s pre-K proposal is in its own way a Head Start reform proposal that puts states in charge of the education of 4-year-olds; those two steps I set out above would go far toward enabling Head Start to integrate with and enhance state pre-K. States like West Virginia and New Jersey have already successfully integrated their programs with Head Start and child care at high standards. Federal policy that followed such leads could support states to significantly improve opportunity for America’s youngest citizens.

- Steve Barnett, Director, NIEER

This entry is cross-posted to The National Journal’s Education Insiders blog  in response to the prompt “The ‘Noble Intention’ of Giving Early Education” from Fawn Johnson.


New York in a Preschool State of Mind

January 21, 2014

This afternoon, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo presented his budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2015, including significant investment in state-funded pre-K. The Governor called for an investment of $1.5 billion over five years, starting with $100 million in its first year up to $500 million in its fifth year. This funding is meant in addition to the $410 million the state already spends on its “Universal” Prekindergarten Program, with the goal of helping the program move towards the “universal” part of its name.

Pre-K has become a hot topic in the Empire State.  New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, as we have written before, has made universal pre-K in the Big Apple a key focus of his campaign as well as his first month in office. De Blasio has noted that while many New York City children are served in publicly funded preschool programs, demand far outstrips availability, and he has proposed an increased income tax on those earning over $500,000 to raise the estimated $340 million needed to pay for pre-K for all. An increase in New York City income tax would need to be approved by the state legislature. Governor Cuomo has stated his support of pre-K but also his opposition to increasing taxes, remaining true to his word today by proposing a plan to build pre-K into the state budget without creating a new tax.

It is easy to see these proposals as an either/or proposition, but the best route for New York’s educational and economic prosperity is both. We applaud Governor Cuomo’s focus on high-quality, full-day universal pre-K and a renewed commitment to providing funding for the program. Implicitly, this recognizes that, to date, the program has undercut quality, provided mostly half-days, and fallen far short of universal in reach. NIEER’s estimate of the cost of a high-quality, full-day program in New York state is just under $10,000 per child. In its first year, the $100 million expansion of the UPK program could fully fund 10,195, or 4 percent, of the state’s 4-year-olds. This would barely chip away at the gap of 50,000 children de Blasio has reported as having no or inadequate access to pre-K.  However, that assumes that nothing is done to raise quality or extend to a full-day existing slots, which could more than consume the entire $100 million without serving any new children.

Giving New York City the autonomy to raise its own taxes in order to invest in educating its children would ensure real progress toward raising quality and providing a full day, while increasing access.  It also would protect the spirit of local control that exists in American education and is one of the key strengths of the American approach to public education. Other cities and towns in the state may choose to move ahead more quickly, as well.

Governor Cuomo’s proposal was only announced today, and key details remain to be specified. In the ensuing conversations about how to proceed, New York could learn important lessons from the Abbott preschool program in New Jersey, which has built one of the highest quality preschool programs in the nation (for a discussion of the lessons learned from this program, see Steve Barnett’s video lecture as well as recent coverage in Slate and The American Prospect). For pre-K to truly succeed as a system, the state needs to set feasible timelines and research-based quality standards. Programs also need support in meeting those standards, as seen in New Jersey’s support of early childhood educator training programs to create a qualified, highly effective workforce. Pre-K cannot exist in a vacuum, but must be coordinated with child care and Head Start programs in the state. This is already underway in New York’s mixed delivery model. Finally, New York state must commit to what it would actually cost to fully meet their goal of full-day highly effective early education for all with a hard deadline for achieving that goal. NIEER provides estimates of the per-child cost of a high-quality program in its Yearbook. A joint report from the Center for Children’s Initiatives and The Campaign for Educational Equity focuses on the questions of funding and timing specifically in a New York context. Basing program funds on what can be found in the budget, rather than studying actual costs of providing a quality universal program, is a recipe for underfunding.

It is heartening to see two such high-profile elected leaders competing over who has the “best“ pre-K plan. Particularly as UPK in New York has been underfunded for well over a decade, it is our sincere hope that Cuomo and de Blasio can work together on both state- and city-level initiatives to create a quality, stable program and ensure that all of New York’s children are off to the bright start they deserve. From our perspective, the best option is likely to be implementing both plans–and together they can transform New York into a model for Governors and Mayors throughout the nation who seek to provide the best 21st Century education and brightest future for all young children.

- W. Steven Barnett, Director, NIEER & CEELO

Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER  & CEELO


Don’t STEM the Tide of Curiosity

December 13, 2013

The future economic viability of our country relies on a STEM-literate citizenry and workforce, but we aren’t educating our children to be science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) literate.  Research evidence is mounting for the importance of math and science school readiness for long-term achievement in these areas and in reading; yet, we leave behind so many children from low-resource communities.  Children who are as curious, able, and eager to learn as their middle class peers arrive at school behind in math and science knowledge and skills.  These gaps are likely to widen during the school years.

Child in lab goggles

The author’s son embraces his inner scientist, with proper safety precautions.
Used with permission of Kimberly Brenneman.

We have to change the equation here.  It’s not just an economic imperative; it’s a moral one.  Our challenge is to provide children with the kinds of home and preschool experiences that are good bets to improve school readiness in math and science.  Last week I returned from my fourth professional meeting in as many weeks.  Despite logging thousands of miles on United and Amtrak; spending nearly as many nights at the Marriott as in my own bed; and nearly being buried under the resulting blizzard of receipts and reimbursement forms, I am more enthusiastic and energetic about the field than I’ve been in years…maybe ever. At every one of those meetings I met, spoke to, learned from, and collaborated with people who share my passion for early childhood science, technology, engineering, and math education and are prepared to accept the challenge of improving early STEM readiness.

It is particularly satisfying to see the variety of groups interested in this issue. The Heising-Simons Foundation convened a group of researchers and funders to discuss ways to improve family engagement in children’s early math learning.  At the National Governor’s Association meeting, policymakers and researchers brainstormed ways to bring early math to the forefront of education policy.  Colleagues and I gave presentations to hundreds of educators at the National Association for the Education of Young Children, each of whom wanted to improve their professional skills so that they could better support young children as science learners. At the National Science Foundation’s December 3 STEM Smart meeting, focused on early education, 300 researchers, teachers, education administrators, policymakers, funders, and business people came together to further our knowledge about early childhood STEM learning and teaching.   The waiting list had 150 more names on it. I even tried my hand at Twitter for the first time so I could participate in a TweetChat on improving STEM outreach in early childhood education, organized by PreschoolNation. How can I not be energized by this shared will and desire to do the hard work of figuring out how to harness our knowledge, enthusiasm, and unique perspectives to make progress?

It won’t be easy. It’s going to require a great deal of will, a great deal of working together, and a great deal of funding to meet the challenge of providing solid supports for STEM learning for every child.  Given the economics of early education, high quality programs in preschool are a good bet to yield a high return on investment, so that these young kids stay in the STEM pipeline and get the high paying STEM jobs.  And that’s important.  The military, the tech industry, medicine, engineering, and many other fields require a highly skilled workforce.  But before we get to that, we’ve got hundreds of thousands of preschool children who are not only eager to learn, but also eager to learn science, technology, engineering, and math.  I know I don’t want to lose even one of them because we adults–who had the opportunity and responsibility to improve science education–didn’t work together or try hard enough.  After the last few weeks, I know I am far from alone in my determination to take up the challenge.

- Kimberly Brenneman, Assistant Research Professor, NIEER


Equity and Excellence: African-American Children’s Access to Quality Preschool

November 18, 2013

A new paper, Equity and Excellence: African-American Children’s Access to Quality Preschool, by Steve Barnett and Megan Carolan at NIEER and David Johns of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans (WHIEEAA), examines the critical issue of providing access to quality early childhood programs to African American children. In a collaboration with the Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes and the WHIEEAA, their brief addresses the inequities in access for African American children before they even start public school, and how “equitable access to good early childhood education offers great potential for reducing the achievement gap for African-American children.”

That brief is under discussion today in a panel at the U.S. Department of Education discussing creating and expanding early learning opportunities in the African American community. Children eating lunch

The panel discussion will highlight findings from this report, and “Being Black is Not a Risk Factor,” a report released by the National Black Child Development Institute. Both reports “support the President’s investments in high quality early learning opportunities and highlight specific opportunities for African American children and families.”

“The “achievement gap” between students of different social and economic backgrounds can be directly linked to opportunity gaps, including lower access to high-quality education opportunities, “ note Barnett and Carolan. This is measured often in the K-12 years, but, say the authors, “African-American children, and others whose educational needs are poorly met in the first five years of life, fall behind before they even start Kindergarten.”

They found that African American children are disproportionately enrolled in low quality programs, compared to their White and Hispanic peers, in both center- and home-based care. In Head Start programs, serving children from low-income families “only about 1 in 4 African-American students received services in [high quality] centers,” compared to about 1 in 4 White or Hispanic children. The report examines primary care arrangements for children and enrollment in state prekindergarten programs. Several states serving large populations of African American children do have state pre-K programs, but quality, funding, and policies affecting programs do vary among those states.

The authors examine child outcomes too, and report ample evidence that access to high quality preschool programs can make a positive difference for African American children of all income levels in terms of child development outcomes and achievement.

Barnett, Carolan, and Johns recommend:

  • Increasing public support for high-quality preschool to expand access to African-American children and to ensure that the programs they attend are, in fact, of high quality.
  • As 45 percent of young African-American children live in poverty and 70 percent live in low income families, programs limited to children in poverty will still leave many of them without access to quality preschool education, even if perfectly targeted, which is improbable.  Offering high-quality preschool to children living below 200 percent of the federal poverty level would reach most, but the most effective way to ensure that African-American children have access to effective early education prior to kindergarten would be to offer quality pre-K to all children.
  • Some states with large African-American populations seem unlikely to set high standards or expand access significantly unless something changes.  Federal incentives for states to expand access to state pre-K, and to ensure that these programs are highly effective, would provide impetus for state policy changes that would greatly benefit African-American children.
  • Ensure that data are routinely collected and reported on access to pre-K programs by income and ethnicity and that data on quality is collected periodically.  Many states cannot report enrollment in pre-K by family background, so that access to programs by African-American children is not routinely measured.  The most recent national data with information on quality are from 2005.  Another round of quality data should be collected to track change; ideally this would be done every five years to inform policy makers and the public. If this is planned for 2015, it will be ten years since the last collection of nationwide quality data.
Dorothy StricklandProfessor Emeritus, Distinguished Research Fellow, NIEER

Pre-K Returns to Capitol Hill

November 13, 2013

Today, U.S. Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) and U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-CA), Rep. Richard Hanna (R-NY), Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and actress Jennifer Garner discussed a bipartisan proposal to expand access to quality, early childhood education programs for children from birth to age 5.snack time 2

The Harkin-Miller-Hanna proposal, the Strong Start for America’s Children Act, is intended to strengthen and add to the existing state-funded programs currently provided by 40 states and the District of Columbia, using the foundation of the framework outlined by President Obama in his 2013 State of the Union Address.

“The bill recognizes that every child needs a good early education and calls for quality by offering states incentives to take the lead rather than imposing mandates,” says Steve Barnett, Director of the National Institute for Early Education Research. “The bill seeks to enable every state to do what the best state programs already do for their children.”

The 10-year implementation bill would  “fund preschool for 4-year old children from families earning below 200% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL), and encourage states to spend their own funds to support preschool for young children with family incomes above that income level.”

It includes “a new federal-state partnership with formula funding for 4-year old preschool, with a state match, to all eligible states, based on each state’s proportion of 4-year olds under 200% of the FPL. States would provide subgrants to high-quality, local providers, including local educational agencies (LEAs) and community-based providers (such as child care and Head Start programs) that have partnerships with LEAs.”

There is an Early Head Start partnership proposed as well, to focus on providing services to infants and toddlers.

The proposal highlights critical elements of quality for birth-to-five programs, including several that NIEER has highlighted as essential for a federal program, requiring, among other things:

  • strong staff qualifications, including a bachelor’s degree for teachers;
  • developmentally appropriate, evidence-based curricular and learning environments aligned with the state’s early learning standards;
  • adequate salaries for well-trained staff, comparable with K-12 teacher salaries;
  • access to high-quality professional development;
  • accessible comprehensive serves, including health, mental health, dental, vision screening, referrals and assistance in obtaining services (when appropriate), family engagement, nutrition and other support services as determined in a local needs analysis; and
  • ongoing program evaluation.

The proposal is comprehensive, in encouraging alignment of early learning standards with K-12 standards and ensuring that standards cover all domains of readiness; that data from preschool are linked to K-12 data; and that state-funded kindergarten is provided. Links to encourage seamless provision of services to children from birth through five are also included.

Programs are asked to address the needs of children who are homeless, migrant, in foster care, needing reduced-price or free lunch, English language learners, or with disabilities.

In a recent column, Nicholas Kristoff of the New York Times highlighted Oklahoma’s preschool program as an example of how states could provide quality preschool, along the lines of what’s included in the Harkin-Miller-Hannah proposal. He cites bipartisan support for that program:

It’s promising that here in Oklahoma, early education isn’t seen as a Republican or Democratic initiative. It is simply considered an experiment that works. After all, why should we squander human capacity and perpetuate social problems as happens when we don’t reach these kids in time?

“This isn’t a liberal issue,” said Skip Steele, a Republican who is a Tulsa City Council member and strong supporter of early education. “This is investing in our kids, in our future. It’s a no-brainer.”

Results of the Oklahoma program have been evaluated by NIEER and others, providing encouraging reasons to support this proposal. Preschool has increasingly taken a place in the national political spotlight, factoring in several major elections earlier this month. The introduction of this bill has the potential to spur major conversations and move pre-K further up the education agenda. Assisting states in providing universal access to comprehensive programs for children from birth to 5, can provide a powerful opportunity for positive outcomes and success for children throughout their school years.

-Kirsty Clarke Brown, Policy and Communications Advisor


Early Education in the Voting Booth

November 4, 2013

Education policy is often a campaign issue for politicians and very heavily debated in both major political parties. Lately, preschool has made its way to the forefront of political debate for both sides since the President proposed his “Preschool for All” plan, proposing incentives for states to offer high quality universal preschool to all children during his 2013 State of the Union address. On both sides of the political aisle many agree early education is fundamentally important for a child’s development and economic productivity, but there is more disagreement about the role of government and eligibility for government assistance with pre-K. Keeping up with where different candidates stand on these issues is important for the voter interested in education policy issues.  child raising hand in class

In New Jersey’s gubernatorial race, Democratic Senator Barbara Buono recently proposed an education initiative that would include expanding preschool and full day kindergarten. While Buono has not released a budget breakdown for this somewhat vague proposal, the campaign for Republican Governor Chris Christie has said this initiative would add an extra $3 billion to New Jersey’s education budget, currently standing at about $33 billion. New Jersey’s education budget is already one of the largest in the country, spending over $19,000 per child on education (in the 2011-2012 school year). Christie has expressed his concern with funding such an extensive early childhood program and has largely criticized Buono’s education plan and dismissed it due to its high cost. Senator Buono is prepared to increase New Jersey income tax and plans to use the millionaire’s tax to fund this large-scale program. According to NIEER’s calculations, roughly $300 to $600 million would be required if all 4-year-olds not already in a public program were offered pre-K for a half or full day, respectively. Given the discrepancy, it is unclear where the Christie campaign is acquiring its numbers, and additionally not all funding would necessarily come from the state. It is worth noting that in 2008, the New Jersey legislature passed the School Funding Reform Act which would incorporate Abbott preschool program funding into the formula and eventually expand the program to all 3- and 4-year-olds in 82 high poverty districts, eventually reaching an additional 30,000 children statewide. However, the expansion has stalled in the wake of budget difficulties. We would like to see a debate over the benefits and costs of pre-K expansion in New Jersey with hard, reliable numbers, and see this continue beyond the campaign regardless of who is in the governor’s offices, focusing particularly on the SFRA expansion which is already on the books. To date, New Jersey has done quite well with its investment in pre-K and there are several programs with a wide range of costs, all of them relative bargains.

Virginia’s gubernatorial race has raised attention around preschool as well. Republican candidate Ken Cuccinelli has criticized his Democrat opponent Terry McAuliffe’s education plans, which include expanding preschool, boosting teacher salaries, and making college more affordable. McAuliffe proposes expanding Medicaid coverage to save Virginia about $500 million dollars to use for education. Cuccinelli predicts that the pre-K spending will be far higher than this, estimating a $3.8 billion dollar price tag.  Virginia spends less than $4,000 per preschooler currently and has only about 75,000 4-year-olds not already in a public program.   NIEER’s estimate this to be $300 million, which assumes full enrollment although some families will choose private or homeschooling. Virginia could be spending more per pupil to raise program quality, but state costs are still unlikely to exceed $500 million even if the state paid the local share. Cuccinelli has proposed a voucher-like scholarship plan for preschoolers to expand options for children in low-performing schools.

New York City’s mayoral race has also included preschool in the debates. Democratic candidate and current Public Advocate Bill DeBlasio’s education plan involves creating a universal preschool program by increasing taxes on those who earn over $500,000. This would raise revenue for a universal preschool amounting to $580 million. Republican mayoral candidate Joseph Lhota is also a supporter of universal preschool and all day pre-kindergarten, though he disagrees with the funding plan for the program. Lhota says the money to fund universal preschool is already within the budget and government needs to “find more efficiencies to pay for programs just like this.” In New York, there seems to be agreement that a lack of preschool results in an achievement gap initiated by the large income gap that the city holds. As DeBlasio calls it, it is a “Tale of Two Cities,” with New York having such a large income gap. Research has demonstrated that universal preschool can equalize the playing field for students by increasing test score percentiles in all income groups in children. Providing universal preschool also will minimize income inequalities over time, and could increase future earnings for disadvantaged children by 7 percent to 15 percent. New York state is already discussing expanding its preschool program. By minimizing the income gap in education, the achievement gap will in turn shrink over time.

Several other elections have early education implications, including Boston, Colorado, Memphis, and Maryland. On November 5th, many citizens will vote for their choice candidates. Education, especially early education, is a critical topic that not only affects us today, but also affects our future; something to keep in mind as you head for the ballot box.

- Michelle Horowitz, Policy Research Assistant


Switching Lanes: New Roadmap for New York Universal Prekindergarten

October 24, 2013

While New York provides state-funded pre-K to 44 percent of its 4-year-olds, the state has consistently fallen short of the “universal” aim of its goals. A new effort from the Center for Children’s Initiatives (CCI) and The Campaign for Educational Equity (CEE) aims to change that, with today’s release of Making Prekindergarten Truly Universal in New York: A Statewide Roadmap.

The Roadmap is the result not only of a rigorous research process, but also of several meetings hosted by CCI and CEE with leaders in early childhood and New York-specific education policy, to fully understand the needs of early childhood students. NIEER Director Steve Barnett said, in response to this Roadmap, “The proposed road map to universal pre-K is the single most powerful education reform that New York could undertake.  It would ensure that every child has the opportunity to succeed in school from the very beginning.  This is a road map to equity and excellence that will raise test scores while decreasing costly failure, repetition, and special education.” A similar program in New Jersey districts with a high concentration of low-income families has already produced student gains and cost-saving benefits for schools. Choosing to follow this roadmap could put New York on the path to greater long-term economic growth and a better start for thousands of children.

Barnett wrote about New York in March, offering recommendations for how the state should move from its not-so-universal program to a program serving all children in the state: focusing on quality, a realistic timeline, and ensuring stable and adequate funding. The CCI and CEE report addresses these with its key recommendations, proposing an 8-year timeline to provide access for all 3- and 4-year-olds in the state:

  • Years 1-3: All 4-year-olds in districts with high concentration of low-income households
  • Adult playing cars with childYears 4-5: All 4-year-olds in all districts
  • Years 6-7: All 3-year-olds in districts with high concentration of low-income households
  • Years 8: All 3-year-olds in all districts

The proposal has a distinct focus on ensuring that program funding is adequate to

support a high-quality program, including health, social, and family engagement services, as well as funds for infrastructure to bring the program to scale. Prekindergarten funding should also be incorporated into the K-12 state education finance system. Initially, the state should pay the full cost of pre-K, with the long-term goal of appropriate state/local cost sharing.

How do CCI and CEE define “quality?” Many of their recommendations align with what NIEER recommends in the research-based 10 Quality Standards Benchmarks in the State of Preschool Yearbook.  Standards for New York include:

  • Provide access to a full-day (six hours and 20 minutes) program, five days per week, 180 days per year. Extended hours should be made available where needed.
  • Maintain current state limits of no more than 17 students with one teacher and one assistant, but cap classes at 15 students with one teacher and one assistant where substantial numbers of students need more intensive support, including English Language Learners and students with disabilities.
  • Pre-K teacher in all settings should have a B-2 instructional certificate, or certification for teaching students with disabilities or English Language Learners valid in the early childhood grades, within five years.
  • All teaching assistants within five years should have at least “Level 1 teaching assistant certification,” and the state will move towards requiring all to have a Child Development Associate (CDA).
  • Maintain current professional development requirements (175 hours per 5 years for lead teachers), with the goal of 40 hours per year.
  • State should provide list of curricula aligned with New York State Prekindergarten Foundation for the Common Core. The list should be reviewed every two years.
  • Provide comprehensive services and supports for at-risk students, students with disabilities, and English Language Learners (ELLs).
  • Provide safe, quality, and accessible learning environments.
  • Provide and sustain data systems, and technical assistance, to use valid and reliable instruments to track student progress in all settings.

-Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator


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