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

May 19, 2014

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

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

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

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

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


Children and Poverty: the Role of Preschool

April 3, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.


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

Missed Opportunities: Pre-K Lags for Hispanic Children

April 30, 2012

Hispanic children and families have been hit particularly hard due to recent funding cuts in state-funded pre-K. While the State Preschool Yearbook does not break down data by ethnicity, our data on state efforts combined with other sources paints a troubling picture for Hispanic preschoolers, especially those growing up in a household where English is not the primary language. A survey of Hispanic families shows that Hispanic parents are very likely to enroll their children when voluntary preschool education is available to them, but only 25 percent of Hispanic children at age 3 attend public or private preschool, compared to 43 percent of non-Hispanic children. State pre-K—which serves primarily 4-year-olds—has been important in increasing Hispanic enrollment at age 4, but Hispanic children still lag in access with 64 percent in a public or private program compared to 70 percent for non-Hispanic children.

Twenty-one percent of 3- and 4-year-olds nationwide live in an immigrant family with at least one foreign-born parent. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, 6.1 million Hispanic children were living in poverty in 2010, representing 37.3 percent of all poor children. As can be seen in the graph below, the number of Hispanic children living in poverty accelerated sharply during the recession, due in large part to the 11.1 percent unemployment rank seen among Hispanic workers in 2011. The combined impact of being from a low-income family and having limited English proficiency can put these students at a serious risk of school failure, especially if they lack access to a quality preschool program.

Original graphic from the Pew Hispanic Center can be viewed here.

More than half of the nation’s Hispanic population resides in just three states: California, Florida, and Texas.  Unfortunately, preschool programs in these states may not give Hispanic students the boost they need. Florida and Texas have high enrollment levels but low quality standards, which means that thousands of children are enrolled in programs that may not meet their needs. They both have per-child spending levels under the national average of $4,151, which further threatens quality. California’s program has grown rapidly due to including the state’s child care programs under the same umbrella, but per-child spending levels and policy standards are low there, as well.  While many programs may exceed minimum standards, particularly when public schools are the providers, two aspects of these programs are particularly worrisome—class sizes and funding. Texas limits neither class size nor ratio and Florida has been increasing class size. California does somewhat better since it limits teacher-child ratio to a reasonable level even though it does not limit class size. All three states decreased funding per child in recent years, and in Florida it barely exceeds $2,400 per child, a figure too low to sustain quality under any reasonable definition.

State

4-year-old Enrollment Percent

State Spending Per Child

Quality Standards

California

19%

 $4,986

3

Florida

76%

 $2,422

3

Texas

52%

 $3,761

4

Additionally, there are five other states with Hispanic populations above one million: Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, New Jersey, and New York, as can be seen from this interactive map from the Pew Hispanic Center. Arizona totally eliminated its state pre-K program in recent years, though First Things First stepped up to provide some services to preschoolers there. Illinois and New Jersey are bright spots ranking among the top 15 in the country for program quality standards and both ranking in the top 3 for enrollment of 3-year-olds.  However, both New York and Colorado reduced per child funding when the recession squeezed state finances.

The video below shows the change in enrollment in these states with large Hispanic populations over the last decade. While enrollments have increased tremendously, due in large part to the Florida program’s creation in the 2005-2006 year, we know that funding has not kept pace with the needs of so many more students. You can look at other trends in spending, quality, and access for these eight states in this interactive data set.

As was noted last year by Celia Ayala, Chief Executive Officer, Los Angeles Universal Preschool, “[w]hile ELLs can come from any linguistic background and therefore include children of any race and ethnicity, Hispanic children merit particular attention as their population grows, but many continue to suffer from an achievement gap.”  At least 140,000 ELL students are served in state-funded pre-K programs; this number is likely to be significantly higher as many states with large Hispanic populations could not report ELLs specifically. Less than half of state pre-K programs report limited English proficiency as a factor that may make students eligible for pre-K. The majority of pre-K initiatives require at least one support service for ELLs and their families, with support services ranging from administering a home language survey to providing translators to offering monolingual non-English classes in pre-K.

Recent research on the benefits of bilingualism can bring renewed attention to this important issue. Research has pinpointed significant benefits to bilingualism including increased language and print awareness, classification and reasoning skills, concept formation, visual-spatial skills, and creativity. Bilingual children maintain strong connections to parents, grandparents and extended family leading to improved academic outcomes. Students also benefit from being secure with their home language. There has also been important research in the last few years indicating that attending a high-quality preschool program improves outcomes for Hispanic children, and that dual language practices can enhance outcomes in both English- and Spanish-speaking children. Pre-K attendance can improve early literacy and mathematic skills, and at least this one study found that gains were improved by being in a classroom with a Spanish-speaking teacher.

As the Hispanic student population grows and extends into rural and suburban areas, schools must provide additional supports for those students growing up in a dual-language household. A recent report from the New America Foundation focuses on bilingual education efforts in state-funded pre-K in Illinois and offers sound advice for all pre-K programs as they work to ensure ELLs receive high-quality services:

• ensure that pre-K providers receive financial support from their local districts for resources they spend on English language learners, and that there is an adequate bilingual/ESL budget to cover eligible children;

• track student outcomes for ELL students over time to determine where investment is most (and least) effective; and

• continue to align the ELL experience in pre-K, kindergarten, and the early grades and enable shared professional development opportunities in ELL instruction for teachers and school leaders across the pre-K to third grade span.

Additional recommendations on supporting dual language instruction at both the policy and classroom level can be found in the NIEER presentation “Enhancing Policy and Practice for Young Dual Language Learners: What Is the Research Base?

There is significant support within the Hispanic community to increase access to quality preschool programs.  The National Council of La Raza advocates for supportive programs for both students and families, and international music star and early education advocate Shakira, a member of the President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanics, recently spoke at the Summit of the Americas on the need for quality early learning.

- Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER


OECD Report Sounds a Warning: Early Education Needed Now More Than Ever

November 1, 2011

One critical lesson we can draw from this recession is that demand for knowledge workers is increasing at a furious rate — so fast that many skilled people who found themselves out of work when the recession began now find themselves behind the curve knowledge wise as they apply for new jobs. As old jobs have gone by the wayside, the new ones, scarce as they are, are requiring more skills of applicants.

The growing importance of education in the labor market is underscored in a new report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Data from across OECD’s member nations shows that unemployment rates among university graduates stood at an average 4.4 percent in 2009, a year after the recession began. People who left school without qualifications experienced an unemployment rate of 11.5 percent in 2009, up from 8.7 percent the year before. These figures are likely different now (and not for the better), but the disparity between the educated and relatively uneducated remains, without a doubt, valid.

OECD calculated employment levels for citizens in three education categories: 1) Below upper secondary, 2) Upper secondary and post-secondary (but not tertiary) and 3) Tertiary educations. Those categories roughly account for 1) High school dropouts, 2) High school graduates with some secondary schooling, and 3) College graduates. What they found was that in 2009 for OECD member countries as a whole, 56 percent of category 1 was employed, 74 percent of category 2 was employed and 84 percent of category 3 was employed. The U.S. workforce placed below these levels at 52, 69 and 81 percent employed respectively. (Note: Because of the way the numbers are compiled it is not valid to infer unemployment levels from these employment data.)

The report also shows how the global talent pool is changing: Japan and the United States have nearly half of all tertiary-educated adults in the OECD area (47 percent). But that lead is slipping. While it’s true that one in three university-educated retirees resides in the U.S., it is also true that only one in five university graduates entering the workforce does.

Contrast this picture with China where only 5 percent of adults have a tertiary degree. Because of its population size, however, China now ranks second behind the U.S. and ahead of Japan in population with tertiary attainment.

Why are these figures important? Because, says the report, the earnings premium (net present value over a lifetime) for an individual with a tertiary degree exceeds $300,000 for men and $200,000 for women across the 34 OECD countries.

With trends like these and the apparent absence of political will to boost investment in education, it is little wonder that OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria talks about the developed countries producing a “lost generation” of citizens who will be ill-equipped to make their way in the ever more competitive world.

So why am I focusing on higher education in a blog on preschool education?  Because far too many of our children enter kindergarten so far behind that higher education will not be within their reach, despite the best efforts of our schools to prepare them.  If the United States is to increase the percentage of our population with education beyond high school, we will have to do a much better job educating children in the first five years.  The current recession only makes that more difficult, of course, but the choices we make now at local, state, and national levels will determine whether the United States will have–as Thomas Friedman has argued–“a hard decade or a bad century.”

- Steve Barnett, Director, NIEER


Head Start: Mend It, Don’t End It

August 19, 2011

One of the most neglected questions in the ECE policy arena is “How should we respond to the failure to find lasting effects for Head Start and Early Head Start after investing years and many millions in nationwide randomized trials of those important programs?” I say neglected because there is far less awareness of what the research says than one might expect given the importance of the high-quality research effort that represents our best shot at unbiased estimates of program impacts. For instance, I find that few people even know that Early Head Start’s long-term effects have been evaluated through fifth grade.  I addressed this long-simmering question  in an article published today in the journal Science.  At the outset, I wish to make clear that the evidence does not lead me to the conclusion that we should end these programs, but that they need major reform.  Let’s start by quickly reviewing the evidence.

One randomized trial evaluated the impacts of a year of Head Start by following 4,667 children and their families from entry in Head Start through kindergarten and first grade. After one year of Head Start cognitive effects were positive, but fairly small, and the broader the domain the smaller the effects. In follow-up the effects were even smaller.  No cognitive or school progress effects were found in kindergarten or first grade, though one might argue that there is a persistent effect on IQ of about 1/10th of a standard deviation.  This would close about 10 percent of the gap between Head Start children and the average child on IQ.  No effects were found on any teacher-reported measure of social-emotional development or behavior.

Upward adjustments can be made to the findings because not every child followed the random assignment (some assigned to Head Start did not attend, some assigned to the control group found their way into Head Start).  Yet even after such adjustments, follow-up results remain weak.  Additional adjustments could be made for participation in other programs, but these would make little difference, particularly at age 3 when high-quality alternatives are scarce.

A randomized trial of Early Head Start with more than 3,000 infants and toddlers produced results similar to those for Head Start even though most children and families participated two or more years. Effects at ages 2 and 3 were quite small for cognition and social-emotional measures including aggression. By age 5 no effects were found for cognition and only one small socio-emotional effect was found. In the grade 5 follow-up no effects were found on any of 49 measures and the estimated effects were near zero for both cognitive and social-emotional development.

For some in the early childhood field the reaction to these long-term findings has been denial. One claim is that bad public schools offset Head Start’s positive effects.  The national Head Start study finds, to the contrary, that gains in literacy and math accelerate for both Head Start and control groups after they enter kindergarten.  Any wash-out in Head Start effects from the public schools occurs because control children quickly make up the small advantage from attending Head Start.  Others claim that non-experimental studies consistently find long-term effects despite a lack of short-term gains in achievement.  However, the non-experimental studies are not really consistent among one another in either their short- or long-term patterns of effects.  Their positive long-term results likely result from chance variation and methodological failings rather than real effects.  If effects are not evident at fifth grade, they won’t be later.

Once we accept these disappointing findings, why not just end the programs as Joe Klein recently argued in Time magazine?  I offer two reasons.  First, America cannot afford to let so many children fail academically and socially because they are poorly prepared.  Second, some other preschool programs have succeeded to a much greater extent, and Head Start can be reshaped to be similarly effective.

Table 1 compares the initial impacts of Head Start and some other large-scale programs.  Pre-K programs with above average standards and funding are found to produce larger effects than Head Start in rigorous studies including a recent randomized trial.  The Chicago Child Parent Centers, which are similar in key respects to the state pre-K programs in Table 1, have been found to produce effects on achievement and social development into adulthood as well.  Reshaping Head Start to more closely resemble these programs would enhance its effectiveness. A quantitative summary of research on early educational intervention over the past 50 years adds weight to this argument as the Head Start and Early Head Start comprehensive services approach is associated with weaker effects, possibly because it reduces the educational focus.

Table 1. Achievement Gains from Pre-K

My prescription for improving Head Start includes increasing the percentage of funds spent inside the classroom, building a stronger connection to public education, and eliminating much federal oversight and related paper work.  Early Head Start needs the same freedom from regulation, but should adopt home-based models that have a strong evidence base (Olds’ Nurse Family Partnership) as well as strengthen center-based options. Give programs a set amount of money, audit the books, and assess teaching and learning.  Teaching should be highly intentional and include direct instruction one-on-one and in small groups.  A new continuous improvement process should be put in place for learning and teaching.  The Obama administration’s plans for re-competition of low-performing Head Start agencies should be implemented as soon as possible based on both measures of teaching and broad measures of child progress.  Early Head Start should be regarded as an experimental program and subject to large-scale research for at least the next five years.

No doubt, these recommendations will be as controversial as is my longstanding recommendation to increase the amount and quality of education required of Head Start teachers and to increase their compensation accordingly.  Head Start teachers should be given the opportunity to return to school with tuition and fees paid by government loans that would be forgiven if they remain in Head Start five years later.  The quality and content of the programs they attend should be subject to an approval process to be eligible for these forgivable loans.

Even if they were not controversial, it would be foolhardy to reform Head Start based entirely on my recommendations given the limitations of current knowledge.  The evidence is just not that strong given what is at stake.  Fortunately, we have a better alternative.  Allow Head Start and Early Head Start agencies to innovate, experiment, and find their own way to strong results.  A systematic program of research should be launched in which Head Start and Early Head Start agencies propose new approaches to be tested in randomized trials. Experimental programs should be given a blanket waiver from Head Start and Early Head Start performance standards and most nonfinancial reporting requirements as long as they adhere to their own proposed plans (which will be monitored as part of the randomized trial).  This systematic program of research would provide much better guidance for early educational intervention than is now available.  In relatively short order Head Start and Early Head Start could fulfill their promise.

– Steve Barnett, Director, National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER)


Why I’m Going to Head Start

August 15, 2011

As many of you know, I recently transitioned to a new position as Senior Vice President for Early Learning, Research and Training at Acelero Learning and will no longer be co-director of NIEER. I’ve loved my job at NIEER – the research has been interesting and my colleagues here and elsewhere have been a pleasure and inspiration. I am especially grateful to the Pew Charitable Trusts for the funding that has formed the foundation for NIEER’s work. My reasons for moving on are numerous but I wanted to take this opportunity to explain why I decided to move to Head Start. Acelero Learning is a Head Start grantee that works with delegate agencies in three states to deliver services to children and families. At the Support Center in Harlem we provide the delegates with technical assistance and guidance across all areas of Head Start services.

Why Head Start?

I started my career in early education in Head Start teaching in the Ann Arbor public schools’ Head Start classroom, but even before I knew what career I wanted I worked as a Head Start summer volunteer in high school. I have since served on Head Start boards off and on and I have a firm belief that Head Start can make a significant difference in the lives of young children and their families. It has worked in the past, and it works in certain places now. As a nation, we have to figure out how to make it work everywhere, consistently, while protecting and even expanding the funding required for Head Start to be effective. I am coming home to Head Start because I want to figure out how to produce in every center the lasting impacts on achievement that I know are possible in Head Start. Of course, this means that we in Head Start must face facts and resist the temptation to reject criticism or make excuses.

Why Acelero Learning, Inc.?

Acelero is unique. We are the only for-profit Head Start provider, and outside of the municipal “super” grantees, we are one of the largest Head Start providers in the nation, serving more than 3,800 children ages zero to 5. Our mission helps explain my choice:

The mission of Acelero Learning is to bring a relentless focus on positive child and family outcomes to close the achievement gap and build a better future for children, families, and communities served by the Head Start program.

We are serious about closing the achievement gap and every decision is made in reference to this mission. We use data to drive our decisions as well and have instituted a rigorous continuous improvement system at every level of the program from child to family to classroom to center to delegate to grantee. We measure our objectives in multiple ways at each level. For example, for child progress we implement performance-based assessments and are initiating a system for ensuring reliability of scoring and we select a random sample of children for administration of pre-post assessments of standardized measures. At the classroom level, in addition to CLASS observations in every classroom, we also developed a Teacher Success Rubric for teacher self-evaluation and professional development as well as for annual performance appraisal. To increase our ability to close the achievement gap, we operate all classrooms on a year-round basis – this summer alone, we will provide more than 500,000 hours of summer learning time that children enrolled in our Head Start programs would otherwise not have been able to access. We also offer full-day Head Start and extended-day programs whenever possible.

I’m excited to be involved at Acelero with an entire network of dedicated and remarkably capable colleagues. Together we will show that Head Start is a program of which we can be proud. We are determined to close most of the gap at kindergarten entry and significantly reduce the longer-term achievement gap. I look forward to calling on many of you to help us reach our goal and best wishes to you all.

– Ellen Frede, Senior Vice President for Early Learning, Research and Training, Acelero Learning


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