Lessons learned from Vanderbilt’s study of Tennessee Pre-K

October 2, 2015

Newly released findings from Vanderbilt’s rigorous study of Tennessee’s state-funded pre-K program are a needed tonic for overly optimistic views. No study stands alone, but in the context of the larger literature the Tennessee study is a clear warning against complacency, wishful thinking, and easy promises. Much hard work is required if high quality preschool programs are to be the norm rather than the exception, and substantive long-term gains will not be produced if programs are not overwhelmingly good to excellent. However, the Vanderbilt study also leaves researchers with a number of puzzles and a similar warning that researchers must not become complacent and have some hard work ahead.

Let’s review the study’s findings regarding child outcomes. Moderate advantages in literacy and math achievement were found for the pre-K group at the end of the pre-K year and on teacher ratings of behavior at the beginning of kindergarten. However, by the end of kindergarten these were no longer evident and on one measure the no-pre-K group had already surpassed those who had attended pre-K. The pre-K children were less likely to have been retained in kindergarten (4% v. 6%) but were much more likely to receive special education services in kindergarten than the no-pre-K group (12% v. 6%). The pre-K group’s advantage in grade repetition did not continue, but it did continue to have a higher rate of special education services (14% v. 9%) in first grade.

By the end of second grade, the no-pre-K group was significantly ahead of the pre-K group in literacy and math achievement. The most recent report shows essentially the same results, though fewer are statistically significant. Teacher ratings of behavior essentially show no differences between groups in grades 2 and 3. Oddly, special education is not even mentioned in the third grade report. This is puzzling since prior reports emphasized that it would be important to determine whether the higher rate of special education services for the pre-K group persisted. It is also odd that no results are reported for grade retention.

If we are to really understand the Tennessee results, we need to know more than simply what the outcomes were. We need information on the quality of the pre-K program, subsequent educational experiences, and the study itself. It has been widely noted that Tennessee’s program met 9 of 10 benchmarks for quality standards in our annual State of Preschool report, but this should not be taken as evidence that Tennessee had a high quality program. Anyone who has read the State of Preschool knows better. It (p.10) specifies that the benchmarks “are not, in themselves, guarantees of quality. Arguably some of them are quite low (e.g., hours of professional development), even though many states do not meet them. Moreover, they are primarily indicators of the resources available to programs, not whether these resources are used well. In addition to high standards, effective pre-K programs require adequate funding and the continuous improvement of strong practices.

The State of Preschool reported that Tennessee’s state funding was nearly $2300 per child short of the per child amount needed to implement the benchmarks. More importantly, the Vanderbilt researchers found that only 15% of the classrooms rated good or better on the ECERS-R. They also found that only 9% of time was spent in small groups; the vast majority was spent in transitions, meals, and whole group. This contrasts sharply with the high quality and focus on intentional teaching in small groups and one-on-one for programs found to have long-term gains (Camilli et al and Barnett 2011). The Tennessee program was evaluated just after a major expansion, and it is possible that quality was lowered as a result.

Less seems to be known about subsequent educational experiences. Tennessee is among the lowest ranking states for K-12 expenditures (cite Quality Counts), which is suggestive but far from definitive regarding experiences in K-3. We can speculate that kindergarten and first grade catch up those who don’t go to pre-K, perhaps at the expense of those who did, and to fail to build on early advantages. However, these are hypotheses that need rigorous investigation. Vanderbilt did find that the pre-K group was more likely to receive special education. Perhaps this lowered expectations for achievement and the level of the instruction for enough of the pre-K group to tilt results in favor of the no-pre-K group. Such an iatrogenic effect of pre-K would be unprecedented, but it is not impossible. There are, however, other potential explanations.

Much has been made of this study being a randomized trial, but that point is not as important as might be thought. One reason is that across the whole literature, randomized trials do not yield findings that are particularly different from strong quasi-experimental studies. The Head Start National Impact Study and rigorous evaluations of Head Start nationally using ECLS-K yield nearly identical estimates of impacts in the first years of school. Another reason is that the new Vanderbilt study has more in common with rigorous quasi-experimental studies than “gold standard” randomized trials. Two waves were randomly assigned. In the first wave, just 46% of families assigned to pre-K and 32% assigned to the control group agreed to be in the study. In the second wave, the researchers were able to increase these figures to 74% and 68%, respectively. These low rates of participation that differ between pre-K and no-pre-K groups raise the same selection bias threat faced by quasi-experimental studies. And, uncorrected selection bias is the simplest explanation for both the higher special education rate for the pre-K group and the very small later achievement advantage of the no-pre-K group. I don’t think the bias could be nearly strong enough to have overturned large persistent gains for the pre-K group.

Even a “perfect” randomized trial has weaknesses. Compensatory rivalry has long been recognized as a threat to the validity of randomized trials. In Tennessee one group got pre-K; the other sought it but was refused. It appears that some went away angry. Families who agreed to stay in the study could have worked very hard to help their children catch up and eventually surpass their peers who had the advantage of pre-K. Alternatively, families who received the advantage of pre-K could have relaxed their efforts to support their children’s learning. Similar behavior has been suggested by other studies, including a preschool randomized trial I conducted years ago for children with language delays. Such behaviors also could occur even without a randomized trial, but it seems less likely.

Randomized trials of individual children also create artificial situations for subsequent schooling. If only some eligible children receive the program, do kindergarten teachers spend more time to help those who did not attend catch and “neglect” those who had preschool? Would kindergarten teachers change their practices to build on pre-K if the vast majority of their children had attended pre-K and not just some; perhaps they would only change with support and professional development?

Clearly, the Vanderbilt study has given the early childhood field much to think about. I am reminded of Don Campbell’s admonition not to evaluate a program until it is proud. However, programs may also be in the habit of becoming proud a bit too easily. We have a great deal of hard work in front of us to produce more programs that might be expected to produce long-term results and are therefore worth evaluating. Researchers also would do well to design studies that would illuminate the features of subsequent education that best build upon gains from preschool.

What we should not do is despair of progress. The media tend to focus on just the latest study, especially if it seems to give bad news. They present a distorted view of the world. Early childhood has a large evidence base that is on balance more positive than negative. There is a consensus that programs can be effective and that high quality is a key to success. Research does help us move forward. Head Start responded to the National Impact study with reforms that produced major improvements. Some states and cities have developed even stronger programs. Tennessee can learn much from those that could turn its program around. If it integrates change with evaluation in a continuous improvement system, Tennessee’s program could in turn become a model for others over the next 5 to 10 years.

–Steve Barnett, Director, NIEER

Common Core and DAP: Seeking clarity

April 20, 2015

April 20, 2015

Kyle Snow, Ph.D, Director, Center for Applied Research, National Association for the Education of Young Children, discusses Common Core State Standards and Developmentally Appropriate Practice.

The numerous, and diverse, entries in this series related to the Common Core State Standards is testimony to the complexity they present to early childhood education. The Common Core directly applies to young children (and teachers) in kindergarten and later, with implications for children (and their teachers) prior to kindergarten as well. In fall 2012, the National Association for the Education of Young Children released a brief outlining what were considered opportunities and concerns for early childhood education within the Common Core. Since then, we have heard far more about the concerns than the opportunities presented by the Common Core. The most typical of these is that the Common Core is not developmentally appropriate for young children, or some variation of this. Such a statement is indeed alarming, and may or may not turn out to be true. What is intriguing about it, however, is that it lacks specificity–what exactly is the concern being stated? If we can articulate the concern (or concerns) precisely, we can better formulate approaches to address it (or them).

Photo credit: Casey R. Brown

Photo credit: Casey R. Brown

Having talked about the Common Core with teachers, researchers, and policy makers, there seem to be three central issues buried within the “Common Core is not developmentally appropriate” concern:

Is the content of the Common Core appropriate for young children?

  1. Will the Common Core affect teaching?
  2. Will the Common Core lead to inappropriate use of assessment?

Variations of these have been raised in this blog series. These are also discussed in a new brief on this page from NAEYC.

As this dialogue unfolds, it is important to consider how much the concerns noted above are the result of the Common Core, and how much they are driven by other or additional forces. In other words, where is the pressure coming from? It is critical to understand the origins of what have been ongoing trends in early childhood education to formulate effective responses to them.

It is also critical to distinguish between what may be considered real threats and what are perceived threats to early childhood education ideals. A critical starting point in doing so is to ensure that we are well versed in the complexities of implementing developmentally appropriate practice (DAP) as well as the details of what the Common Core standards say (and do not say). As has been noted in previous blogs, the Common Core standards describe the learning goals and expectations at each grade (the “what”) not the processes of supporting children to reach towards these goals (the “how”). It is important to explore the reasonableness of all children reaching these goals (that is, validate the “what”), as well as ensuring that we not narrow our educational focus.

At the same time, we must ensure that early educators are prepared and supported to bring DAP into their classrooms (that is, nurture the “how”).

This page was edited April 21 to include a link to the new brief from NAEYC.

What is Developmentally Appropriate Math?

April 15, 2015

Douglas H. Clements, preschool and kindergarten teacher, Kennedy Endowed Chair in Early Childhood Learning, Executive Director, Marsico Institute for Early Learning and Literacy, and one of the members of the Common Core work groups, responds (with assistance from Bill McCallum) on the issue of Math standards will be too challenging for young children.

Perhaps the most common criticism of the Common Core State Standards-Mathematics (CCSS-M) for young children is that they are not “developmentally appropriate” (e.g., Meisels, 2011). Unfortunately, the phrase “developmentally appropriate” too often functions as a Rorschach test for whatever a person wants to see or argue against.

Often, negative evaluations are based on an implicit acceptance of the view that all “fives” can and especially cannot do certain things. However, much of the mathematical thinking that some people say “cannot be done” until age 7 (or whatever) can be learned by children—most children—in high-quality environments. Further, children learn such thinking with understanding and joy—that’s developmentally appropriate.


Photo Credit: Casey R. Brown

Let’s consider some concrete examples. One concern is that 5-6-year-olds are not “ready” to learn place value. Perhaps the phrase itself—“place value”—raises the issue. Close inspection, however, reveals little reason for worry. First, note that research has identified at least seven developmental levels of learning place value, from very early concepts of grouping to understand the exponential nature of number systems in multiple bases (Clements & Sarama, 2014; Fuson, Smith, & Lo Cicero, 1997; Fuson, Wearne, et al., 1997; Rogers, 2012). Examination of the CCSS-M shows that kindergarten children only need to “Work with numbers 11–19 to gain foundations for place value” (p. 12, emphasis added) and first graders “Understand that the two digits of a two-digit number represent amounts of tens and ones” such as knowing that “The numbers 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90 refer to one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, or nine tens (and 0 ones).” Those are challenging but (for vast majority of children) achievable understandings (did you notice how many times the CCSS-M’s goals involve “understanding”)?

Personally, I have many concrete experiences with preschoolers who, given high-quality learning experiences, successfully tackle these ideas and more (Clements & Sarama, 2007, 2008). And love doing it. In Boston, a mother said she wasn’t sure her preschooler could understand mathematical ideas until he told her, “Eleven. That’s just ten and one, isn’t it?”

Talking about the “levels” of place value brings up a two important points. First, when educators use such levels—organized in a learning trajectory—to engage all children in meaningful mathematics at the right level for each—developmental appropriateness is ensured. Second, the Common Core was developed by first writing learning trajectories—at least the developmental progressions of levels of thinking. (Criticisms that the CCSS-M were “top-down,” starting with high school, e.g., Meisels, 2011, are simply incorrect.) Thus, learning trajectories are at the core of the Common Core.

Let’s take another example: arithmetic problems. Missing addend problems are a first grade standard. Some argue that tasks such as “fill in the blank: 3 + _ = 5” are cognitively out of range for children until, say, 2nd or 3rd grade. Some students may stumble if, unprepared, they are given such tasks in that form. However, most 4- to 5-year-olds in high-quality environments, when asked, “Give me 5 cubes. OK, now watch, I’m going to hide some! [Hides 2 in one hand, then shows the 3 in the other hand.] How many am I hiding?” will eagerly answer, “Two!” Format and interaction matter. So does working through research-based learning in counting and especially conceptual subitizing—quickly recognizing parts and wholes of small numbers (Clements, 1999).

The CCSS-M can help teachers with such work. Historically, most word problem types in U.S. textbooks have been simple one-step problem types. Other countries’ children are solving many types, including more complex two-step problems (Stigler, Fuson, Ham, & Kim, 1986). Further, given the opportunity, young U.S. children can solve a wide range of problems, even beyond the CCSS-M, such multiplication and division problems with remainders (Carpenter, Ansell, Franke, Fennema, & Weisbeck, 1993).


Photo credit: Casey R. Brown

One might still argue that the CCSS-M goals are inappropriate for some group of children. But this will be true of any set of standards that pose a worthwhile challenge to them. And our children deserve that challenge. Based on learning trajectories, teachers should always be working on the challenging-but-achievable levels for their class and for the individuals in it. But that does not mean we allow children starting at lower levels to stay behind others. That would relegate them to a trajectory of failure (see Vincent Costanza’s blog). Instead, we should work together to help them build up their mathematical foundations. And given this support, they do.

So, the concern of “developmental inappropriateness” is a misunderstanding. There are others.

  1. “The Common Core means that other domains, such as social-emotional development, will be de-emphasized.” The good news there is that high-quality implementations of mathematics curricula in preschools have shown not only increase in meaningful mathematics proficiencies, but also transfer to other domains, such as language and self-regulation (Clements, Sarama, Wolfe, & Spitler, 2013; Julie Sarama, Clements, Wolfe, & Spitler, 2012; Julie Sarama, Lange, Clements, & Wolfe, 2012). Further, preschool curricula can successfully combine social-emotional, literacy, language, science and mathematics (e.g., Julie Sarama, Brenneman, Clements, Duke, & Hemmeter, in press)—all the while enhancing, rather than competing with, play-based approaches (Farran, Aydogan, Kang, & Lipsey, 2005). Finally, those who say that “there should be time for both learning literacy, math, and science, and for play and games”—inadvertently show their limited knowledge of early math education by repeating one of the ubiquitous false dichotomies of early education. Two of the ways to guide learning in these subject-matter domains are through games and play.
  2. “The Common Core is a federal curriculum.” Wrong on both counts. First, it was created by the states—the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers—not the U.S. government. Second, the Common Core is a set of standards, not a curriculum (see Dorothy Strickland’s blog). It guides what goals to aim for but not how or what curriculum to teach.
  3. “Teachers voices were not heard.” Teachers were involved all the way. Many states, such as Arizona, convened meetings of teachers to review the standards at each of three cycles of review. Also, the CCSS-M were supported and validated by such organizations as the NEA, AFT, and NCTM, as well as early childhood organizations such as the NAEYC (see Jere Confrey’s post and this joint statement publicly expressing NAEYC’s and the NAECSS’s support for the Standards,and Clements, Sarama, & DiBiase, 2004, in which leaders of NAEYC contributed to a work that was used heavily in the CCSS-M).
  4. “The Common Core emphasizes rote skills taught by direct instruction.” First, the CCSS-M does not tell how to teach. But its descriptions of goals for children could not be further from this misconception. Consider the introduction to grade 2, which states (in concert with NCTM’s Curriculum Focal Points) that children “develop, discuss, and use efficient, accurate, and generalizable methods to compute sums and differences of whole numbers.” Second-graders develop and discuss strategies, then use them in problem solving.
  5. “There were no early childhood teachers or professionals involved.” As one of the contributors to the CCSS-M, I—a former preschool and kindergarten teacher who continuously works in preschools and primary-grade classrooms, with children and teachers—I can only hope these authors simply were sloppy in checking their facts.

Do we think everything is perfect? Of course not. Not even the content of the CCSS-M is (or ever will be) perfect. But only further implementation and study will give us an improved set of standards. Further, we wish that organizations would implement carefully and slowly, building up (from pre-K) and supporting all teachers and other educators in learning about, working on, and evaluating the CCSS-M. Schools that have done that report success, with teachers amazed by what their students can do (Kelleher, 2014). Appreciating what their children are learning means they not only stick with it, but they also improve every year (Clements, Sarama, Wolfe, & Spitler, 2014). We wish curriculum, and especially high-stakes assessments, would be carefully piloted with extensive research on outcomes, including unanticipated outcomes, before they are accepted and more widely disseminated (Julie Sarama & Clements, 2015) (or rejected and not used). We wish more educators would realize what’s truly developmentally inappropriate is present-day kindergarten curricula that “teach” children what they already know (Engel, Claessens, & Finch, 2013).

But we do think that too many find it easier to dramatically warn of all that could go wrong working with the Common Core (“Students will be pressured!” “There are not CC curricula yet!” “The kids will fail!”). Too few take the more difficult road of building positive solutions. Let’s stop biting the finger, and look where it’s pointing.



 Carpenter, T. P., Ansell, E., Franke, M. L., Fennema, E. H., & Weisbeck, L. (1993). Models of problem solving: A study of kindergarten children’s problem-solving processes. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 24, 428-441.

Clements, D. H. (1999). Subitizing: What is it? Why teach it? Teaching Children Mathematics, 5, 400-405.

Clements, D. H., & Sarama, J. (2007). Effects of a preschool mathematics curriculum: Summative research on the Building Blocks project. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 38, 136-163.

Clements, D. H., & Sarama, J. (2008). Experimental evaluation of the effects of a research-based preschool mathematics curriculum. American Educational Research Journal, 45, 443-494.

Clements, D. H., & Sarama, J. (2014). Learning and teaching early math: The learning trajectories approach (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Clements, D. H., Sarama, J., & DiBiase, A.-M. (2004). Engaging young children in mathematics: Standards for early childhood mathematics education. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Clements, D. H., Sarama, J., Wolfe, C. B., & Spitler, M. E. (2013). Longitudinal evaluation of a scale-up model for teaching mathematics with trajectories and technologies: Persistence of effects in the third year. American Educational Research Journal, 50(4), 812 – 850. doi: 10.3102/0002831212469270

Clements, D. H., Sarama, J., Wolfe, C. B., & Spitler, M. E. (2014). Sustainability of a scale-up intervention in early mathematics: Longitudinal evaluation of implementation fidelity. Early Education and Development, 26(3), 427-449. doi: 10.1080/10409289.2015.968242

Engel, M., Claessens, A., & Finch, M. A. (2013). Teaching students what they already know? The (mis)alignment between mathematics instructional content and student knowledge in kindergarten. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 35(2), 157–178. doi: 10.3102/0162373712461850

Farran, D. C., Aydogan, C., Kang, S. J., & Lipsey, M. (2005). Preschool classroom environments and the quantity and quality of children’s literacy and language behaviors. In D. Dickinson & S. Neuman (Eds.), Handbook of early literacy research (pp. 257-268). New York, NY: Guilford.

Fuson, K. C., Smith, S. T., & Lo Cicero, A. (1997). Supporting Latino first graders’ ten-structured thinking in urban classrooms. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 28, 738-760.

Fuson, K. C., Wearne, D., Hiebert, J. C., Murray, H. G., Human, P. G., Olivier, A. I., . . . Fennema, E. H. (1997). Children’s conceptual structures for multidigit numbers and methods of multidigit addition and subtraction. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 28, 130-162.

Kelleher, M. (2014). Common Core for Young Learners. Harvard Education Letter, 30 (4).

Meisels, S. J. (2011). Common Core standards pose dilemmas for early childhood. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/common-core-standards-pose-dilemmas-for-early-childhood/2011/11/28/gIQAPs1X6N_blog.html

Rogers, A. (2012). Steps in developing a quality whole number place value assessment for years 3-6: Unmasking the “experts”. Paper presented at the Mathetatics Education Research Group of Australasia, Singapore.

Sarama, J., Brenneman, K., Clements, D. H., Duke, N. K., & Hemmeter, M. L. (in press). Connect4Learning (C4L): The Preschool Curriculum. Lewisville, NC: Gryphon House.

Sarama, J., & Clements, D. H. (2015). Scaling up early mathematics interventions: Transitioning with trajectories and technologies. In B. Perry, A. MacDonald & A. Gervasoni (Eds.), Mathematics and transition to school (pp. 153-169). New York, NY: Springer.

Sarama, J., Clements, D. H., Wolfe, C. B., & Spitler, M. E. (2012). Longitudinal evaluation of a scale-up model for teaching mathematics with trajectories and technologies. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, 5(2), 105-135.

Sarama, J., Lange, A., Clements, D. H., & Wolfe, C. B. (2012). The impacts of an early mathematics curriculum on emerging literacy and language. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 27, 489-502. doi: 10.1016/j.ecresq.2011.12.002

Stigler, J. W., Fuson, K. C., Ham, M., & Kim, M. S. (1986). An analysis of addition and subtraction word problems in American and Soviet elementary mathematics textbooks. Cognition and Instruction, 3, 153-171.




Why CCSS-M Grades K-3 is developmentally appropriate and internationally competitive

April 13, 2015

In this post, Jere Confrey, Joseph D. Moore Distinguished University Professor, Science, Technology,  Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Department, College of Education, North Carolina State University, discusses why the Common Core State Standards for Math can be considered developmentally appropriate. A more detailed version of this analysis, including this chart and others, is available here.

1. The CCSS-M development process drew on teachers and experts in early childhood math education. 

 According to Jason Zimba, a lead CCSS-M author, feedback was obtained from state directors, elementary teachers, and national experts (Fact Sheet, Student Achievement Partners. The NCR’s 2009 report, Mathematics Learning in Early Childhood: Paths Toward Excellence and Equity was used. The National Association for the Education of Young Children in conjunction with the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in States issued a joint statement publicly expressing their support for the Standards.

Photo credit: Casey R. Brown

Photo credit: Casey R. Brown

2. Standards are not meant to be read to children.

They represent professional knowledge in the field for teachers–just as in the case of medical knowledge, the Standards are not expected to be communicated verbatim to patients by doctors.

3. Standards typically state a clear target in the first sentence that describes the expectation, followed by research-based strategies for student success.

 After that, the Standards include suggestions for research-backed strategies for learning, to ensure that the students’ learning is made as conceptually rich and efficient as possible. Math is a language of connections.

Here is first grade example: “Add and subtract within 20, demonstrating fluency for addition and subtraction within 10. Use strategies such as counting on; making ten (e.g., 8+6 = 8+2+4 = 10+4 = 14); decomposing a number leading to a ten (e.g., 13-4 = 13-3-1 = 9)…and creating equivalent but easier or known sums (e.g., adding 6+7 by creating the known equivalent 6+6+1 = 12+1 = 13).”  These strategies, from the NRC’s Adding It Up, are a toolbox for a teacher to build on children’s ideas to reach towards the development eventually applying standard algorithms.

4. The Standards are consistent with international standards.

In Informing Grades 1-6 Mathematics Standards Development, AIR took the standards from Singapore, Korea, and Hong Kong, and created a composite set. The major topics in the numbers strand for all three countries follow a similar pattern, across grades, dictated by the logic of mathematics learning. In the chart below on understanding and reading whole numbers, CCSS-M is compared to this composite chart. If we claim our standards are not developmentally appropriate, then how is it that other countries achieve these outcomes? Note, these countries do not offer Kindergarten.

Table 1. Composite Standards for Hong Kong, Singapore, and South Korea, with the Addition of the CCSS-M. Composite Standards: Numbers—Whole Numbers for Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea (AIR, p. 8)

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Early Education Has Its Day

December 11, 2014

Yesterday, the White House hosted its first Summit on Early Childhood Education. The Summit brought together a wide variety of stakeholders, including local government officials; private philanthropy; researchers; federal government officials; and business leaders. The President’s remarks can be seen here. The event also launched the InvestInUs campaign, administered by the First Five Years Fund to encourage private-public investment in a range of early childhood activities. The campaign released a profile of major private commitments, as well as highlighting notable “early learning communities” that may serve as models for other communities. The White House Council of Economic Advisers released a new report, The Economics of Early Childhood Investments, which examined the benefits of a wide range of early childhood education programs, from home visiting to kindergarten. A recap of the ongoing Twitter conversation can be seen here.

The Departments of Education and Health and Human Services also made major announcements aligned with the Summit. Eighteen states were announced as winners of competitive federal Preschool Development and Expansion Grants. Grant winners are displayed in Figure 1, with amounts in Figure 2.

Image Source: Department and Health and Human Services & Department of Education. (2014). What are preschool development grants? http://www2.ed.gov/programs/preschooldevelopmentgrants/pdgfactsheet.pdf

Image Source: Department and Health and Human Services & Department of Education. (2014). What are preschool development grants? http://www2.ed.gov/programs/preschooldevelopmentgrants/pdgfactsheet.pdf

Development grants are for states with no or small state-funded pre-K programs, while expansion grants are for those states with established programs to improve quality and increase access. More information on the current preschool offerings of these states is available here. The Departments estimate that this $226 million investment will expand services to more than 33,000 additional children in the first year alone and ensure that children are experiencing preschool of high quality. The Department has released score sheets and applications for winners and for those who did not receive funding.

The Department of Health and Human Services also announced preliminary grantees for their Early Head Start-Child Care partnerships. The program, which works with existing child care settings to expand access for infants and toddlers to high-quality care, will provide $435 million in funding to 234 grantees. The Department noted that it is still in negotiation with the agencies they’ve announced, and that the award amounts may be subject to change. The full allocation of $500 million will be awarded by the end of March 2015.

All told, this week’s announcements are adding new federal funds for early childhood education to 49 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Mariana Islands, and will serve an estimated 63,000 additional children. While state education departments and others who have worked hard on these applications are surely enjoying well-deserved celebrations, the greatest challenge may be on the horizon: implementing the plans and working toward the goal of expanding quality early education.

– Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER/CEELO

The research says high quality preschool does benefit kids

October 21, 2014

In a response for the Washington Post Answer Sheet, Steve Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research deconstructs a new Cato Institute policy brief by David J. Armor, professor emeritus of public policy at George Mason University, who also has a piece on washingtonpost.com arguing his position under the headline “We have no idea if universal preschool actually helps kids.” We do know. It does. Here are some excerpts from the post, which can be read in its entirety here, outlining what the research really says:

First, if one really believes that today’s preschool programs are much less effective than the Perry Preschool and Abecedarian programs because those programs were so much more costly and intensive, and started earlier, then the logical conclusion is that today’s programs should be better funded, more intensive, and start earlier. I would agree. Head Start needs to be put on steroids. New Jersey’s Abbott pre-K model (discussed later) starts at 3 and provides a guide as it has been found to have solid long-term effects on achievement and school success. Given the high rates of return estimated for the Perry and Abecedarian programs, it is economically foolish not to move ahead with stronger programs.

Blog set 3Second, Armor’s claims regarding flaws in the regression discontinuity (RD) studies of pre-K programs in New Jersey, Tulsa, Boston, and elsewhere are purely hypothetical and unsubstantiated. Every research study has limitations and potential weaknesses, including experiments. It is not enough to simply speculate about possible flaws; one must assess how likely they are to matter. (See the extended post for more details.)

Third, the evidence that Armor relies on to argue that Head Start and Tennessee pre-K have no long-term effects is not experimental. It’s akin to the evidence from the Chicago Longitudinal Study and other quasi-experimental studies that he disregards when they find persistent impacts. Bartik points to serious methodological concerns with this research. Even more disconcerting is Armor’s failure to recognize the import of all the evidence he cites from the Tennessee study. Tennessee has both a larger experimental study and a smaller quasi-experimental substudy. The larger experiment finds that pre-K reduces subsequent grade retention, from 8% to 4%. The smaller quasi-experimental substudy Armor cites as proof of fade-out finds a much smaller reduction from 6% to 4%. Armor fails to grasp that this indicates serious downward bias in the quasi-experimental substudy or that both approaches find a large subsequent impact on grade retention, contradicting his claim of fade-out.

Among the many additional errors in Armor’s review I address 3 that I find particularly egregious. First, he miscalculates cost. Second, he misses much of the most rigorous evidence. And, third he misrepresents the New Jersey Abbott pre-K programs and its impacts. (See the extended post for more details.)

When a reviewer calls for policy makers to hold off on a policy decision because more research is needed, one might assume that he had considered all the relevant research. However, Armor’s review omits much of the relevant research. (See the extended post for more details.)

Those who want an even more comprehensive assessment of the flaws in Armor’s review can turn to Tim Bartik’s blog post and a paper NIEER released last year, as little of Armor’s argument is new. For a more thorough review of the evidence regarding the benefits of preschool I recommend the NIEER papers and WSIPP papers already cited and a recent review by an array of distinguished researchers in child development policy.

If all the evidence is taken into account, I believe that policy makers from across the political spectrum will come to the conclusion that high-quality pre-K is indeed a sound public investment.

–Steve Barnett, NIEER Director

Is New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio’s method for expanding Pre-K a model for other cities?

September 19, 2014

In this week’s edition of The Weekly Wonk, the weekly online magazine of the New America Foundation, experts were asked: Is New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio’s method for expanding Pre-K a model for other cities? NIEER Director Steve Barnett and Policy Researcher Coordinator Megan Carolan were among those who weighed in. Their responses can be read below. Please visit the original post here to see all responses.

Steve BarnettSteve Barnett, NIEER Director:

Whether NYC offers a good model for other cities to follow in expanding pre-K is something that we will only know after some years.  However, it is not too soon to say that NYC offers one important lesson for other cities.  When adequate funding is available, cities (and states) can expand enrollment quickly on a large scale at high standards.

A key reason for that is there is a substantial pool of well-qualified early childhood teachers who do not teach because of the field’s abysmally low financial compensation and poor working conditions.  When we offer a decent salary, benefits, and a professional working environment many more teachers become available.  Of course, NYC also put a lot of hard and smart work into finding suitable space and recruiting families to participate.   Whether NYC achieves its ultimate goal of offering a high-quality education to every child will not be known for some time, but this will depend on the extent to which NYC has put into place a continuous improvement system to build quality over time.

It would be a mistake to assume that high quality can be achieved at scale anywhere from the very beginning no matter how slow the expansion. Excellence in practice must be developed on the job through peer learning, coaching and other supports.  If NYC successfully puts a continuous improvement system in place and quality steadily improves over the next several years, then it will have much to offer as a model for the rest of the nation.

Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator

When New York City opened the doors to expanded pre-K for thousands of 4-year-olds earlier this month, it marked a huge departure from the scene just a year ago, when Mayor de Blasio was still seen as a longshot candidate and Christine Quinn was focusing on preschool loans. Other cities looking to expand their early childhood offerings may wonder how New YorkMeganColor changed so quickly.

Preschool wasn’t a new expansion for de Blasio: expanding pre-K was a hugely personal priority for the Mayor and his wife, and de Blasio has been highlighting the shortage of seats when he served as Public Advocate from 2010 until his mayoral election. The de Blasio camp built partnerships both at a personal and political level from the start; the public debate with Governor Andrew Cuomo was never over whether to fund preschool, but how to fund it to balance the needs of the state and the city. Coalition-building didn’t stop there. In order to both solidify political support for this endeavor, and to build on existing capacity, the Mayor was clear about including community- and faith-based providers.

Despite the image of tough-talking New York swagger, what really aided the rapid expansion was compromise and building partnerships (some of the very social skills kids will learn in pre-K!). Bring together diverse stakeholders as well as local and state officials in an effort so clearly supported by residents put pre-K in the fast lane. No two cities will have the same mix of existing systems and political ideologies, but collaboration and compromise are key to meeting the needs of young learners across the country.


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