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.


Picture Books throughout Early Childhood

November 27, 2013

As we approach Thanksgiving our thoughts naturally turn to family. This week, NIEER’s blog is directed more toward parents, grandparents, and others who read with young children, though policy makers will find it helps them understand good early childhood education practice, as well.   Literacy expert Dr. Shannon Riley-Ayers offers advice about picture book reading from infancy through grade school.

Take a moment and think about your experiences with picture books.  I expect that this will invoke warm memories for most, if not all, adults.  Perhaps it is the memory of sitting on a relative’s lap reading, perhaps it is a favorite book that you can still recite by heart, maybe it is a recollection of attending story hour at the local library, or it could be the thought of a favorite teacher reading aloud.

Picture books provide children a visual experience, where the story develops and is supported by rich illustrations. They are a wonderful tool to generate excitement about books and reading and to provide the opportunities for discussions about the story and the illustrations.  The evidence is strong in showing that rich language and literacy experiences early on are related to later learning.  Reading (and re-reading) picture books contributes to these important early experiences. 

Infants

Infants and toddlers enjoy books that have bright colors and big pictures.  Consider offering sturdy books that can be handled by their small hands, but don’t make other books off-limits.  Even young toddlers can learn proper book handling and caring for books.   Include books that encourage active participation from the young child such as “touch and feel” books and lift-the-flap books.  Be sure to read books with large pictures to talk about and books that have rhyming and repetition.  Make the experience warm and inviting by holding the child on your lap and looking at the book together.  Allow the child to handle the book and to help turn pages.  Be comfortable in re-reading books and also in veering from the printed words.  Engage in conversation about the book by telling the child more about the pictures or elaborating on the printed words.  Youngsters will come to learn that reading is a pleasurable experience and that books are just as interesting as toys.  Therefore, be sure to have a multitude of books available for them to explore independently as well.

Preschoolers

Preschoolers actively construct literacy knowledge through texts such as picture books.  They begin to see that the print holds meaning and they can quickly become adept at print concepts such as holding the book properly, turning the pages, and even tracking the print as they “read.”  Children this age can also begin to engage in meaningful conversations about picture books.  For instance, children can make personal connections to a story or talk about their favorite part and why they like or don’t like a particular story or character.

Kindergarten and Grade 1

Reading picture books aloud at this age offers children the opportunity to enjoy literature and see value and beauty in reading.  Children can actively participate in read-alouds by asking and answering questions about the text and retelling stories.  Comparing and contrasting stories is also a great use of picture books at this age level.  Children can make connections between similar stories, similar characters, and similar genres or authors.  Additionally, picture books can be used as models for generating writing from young children, such as texts with a pattern or a cumulative storyline.

Grades 2 and 3  

Picture books offer a great opportunity for close reading.  This is where the text is read and re-read several times to consider the author’s purpose, the structure, and the flow of the text.  Reading picture books aloud can provide the modeling and scaffolding of this close reading.   Children can recount the stories to determine their central message, lesson, or moral.  Picture books can be used to study characters, and how their motivations and feelings contribute to the story.  They also provide shorter text to practice comparing and contrasting themes, plots, and characters across stories.

Beyond Grade 3

Sometimes we think that as children get older and begin reading on their own that there is little reason to read pictures books with them.  Not so. Beyond the early years, picture books are great vehicles to teach literary elements.  Literary devices such as imagery, voice, theme, satire, and personification can be identified and discussed using carefully selected picture books.    These can be valuable understandings for older children to then apply to reading chapter books, and also to apply to their own narrative writing.

As National Picture Book Month draws to a close, I ask you to use picture books to support literacy skills, enjoying texts, and enhancing motivation to read with children of all ages.  You may choose books that were favorites from your childhood and share the memories you have around the book.  You can look to national award winners such as the Caldecott Medal, awarded annually by the American Library Association to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children.  And don’t forget to allow the child some choice by going the local library to select some of his or her favorites. NIEER and CEELO staff members have also compiled a Pinterest board full of picture book recommendations and our personal favorites.

Be sure to include books in your home language, and some that have characters that are just like the child or children you are reading to, and some that show different cultures. Vary the genre you read to include folktales, poetry, fiction, and non-fiction.  Above all, select books that will allow you to enjoy the special moments you are creating with the child or children you are reading with!

- Shannon Riley-Ayers, Assistant Research Professor, NIEER


Putting the Spotlight on Young Children: NAEYC’s Week of the Young Child

April 23, 2012

This week marks the annual Week of the Young Child celebration, sponsored by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). This year’s theme is “Early Years Are Learning Years,” a sentiment we fully endorse!

NAEYC’s website has a treasure trove of materials for the Week of the Young Child, particularly as associated with six focus areas. We encourage you to view their suggested activities and related materials, but we also include some additional relevant resources for each area below.

Raising Public Awareness

Public Policy and Advocacy

Reading and Writing

  • NIEER’s policy brief on early literacy includes a review of the literature and recommendations.
  • Dorothy Strickland, NIEER Distinguished Research Fellow, testified before the House Education and Labor Subcommittee on early literacy learning experiences. Read her full testimony here.
  • Dr. Strickland’s presentation for NAEYC on what makes a good book can be downloaded from NIEER’s website.
  • This NIEER blog post includes additional information and resources on literacy.

Violence and Child Abuse Prevention

  • Preschool interventions can have the greatest influence on reducing childhood aggression and preventing youth violence, as described in this report from the Centre of Excellence for Early Childhood Development.
  • High-quality early childhood education can reduce future crime and victimization, as explained in this blog post from NIEER and the National Center for Victims of Crime.
  • The Week of the Young Child also corresponds this year with National Crime Victims’ Rights Week. The Office for Victims of Crime within the U.S. Department of Justice has more information on this important observance.
  • Fight Crime: Invest in Kids has been highlighting child abuse prevention in their 1560 Campaign.

Child Health

  • This week is also World Immunization Week; find out more about state policies on pre-K immunizations in this blog post.
  • Children’s health is inextricably linked with their diets. Find our more about the growing epidemic of childhood obesity in these blog posts.
  • Because of the connection between children’s nutrition and their ability to function in a classroom setting, many state programs have policies related to meals in pre-K.
  • Early childhood education has been proven to provide better outcomes not only on children’s health while enrolled in preschool programs, but also on their health later in adulthood.
  • For a global perspective, become familiar with advocacy organizations that support child health initiatives and early learning opportunities, such as Shakira’s Barefoot Foundation or UNICEF.

Creativity and Play

  • Arts education can help preschoolers develop in other domains including math, language, critical thinking, and social-emotional, as explained by NIEER’s own Judi Stevenson-Boyd and a group of experts on Caucus: New Jersey.
  • NIEER’s Kim Brenneman provides ideas on how science-based lessons could be delivered through everyday life activities, such as playing with Mr. Potato Head or engaging in a game of golf.
  • The Ultimate Block Party is an event that highlights the importance of play-based learning for young children.
  • NIEER examines the role of technology in children’s play in this blog post and the interaction between play, intelligence, and learning in another post.
  • Learn more about the best ways to use technology to benefit young learners in this position statement from NAEYC and the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at Saint Vincent College.
  • This presentation from NIEER’s Shannon Ayers and Ellen Frede discusses the importance of learning through play against the backdrop of preschool assessments.

For the Week of the Young Child, we’ll be working on NIEER’s pre-K research, listening to the voices of early childhood and education advocates, and spending time with the young children in our lives. How will you observe this important week?

- Jen Fitzgerald, Public Information Officer, NIEER

- Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER


Words around the World: Celebrating International Literacy Day

September 8, 2011

Since 1967, September 8 has been celebrated as International Literacy Day, with the goal of focusing attention on the need to improve literacy worldwide. As students, parents, and teachers settle into their back to school routines, it is worth looking at the status of literacy both at home and around the world.

NIEER Director Steve Barnett and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan read to preschoolers at the State of Preschool 2008 release.

According to the fact sheets from the International Reading Association, an estimated 860 million of the world’s adults do not know how to read or write—more than twice the entire United States population.  More than 100 million children globally lack access to education.  Illiteracy plays a role in a damaging cycle of poverty, poor health, and a lack of mobility.  In countries with a literacy rate below 55 percent, the average per capita income is $600.  Geography plays a huge role in this cycle: 98 percent of non-literates live in a developing country. About 52 percent of non-literates live in India and China, and the continent of Africa has a literacy rate of under 60 percent.  The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNSECO) also provides compelling information on the extent of this problem globally.

Either out of naiveté or a desire to believe the problem hasn’t reached our shores, it is easy to think of illiteracy as a problem “over there.”  In reality, though, Americans whose literacy skills are never fully developed lag behind fully literate peers in a number of ways.  Research from ProLiteracy Worldwide finds that one half of all adults in federal and state correctional institutions in America cannot read or write at all, and reading problems are seen in 85 percent of juvenile offenders.  Health costs for individuals with low literacy skills are four times higher than those with individuals with high level literacy skills. Students with poor literacy skills may struggle in a number of subjects and some will eventually drop out before high school completion, a grim outcome when the income gap between those with a bachelor’s degree and those without is ever growing.

Starting children early on the road to literacy is an important step in helping develop these skills.  Recognizing this importance, NIEER has several recommended resources on developing early literacy skills in the early years, including:

For the literate, we cannot remember what it was like before letters automatically formed into words and words into sentences. We cannot turn off our ability to read and cannot imagine being unable to read our homework, a grocery list, or even street signs. For millions, though, this is their reality. Ensuring high levels of literacy attainment, beginning with the earliest years, both at home and abroad pays dividends in promoting educational attainment and creating a more capable workforce.  Improving literacy rates is a massive goal which requires more than one day of activism, but today is be a good time to start. And what better place to start than with early interventions?

- Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER


More Great Work from John Merrow

April 8, 2011

This week we saw on PBS Newshour an important installment in John Merrow’s continuing and exemplary pursuit of answers to what ails education in this country. Learning Matters, the nonprofit production company he founded traveled to Chicago where they visited homes with preschool-age children and visited an outstanding Educare program that serves kids from infancy to 5 years old. Along the way, Merrow interviewed Barbara Bowman who runs Chicago’s public pre-K program, once headed up the Erikson Institute, and is a NIEER Scientific Advisory Board. He also interviewed Diana Rauner, president of the Ounce of Prevention Fund, and Maria Whelan, president of Illinois Action for Children.

Bowman discusses the enormous costs of school failure and Merrow illustrates by cutting to a scene of young men entering a prison cell block. The cost of keeping them there? — $30,000 per year. Rauner says Educare spends about $19,000 per year per child, pointing out the potential return on that investment. She pointed to research showing that at-risk kids who attended the program for five years (at $95,000 per child) entered kindergarten as ready to learn as their middle-income peers.

There are 90,000 children in Chicago who need high-quality early education but the Educare Program Merrow visited serves only 149. Bowman describes to Merrow the dire budgetary straits in which Chicago’s much larger pre-K program finds itself. It serves 24,000 kids two and a half hours per day. When you add in all the kids in Chicago who attend Head Start and other public pre-K programs, the total comes to 37,000 kids served. In other words, says Merrow, Chicago spends about $5,000 per child on preschool for 40 percent of its neediest kids and nothing on the rest.

This picture could grow worse next year, says Bowman. Chicago used federal stimulus funds for pre-K and if that money isn’t replaced she’ll have to cut the number of children served by public pre-K even more. Merrow asks Whelan about making difficult choices in this economic environment, about spreading less funding over more kids or ignoring the needs of the many in order to serve the few. You will find her answer, and the analogy she uses, interesting. You can view the segment here: http://learningmatters.tv/blog/on-pbs-newshour/closing-the-vocabulary-gap-in-chicago-preschoools/5782/.   American’s should not allow themselves to be forced into a “Sophie’s choice” because of all the other things that are given priority–corporate welfare, foreign wars, and tax cuts for the wealthy among them.

Where would Merrow find the money for pre-K? He presents a bold answer in his blog Taking Note. He proposes to eliminate 12th grade, and then suggests the even more unthinkable—eliminate subsidies for corn production.  I take it his point is that people will have to come up with new ideas and fight tough political battles to wrest money for early childhood investments from powerful entrenched interests.  Stay tuned for NIEER’s 2010 Preschool Yearbook to be released later this month where we will reveal which states have chosen to support new investments in children despite tough times and which have chosen to disinvest in young children.

Steve Barnett

Co-director, NIEER


What the PISA Scores Are Telling Us

December 17, 2010

There is much talk in Finland these days about the country’s showing in the recent international comparison of PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) scores — not the self-congratulation one might expect from a country that topped yet again the list of high performing countries, but rather a sober look at the report’s nuances. A slight decline in Finland’s reading scores have educators looking for solutions and Minister of Education Henna Virkkunen urging reinforcement of reading skills beginning with “very early education.” It’s a good bet the Finns will take action to remedy what they see as a problem and they will not wait until kids are in formal schooling to apply it.

We should be so lucky. Many responses coming from the chorus of experts in this country to the poor showing of our 15-year-olds look past early childhood education, failing to recognize that preschool education is a strong predictor of difference across countries in PISA scores. According to the PISA report, students who attended preschool scored higher more than a decade after they moved on to the higher grades.

Michael Davidson at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development which conducts PISA points out that 20 percent of the U.S. performance was attributed to social background. This is much higher than in other countries in the evaluation. This too argues for making substantial new investments in high-quality pre-K. While research shows all kids benefit from pre-K, it is the disadvantaged kids who benefit most. Yet despite the evidence, policymakers at all levels continue to seek reforms that have little positive effect. They apparently haven’t gotten the message, backed by abundant research, that high-quality preschool produces positive effects, not to mention high returns on the public’s investment in it.

This message has obviously resonated in Shanghai, China, which now sits at the very top of the list of high performers. Like Finland, this immense city with a population equal to many large U.S. states also provides universal pre-K and requires highly trained teachers. We don’t have to model what we do after the Chinese or the Finns. We can look to selected communities in the United States that have already adopted serious reforms including raising the quality of early care and education. But we do have to begin taking high-quality preschool education as seriously and with the same sense of urgency as the most educationally successful nations. After all, their children are the ones our kids will be competing against.

Ellen Frede & Steve Barnett

Co-directors, NIEER


When it Comes to Pre-K, New Mexico Has What it Takes

November 12, 2010

The New Mexico PreK initiative expanded quickly when it began in 2005.  Five years later it was serving upwards of 5,000 children. Unlike other state programs with speedy ramp-up times, this one has undergone rigorous examination throughout its early growth period and stood up well. A multi-year evaluation study, funded by the State of New Mexico, began the same year as the PreK program itself.

This month, my research colleagues and I issued the latest in our series of reports focusing on the impacts of New Mexico PreK on children’s vocabulary, math, and literacy skills at the beginning of kindergarten. Our data (for the 2008-2009 school year) were gathered from a sample of 1,359 children from Public Education Department (PED) and Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD) PreK sites statewide.  Kids attending the program scored significantly higher on assessments of vocabulary, early math, and literacy in comparison to children who did not attend.

These results show that children gained important skills in areas such as addition and subtraction, telling time, knowledge of letters, and familiarity with words and book concepts. The vocabulary test is predictive of reading success and general cognitive abilities. Our conclusion: Kids who attend New Mexico PreK are better prepared to enter kindergarten than those who do not.

These positive findings merit particular attention in the context of New Mexico’s current budget shortfall.  First, the state has discontinued funding our PreK evaluation.  More importantly in the day-to-day lives of New Mexicans, the state PreK appropriation has decreased for the current school year.  This represents the first decline in state funding since New Mexico PreK began five years ago.  And, as a result, PreK enrollment declined this fall by more than 10 percent.

Over the past five years, program administrators at PED and CYFD showed they know how to launch a good program and expand it with high quality standards.  And a greater percentage of 4-year-olds in New Mexico were enrolled in state prekindergarten than in any other Western state except Colorado.  But continued expansion of this effective program may be threatened.  Even at its highest point of enrollment last school year, fewer than one in five children were enrolled. In her campaign, Governor-elect Susana Martinez said she will protect public education. Let’s hope that extends to maintaining and expanding the investment in New Mexico’s well-documented PreK winner.

Jason Hustedt

NIEER Senior Research Fellow

Assistant Professor

Department of Human Development and Family Studies

University of Delaware


A First Step, But Common Core Standards Must Meet the “Goldilocks Test”

April 27, 2010

It’s no surprise that the K-12 Common Core State Standards posted for comments by the Center for Best Practices at the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers received plenty of them from early childhood professionals. After all, this effort in standards-making, when complete, will directly impact teaching and curriculum, if used as intended, and clearly affect state policy pertaining to kindergarten and the early grades. If what we know about the way young children learn and what they know isn’t sufficiently taken into account, new standards could also have unintended negative consequences for the preschool years.

From my perspective, the standards are a step in the right direction, but definitely a work in progress. Standards for these grades already exist in every state, and this attempt to have common standards across states can help ensure equality of education for all America’s children. Of course, we have to start somewhere, but by covering only math and literacy as these initial standards do, we run the risk of implying that already neglected subjects like science and social studies aren’t all that important. Many in the early childhood field also worry that omitting social-emotional or pro-social education could be misinterpreted to mean that child growth in these areas is not necessary for later success and not the responsibility of public education.

As should be the case, the common core standards are outcome-focused, listing skills children should have achieved at the end of a given grade level, such as kindergarteners being able to count to 100 or know all of the upper and lower case letters. This focus on discrete skills makes it imperative that: (1) these benchmarks are accurate targets; (2) we ensure teachers know how to teach the skills in appropriate ways; and, (3)  that the child is never blamed for lack of mastery.

That’s not to say we don’t need clear standards. We do — but we need to use the “Goldilocks” test to ensure that the indicators aren’t too prescriptive or too general, but just right for the early years. Some have called for scrapping the standards effort altogether, believing no set of common standards can be drafted that won’t threaten play-based learning or lead to inappropriate teaching practices. Fueling this concern is the fact that the framers start with the aim of “college and career readiness” seemingly without consideration of what we know children entering kindergarten can do.   I don’t believe we should scrap the standards, but I do think that more early childhood experts need to be brought to the table to carefully analyze each outcome and ask:

  • Does it overestimate what children can do at this age based on our best knowledge?
  • Does it underestimate what children can do at this age based on our best knowledge, especially in the context of pre-K standards?
  • Is it too general leading to teachers not knowing how to use it?
  • Is it too specific leading to “a mile wide and an inch deep” curriculum?

The fact that 48 states have signed on to the common core standards effort is testimony that we have gone far too long without clear common standards to guide teaching.  A number of early childhood professionals have weighed in with constructive suggestions and the NAEYC and NAECS-SDE have developed a joint statement that contains specific responses. You can find it here: http://www.naeyc.org/files/naeyc/file/policy/NAEYC-NAECS-SDE-Core-Standards-Statement.pdf.

Ellen Frede

Co-director, NIEER


What We Don’t Know Will Hurt Us

November 19, 2009

Does it really surprise you that children entering kindergarten unprepared places them at a disadvantage over the long term? No, right! Well, it did surprise many Americans, according to a recently released survey from the Pearson Foundation.

According to the poll, about three-quarters of Americans assume that even if children enter kindergarten not ready for school, they will acquire the necessary literacy skills in elementary school to catch up with their peers. However, the research evidence shows the contrary – children who enter kindergarten unready usually do not catch up. In fact, research points out that children who enter kindergarten behind are three to four times more likely to drop out of school when they get older.

More than half of the population polled was unaware that family income is the best predictor of whether or not a child will succeed in school, nor were they aware that nearly half of the children from low-income families begin first grade up to two years behind their peers from higher income families. In addition, three-quarters of Americans are unaware that about 60 percent of low-income parents do not own age-appropriate books for their children.

While the vast majority of people polled acknowledged that early childhood illiteracy is problematic, they did not recognize that the simple act of reading to 3- to 5-year-olds can have significant impacts on children’s academic and life-long success.

“It’s common to under-estimate the importance of early literacy experiences for young children’s later language and literacy development, especially those experiences before the age of 3,” says Shannon Ayers, an assistant research professor at NIEER and a specialist on early literacy.

“Experiences of a caregiver cooing back at an infant provide the basis for conversation turn taking, and singing lullabies and silly rhyming songs provide experiences with the cadence of language,” she adds. “Lap reading and talking about stories and personal experiences with children offers exposure to story structure, print, and language (vocabulary development) in a comfortable, loving way that will provide the foundation for later learning.”

NIEER discusses literacy in the preschool classroom and its link to academic and lifelong achievement in the policy brief Early Literacy: Policy and Practice in the Preschool Years.


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