What the new OCR early childhood data do and do not tell us

March 26, 2014

Recently released to great interest is the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) Early Childhood Data Snapshot. I want to call additional attention to this document and the survey behind it for two reasons. First, these new data identify serious educational problems that deserve more than one day in the sun. Second, these OCR data have significant limitations that policy makers, the media, and others should understand when using them. Public preschool education is delivered by a complex, interagency, mixed-delivery system that makes it more difficult to measure than K-12. Unless key limitations of the OCR survey are taken into account, users of the data can reach incorrect conclusions. For example, it was widely reported that 40 percent of school districts do not offer preschool. This is untrue: at the very least, every preschooler with a disability is offered a free appropriate education. The OCR survey also undercounts the provision of preschool education nationally, and its accuracy varies by state, which makes cross-state comparisons particularly perilous. Finally, definitions of such key terms as “suspension” are not what most people would assume, which complicates the interpretation of some high-profile findings.

Data from this OCR survey point to problems with access to preschool education and with policies regarding suspensions from preschool programs and retention (grade repetition) in kindergarten.

  • Every child should have access to high-quality preschool education. Yet, nearly half of all 3- and 4-year-olds do not attend any preschool program, public or private, and even at age 4, when attendance is more common, just 64% of 4-year-olds not yet in kindergarten attend preschool, according the 2012 Current Population Survey.
  • The only “zero tolerance” policy that should apply in preschool is that there should be no preschool suspensions. Yet, a substantial number of preschoolers are suspended each year, with boys and African-American children more likely to be suspended than others. States and LEAs should examine their data, practices, and policies closely to prevent this problem.
  • States should look closely at their policies regarding kindergarten grade retention. Does it really make sense to pay for more than 1 in 10, or even 1 in 20, children to attend kindergarten twice? Better access to high-quality preschools, and added services in kindergarten such as tutoring for children who are behind, could be much more cost-effective. States with high kindergarten retention rates should be looking into why they are retaining so many children and what can be done to reduce these rates.

Universal access to high-quality public preschool addresses all of these problems. Better teachers, smaller classes, and more support from coaches and others would reduce suspensions. Such preschools would have more appropriate expectations for behavior, and teachers who can support the development of executive functions that minimize behavior problems. The lower quality of preschools attended by African-American children may partly explain their higher rates of preschool suspension. Finally, good preschool programs have been shown to reduce grade repetition, though bad policies are likely behind many of the high rates of kindergarten retention.

The importance of the problems identified by the OCR data raises another key issue to which most of this article is devoted: to use the data appropriately we must understand the limitations of the data and make sure we interpret them correctly.

Access is Complicated

Let us begin with the finding that “40 percent of school districts do not offer preschool.”  Federal and state laws require that every child with a disability be offered a free, appropriate education from ages three to five. Yet OCR data do not seem to consistently include these children when reporting preschool special education at either the LEA or school level. One reason is that some “school districts” include only older children, e.g., high school districts and vocational school districts. (About 1 percent of high school districts also provide preschool, typically to serve children of teen parents or as a vocational training program.) Limiting the analysis to districts with kindergarten, 70 percent report that they provide preschool, which still seems low. This is partly because some agencies other than LEAs are responsible for preschool special education services. It is also possible that some LEAs mistakenly stated that preschool was not provided. Turning to the number of children reported served, rather than the number of districts serving them, we find a similar problem. School reports undercount the numbers of preschool children receiving services, and the undercount is a bigger problem in some states than others. (A complete copy of the questionnaire can be downloaded here.)

The most obvious explanation for these undercounts is that the OCR survey respondents interpret the questions asking about children served in public school buildings.  At the district level, the OCR survey asks LEAs to first report the number of schools and then to report on their provision of preschool services. This may have led some districts to respond positively only when they served preschool children in public school buildings. At the school level, the OCR survey asks individual schools to report on whether they offer preschool programs and services “at this school” and the enrollment count table specifies “only for schools with these programs/services.”  Whether or not this has any influence on LEA interpretation of the survey, it seems likely that each school reports only preschool offered physically in that school.

Different Data Sources Yield Different Counts

Just how different are the OCR numbers on enrollment from estimates of total enrollment in preschool education offered by states and local education agencies derived from other data sets?  The OCR survey reports 1.4 million enrolled. Data from the Current Population Survey, minus Head Start enrollment, leads to an estimate of about 1.8 million children attending state and local preschool education programs, indicating that the OCR survey is low by about 400,000 children or 22% of the total. In terms of preschool special education services, the OCR data report about 300,000 children, but the Office of Special Education Programs reports 430,000 3- and 4-year-olds receiving special education services under IDEA, and there are additional preschoolers served who are older (while younger children are included in the OCR data). Preschool special education may account for a substantial portion of the undercount, but it seems unlikely to account for the majority of the problem. In sum, the OCR survey undercounts of numbers of children receiving public preschool education from states and LEAs when those served outside public schools are included.

State Approaches Vary

As states differ in how they fund and operate preschool education, the extent to which the OCR data comprehensively capture preschool enrollment varies greatly by state. Looking state by state, it appears that the OCR survey performed fairly well in measuring regular preschool enrollment in most states. However, it grossly undercounted preschool provision in Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Vermont. These states make extensive use of private providers for public preschool education. In addition, the OCR figures diverge significantly from the IDEA counts for 10 other states. There are a number of possible reasons for more widespread “undercounting” of preschool special education including: contracting with private providers for special education, responsibility for preschool special education in agencies other than LEAs, and service delivery in homes and other nonpublic school settings. Some preschoolers receive only individualized therapy or other services under IDEA, rather than a publicly provided classroom experience, but neither the OCR nor other data sets allow for the determination of how many children receiving IDEA services are in classrooms funded by public education.

For some states, the data appear to be reasonably accurate when compared to data for the same year from NIEER.[1] Data from the NIEER Yearbook as well as the OCR report are compared below for select states. For states like Georgia and Florida, where many programs are not funded through LEAs, this comparison indicates that the OCR numbers are very incomplete measures of the number of children provided with public preschool education. Relative to total enrollment in state-funded preschool education (which does not include all LEA provision or all preschool special education), Florida is undercounted by about 120,000 and Georgia by more than 30,000. Even in states where funding flows through districts, many children seem likely to have been unreported because they are not served in public schools, which seems to be the case in New York. Also interesting is the case of Wyoming which served 2,207 preschoolers aged 3 and 4 under IDEA, yet the OCR report has Wyoming serving just 13 children under IDEA. While the discrepancies could result primarily from OCR school level respondents counting only children served in public school buildings, this may not be a complete explanation.

State

NIEER Preschool Yearbook OCR Report
State-Funded Pre-K Enrollment
IDEA Enrollment, 3s and 4s (from Office of Special Education)
Public School Preschool Enrollment
Special Education Enrollment
Florida 175,122 21,007 57,286 16,351
Georgia 82,868 8,561 50,779 8,612
New Jersey 51,540 10,683 48,186 9,839
New York 102,568 45,390 56,540 3,857
Wyoming 0 2,207 624 13

New Jersey allows us to conduct a more fine-grained comparison of OCR data with data from LEAs that include children served by private providers. A simple statewide comparison might suggest reasonably full reporting for New Jersey. New Jersey enrolled about 51,000 children in state-funded pre-K which is not very different from the OCR number. However, about half of the 51,000 in state-funded programs attended private providers (including Head Starts) contracted with districts. New Jersey’s districts vary greatly in the extent to which they serve preschoolers through private providers.  When we look at the numbers district by district, we find that the OCR and district totals closely correspond for districts serving children only or overwhelmingly in public school buildings, but  for districts relying heavily on contracted private providers the OCR numbers correspond closely only to the numbers in public school buildings. The OCR report identifies more than 20,000 preschoolers served in New Jersey public schools who are not funded through the state pre-K programs, which just happens to be close to the number served under contract who are not in the OCR data. This strengthens our conclusion that the OCR data represent only children in public school buildings. This is not to fault the OCR survey in the sense that this is what it is designed to do, but this is not how the OCR data have been widely interpreted, nor is it adequate as a survey of preschool education offered through the public schools (and not just in their own facilities).

Suspension and Retention Data

Given the limitations of the OCR data on numbers of children served, the total numbers should not be used as estimates of all children provided preschool education by the states and LEAs. They much more closely approximate the numbers served in public school buildings. Comparisons across states, LEAs, and schools, should be approached with great caution. It is unclear exactly how this might affect the percentage of children reported as suspended, but it seems unlikely to overturn either the general conclusion that suspensions occur at a disturbing rate or that they are higher for African American children and boys. However, comparisons of suspensions across states or districts might be distorted by limitations of the data.

Another aspect of the survey with the potential for misunderstanding is presented by the definition of “suspensions.”  In the OCR survey the definition includes not just children who have been sent home, but also those temporarily served in other programs offering special services for children with behavior problems. Such placements are not necessarily bad for children or to be avoided. However, the data do not allow for any division between children sent home and children sent to more appropriate placements. Nevertheless, the high rate at which children are temporarily removed from their regular classrooms for behavior problems is cause for concern.

The accuracy of the kindergarten retention data also deserves scrutiny. Earlier this year, NIEER collected state data on grade repetition by grade level from state sources of information, though not all for the 2011-12 year. Across all 27 states for which we obtained data, our figures averaged 8/10 of a percentage point lower. Comparing only those for which we had 2011-12 data, our figures averaged ½ of one percent lower. At least judged relative to the only other source we have, the OCR retention data seem reasonably accurate. That the OCR data are slightly higher might reflect efforts to minimize the appearance of a problem.  There are some large discrepancies for a few states. Arkansas had 12 percent kindergarten retention in the OCR data and 6 percent in the state data we obtained; Michigan had 7 percent kindergarten retention in the OCR data and 12 percent in the state data we obtained. For such states, it may be useful to review the data on a district-by-district or school-by-school basis to identify reasons for the discrepancies. Even with kindergarten retention there can be differences due to interpretation. For example, should children who enter a transitional kindergarten program after kindergarten be considered retained?  What about children who enter kindergarten after a year of transitional K?  Any problems with the data would not negate the conclusion that some states have very high rates compared to others and that this deserves consideration by policy makers.

Overall, OCR has provided a valuable service by collecting these early childhood data. Without the OCR data, there would be no basis for raising the issue of preschool suspensions and no way to track progress on this issue in the future. Similarly, without the OCR data there would be no basis for comprehensive state-by-state comparisons on grade retention at kindergarten. Nevertheless, great care must to be taken to recognize the limitations of the OCR data, and the federal government should do more to reduce those limitations. OCR is already working to improve the next survey. Ultimately, they may have to go beyond a school-based survey, because much of public education for preschool children takes place outside of public school buildings even when it is under the auspices of the state education agency (SEA). And, in some states public preschool education is not entirely under the SEA. Possibly, states could supplement LEA data by providing the same basic information for preschoolers they serve outside public school buildings. In addition, procedures might be added to verify that respondents properly understand all questions, especially for states where the responses seem at odds with data from other sources. Some data might be collected in more detail: preschoolers suspended at home with no services separated from those in alternative placements; preschool education children in classrooms separated from those served elsewhere; and, transitional K separated from repetition in regular K.  If you have additional suggestions, particularly based on knowledge of your state’s preschool services systems, OCR would undoubtedly welcome them.

- Steve Barnett, NIEER Director

 

[1] Though NIEER data report on enrollment in state-funded pre-K enrollments, they do not include LEA preschool services that are not part of state-funded pre-K or IDEA; NIEER data will not capture the full undercount.


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.


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

November 18, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barnett, Carolan, and Johns recommend:

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

Pre-K Returns to Capitol Hill

November 13, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Kirsty Clarke Brown, Policy and Communications Advisor


Pre-K and Tobacco, Perfect Together?

April 15, 2013

Steve BarnettHigh-quality pre-K for all funded by a tobacco tax is a winning combination. It makes perfect sense from both economic and political perspectives. Let’s start with the economic perspective. Economics is primarily concerned with two issues, efficiency and equity (fairness). The primary economic argument against higher taxes is that they lead people to make less optimal choices, perhaps even discouraging socially beneficial activities that we otherwise want to encourage. Yet, smoking is an activity that we actually want to discourage.  It imposes high social costs, and it is an addiction that most smokers acquired before adulthood, would prefer not to have acquired, and would like to quit. A tobacco tax will reduce the number of new smokers and the number of cigarettes consumed by those who already smoke.

Big tobacco (Altria, Reynolds American, Lorillard, and Imperial Tobacco have 95 percent of the U.S. market) can be expected to object that a tobacco tax is unfair because it hits low-income Americans hardest. Their concern for the plight of the poor would be touching if they evinced any concern that their products unfairly increase disease and death among low-income Americans and their children (from secondhand smoke). A tobacco tax will reduce smoking and improve health most for the lowest income Americans because their smoking behavior is more price sensitive than that of higher income smokers.  To this we can add that high-quality pre-K produces its greatest benefits for children from lower-income families, though all children will benefit.

Another objection opponents have already raised to the tobacco tax is that because it will reduce smoking the revenue generated will decline over time. Thus, they say it is not suitable as a permanent funding source for pre-K. Apparently, they have not read the President’s plan or his budget.  The President does not propose perpetual federal funding, and the funding formula decreases the federal match gradually over time.  In this respect, a tobacco tax is a perfect match for the pre-K proposal.

Turning to the political perspective, one advantage of this proposal is that the financing mechanism makes no new enemies. Cigarette makers will oppose pre-K for all no matter how it is funded. Multiple studies find that quality pre-K reduces the likelihood that people take up smoking. From the industry perspective it is a tobacco control program, and big tobacco relentlessly works to erode public funding for such programs. At the same time, the proposal will enlist another set of allies–those committed to reducing tobacco addiction and the disease and death it causes. They will have two reasons to support the pre-K proposal because both quality pre-K and the tax will reduce smoking.

In the current political environment, some may oppose the proposal because they oppose any tax increase at all.  For those truly committed to limited government and deficit reduction, I have a modest suggestion. Cut welfare for agribusiness, aka farm subsidies, which are inefficient and unfair. Farm subsidies cost taxpayers $10 to $15 billion annually, even though farm income reached all time highs in the last two years. Let the free market operate in agriculture, and split the savings 50-50 between deficit reduction and the President’s pre-K proposal (which, by the way, will eventually start contributing to deficit reduction on its own).  Anyone who says they favor less government intrusion into the market and smaller deficits, but is unwilling to cut farm subsidies, doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously.

Returning to the tobacco tax, it will, without a doubt, require a fight. Big tobacco will use direct lobbying, publicity campaigns, AstroTurf (artificial grassroots front groups), and alliances with think tanks and membership organizations.   They can be expected to try to convince unions to oppose the tax because it is regressive and police organizations to oppose it because it will increase illegal sales (pay no attention to who would have to collude in supplying tobacco products to the underground economy).

Supporters of the proposal should be prepared to build a coalition with anti-tobacco groups as well as businesses that will benefit from lower health care costs and more productive future employees, unions with members who will benefit from better health and access to high-quality pre-K, advocates for lower income children and their families including minorities who have the least access to high-quality pre-K. They might even organize consumer and investor boycotts of tobacco companies who oppose the plan. Altria, which has by far the largest market share for cigarettes, also has economic stakes in beer and wine, allowing even nonsmokers to participate in an effective consumer boycott. Big tobacco has lost this battle before. California provides a battle plan that, when suitably tweaked for a national campaign, can produce another win for pre-K.

- Steve Barnett, Director, NIEER

This entry is cross-posted to The National Journal and is in response to the post “‘Sin Tax’ for Pre-Schoolers” by Fawn Johnson.


(Almost) Everything You Wanted to Know about Pre-K in the Federal Budget

April 12, 2013

Since President Obama announced his goal of quality early education for 4-year-olds in his State of the Union address, the education world has been buzzing for more information. Details provided earlier this month indicated that the president’s plan would call for funding the program through an increase in the tobacco tax from $1.01 per pack to $1.95. The release of the president’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2014 provides significantly more insight into the administration’s Preschool for All initiative.

The Department of Education budget clarifies that the proposal is for a federal-state partnership to provide all low- and moderate-income 4-year-old children with high-quality preschool with added incentives to expand these programs to reach children from all income levels.  The plan is part of a larger approach to expanding and sustaining middle-class opportunity. Education Department documents laid out key elements of the Preschool for All proposal; many are similar from the bills introduced in both the House and Senate since the State of the Union, including:

  • high staff qualifications, including a BA degree for teachers;
  • professional development for teachers and staff;
  • low staff-child ratios and small class sizes;
  • a full-day program;
  • developmentally appropriate, evidence-based curricula aligned with state early learning standards;
  • salaries comparable to those in K-12 education;
  • on-going program evaluation to ensure continuous improvement; and
  • on-site comprehensive services for children.

The Department of Education is requesting $75 billion over 10 years in budget authority for this plan with $1.3 billion requested for FY 2014.  This is mandatory federal spending that is not dependent on an annual or periodic appropriation bill.

State funding allocations would be based on the number of 4-year-olds in families at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. Table 1, based on the Education Department’s School Readiness budget justification, shows how state and federal shares vary over time for both regular and reduced rate states.  The “regular” rate applies to states not yet serving half of the children below 200 percent of poverty; the “reduced” rate incentivizes pre-K for all children when at least half the children above 200 percent FPL are served.

Table 1.  State/Federal Share of Pre-K Program at Regular and Reduced Rates

Program Year

Regular Rate

Reduced Rate

State Share

Federal Share

State Share

Federal Share

Year 1

9%

91%

5%

95%

Year 2

9%

91%

5%

95%

Year 3

17%

83%

9%

91%

Year 4

23%

77%

17%

83%

Year 5

29%

71%

23%

77%

Year 6

33%

67%

29%

71%

Year 7

43%

57%

33%

67%

Year 8

50%

50%

43%

57%

Year 9

60%

40%

50%

50%

Year 10

75%

25%

71%

29%

The budget also requested $750 million in discretionary funds for FY 2014 for Preschool Development Grants. These funds would provide competitive grants to states “most willing to commit to creating or expanding a high-quality preschool system that can serve all of their 4-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families.” At an Education Department press conference on Wednesday, these grants were characterized as helping states address systemic issues in preparation for expanding preschool, which would include building facilities and workforce development. Eligible states would include “low capacity” states with small or non-existent state-funded pre-K programs as well as states with “more robust” programs looking to support quality improvement and expand access.

How many 4-year-olds children stand to benefit from the president’s plan? Back of the envelope calculations based on data from the ECLS-B study indicate that as many as 1.67 million 4-year-olds who live below 200 percent FPL could benefit because they do not now have access to a quality pre-K program (based on the numbers who attend no program or a program that is not high quality). This includes 365,000 African-American children and 565,000 Hispanic children. Rather than a “federal takeover” of early education as feared by some, the president’s plan would build on state efforts that work and improve those that fall short.  With its added incentives to offer quality preschool for all, this plan could increase the number of children attending high-quality pre-K programs at age 4 from less than 1 million to around 4 million nationally.

The federal budget also makes provision for younger children.  The Department of Health and Human Services budget has $1.4 billion in new Early Head Start-Child Care Partnerships; an additional $200 million to support high-quality child care; and $15 billion over 10 years to support home-visiting programs.

At the state level, a so-called “sin tax,” such as the proposed tobacco tax, is not an uncommon way to fund programs for children. NIEER has written before about the pros and cons of this approach as well as a more comprehensive look at various state funding structures for early education. In fact, tobacco taxes fund early education through  First Five California and First Things First in Arizona while Kansas and Maine both report using tobacco settlement funds for various components of early childhood education.

children in sandbox

Several other noteworthy initiatives were included in the Education Department’s budget, as noted by Education Week:

  • $300 million for Promise Neighborhoods;
  • $112 million to help schools develop emergency plans, collect school safety data, and improve school climate;
  • $1 billion for a Race to the Top competition focusing on improving student outcomes in college without increasing tuition; and
  •  $215 million for competitive School Improvement Grant program focused on school turnarounds and district capacity.

It’s heartening to see early childhood education at the top of the agenda for new investments in education. The proposed federal investment in pre-K together with the other proposed measures can increase the number of children ready for the early elementary grades, expanding the opportunity for all children to achieve long-term academic, social and economic success.

- Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER

- Steve Barnett, Director, NIEER


Yes, Public Preschool is a Smart Investment

March 22, 2013

child with blockNote: This blog post is in response to the question posed by The New York Times in its Room for Debate forum: “Is Public Preschool a Smart Investment?”.

Early education and care programs have two goals — child care so parents can work or go to school and education so children learn and grow optimally.  Unfortunately, much of what is called child care in the United States is what others would call “child minding.”  Ensuring that children are safe, warm, and fed is not enough to support their healthy development, which also requires well-trained, adequately paid teachers who receive coaching and supervision plus sufficiently teacher-child ratios. This helps ensure caregivers provide children with educational content and play experiences that include language, math and science as well as attending to their social, emotional, and physical development, which are equally important. In a high-quality early childhood education and care setting, children learn language, how letters and books work, and about numbers, shapes, and dimensions. But they also learn how to test a theory, concentrate, self-regulate, develop attention skills, get along with others, and more.  The end result is they start kindergarten better prepared to learn and live full lives.

The evidence for pre-K is substantial and far beyond the few studies commonly mentioned, such as the Perry Preschool Program (which skeptics criticize for being old and small).  To date, there are summaries of 123 studies in the U.S. and about a third more elsewhere in the world that demonstrate the effectiveness of high-quality pre-K programs.  From all the studies out there one concludes that early educational intervention can have substantive short- and long-term effects on cognition and social-emotional development, as well as on school progress, antisocial behavior, earnings, welfare participation, and even crime.  A multiplicity of programs across various social and economic contexts, including large public programs, have been shown to be effective.  Among the recent evidence are long-term studies from Michigan and the Abbott preschool program in New Jersey.  So how can we choose not invest in it when the evidence also shows that for every $1 spent we get far greater returns?

The President’s pre-K proposal would help states provide high-quality pre-K for low- and middle-income families, which is crucial considering that children of lower income groups start kindergarten more than a year behind in language and math than their upper income peers.  And this gap is very resistant to later efforts to close it.  Recognizing that parents want quality learning experiences for even the youngest children, the President also proposed partnerships between child care and Early Head Start, a program for at-risk children under age 3 with a track record of success.  Improving quality in child care for younger children, particularly the most disadvantaged, while providing expanded pre-K to 4-year-olds is too important to be an either/or choice. We can do more for children of all ages and the President proposes to do that, but ensuring that every child has access to quality education at least by age 4 is an attainable goal right now while pursuing that broader agenda.  State leaders have figured out that pre-K is a good choice for families and children in their states and politically viable as a bipartisan policy –  last year, 39 states offered state-funded pre-K programs, and enrollment – all voluntary – has nearly doubled in a decade.  Even cities have started to push for pre-K programs, such as the recent efforts in San Antonio by Mayor Julián Castro.  Nevertheless, finances are difficult for many families, cities and states.  A little federal help will go a long way toward ensuring that all families, especially low- and middle-income ones, can have access to high-quality education for their preschoolers.

- Milagros Nores, Associate Director of Research, NIEER


Pre-K Goes to Washington

March 22, 2013

President Obama launched early childhood education into the national spotlight in February when in his State of the Union address he proposed “working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America.” Since then, the early education field has been debating best practices, funding models, and making sure the mainstream media accurately presents the compelling research case for pre-K. The White House has been largely mum on plan details, though its fact sheet, the President’s education speech in Georgia, and recent remarks from White House advisor Roberto Rodriguez have offered some clues. While the President’s plan is more of an outline than a detailed proposal, it does focus on a few key components:

  • A plan to implement comprehensive data and assessment systems,
  • Small class sizes and low staff to child ratios,
  • Qualified teachers for all preschool classrooms, and
  • Well-trained teachers who are paid comparably to K-12 staff.

The proposal has not gone unnoticed on Capitol Hill, where several early learning bills have been introduced in both the Senate and the House of Representatives to improve the quality of and access to early childhood education for 4-year-olds. Funds would be channeled through state-designated agencies to subgrantees who would provide the actual services.

Three recently introduced bills call for a closer reading:

  • The Prepare All Kids Act (S. 502) introduced by Senator Bob Casey (D-PA);
  • The Ready to Learn Act (S.322) introduced by Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and co-sponsored by Al Franken (D-MN), Mark Begich (D-AK), Mazie Hirono (D-HI); and
  • The Providing Resources Early for Kids Act of 2013, or PRE-K Act, introduced by Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI) (S.519) cosponsored by Mark Begich (D-AK), Benjamin Cardin (D-MD), Richard Durbin (D-IL), Al Franken (D-MN), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Tim Johnson (D-SD), Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), Patty Murray (D-WA), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Charles Schumer (D-NY), and Ron Wyden (D-OR). Companion legislation was introduced in the House (H.R. 1041) by Representative Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY) and cosponsored by Representative Allyson Schwartz (D-PA).

The plans agree on several points, such as requiring comprehensive early learning standards (defined by the National Education Goals Panel as physical well-being/motor development, social/emotional development, approaches toward learning, language development, and cognition/general knowledge) as well as requiring states to use these federal funds to “supplement, not supplant” existing state funds for early learning. Each plan also addresses those key aspects of the White House proposal in slightly different ways:

Title

Prepare All Kids (S. 502)

Ready to Learn Act (S. 322)

Providing Resources Early for Kids Act of 2013 (PRE-K Act) (S.519/H.R. 1041)

Class Size

20

20

Nationally established “best practice”

Staff-Child Ratio

1:10 ratio

1:10 ratio

Nationally established “best practice”

Teacher Credentials

Defined as having a BA with specialization in ECE or early childhood development; or  teacher is working toward degree

within 6 years of beginning employment as teacher in a provider assisted under this program

Within 2 years of grant, each classroom must have teacher with BA in ECE or specialized training in early childhood development

Teacher holds AA or higher in early childhood or related field; Plan to require state-funded pre-K program teachers to hold a BA (in ECE or related) within 5 years of receiving funds

Early Learning Standards

Comprehensive

Comprehensive

Comprehensive

Provision for Private Provider Inclusions

35% of subgrantees must be CBOs

25% of subgrants to CBOs

Funds must be made available to range of programs, including LEAs and community-based providers

Fed/State Share

50/50

50/50

Non-federal matching funds at least 30% of federal grant funds for “Qualified States,” 50% for “Selected States”

Assessments

Cannot lead to rewards or sanctions for individual children, teachers, programs, or schools; Single assessment cannot be used as sole method for assessing effectiveness

Program’s curriculum must use “valid and reliable multiple assessments for the purpose of improving instruction”

Funds in act may not be used for assessments that provide rewards or sanctions for teachers or students (no high stakes)

The Prepare All Kids Act also calls for a 15 percent set aside of funding for programs for children ages 0 to 3, while the PRE-K Act calls for 10 percent set aside for quality improvement in programs for children these ages. While media attention of President Obama’s early childhood plan has largely centered on the components offering preschool to 4-year-olds, children ages 0 to 3 were addressed through Early Head Start-Child Care Partnership programs.

These requirements seem like good news for most programs with state-funded pre-K programs. As indicated in NIEER’s annual State Preschool Yearbook, from the 2001-2002 to 2010-2011 school year, state-funded pre-K programs made particular progress in meeting the NIEER quality standards in the areas of class size and ratio, lead teacher requirements, and early learning standards.

benchmarks over time

Clearly, the percent of programs requiring teachers to have a bachelor’s degree has lagged considerably with only 57 percent of programs meeting this standard. However, provisions in each of the three congressional bills give programs some time to raise teacher credentialing to this level. Twenty-four programs already meet all of the requirements of these proposals regarding program standards as indicated in NIEER’s latest State Preschool Yearbook. Though these would not be the sole qualifying factors for receiving federal funds, it appears that almost 50 percent of pre-K programs are already on the right track from Congress’ point of view.

Pre-K has also found itself a more modest place in the Continuum of Learning Act of 2013 (H.R.791) as introduced by Representative Jared Polis (D-CO) and Don Young (R-AK), with Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), Jim McDermott (D-WA), and Allyson Schwartz (D-PA) joining as co-sponsors after the bill was introduced. While the bill was introduced shortly after the President’s State of the Union pre-K proposal, it does not outline a new pre-K program but rather builds early learning more explicitly into the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The Continuum of Learning Act focuses primarily on improving early learning guidelines; encouraging local education agencies (LEAs) to utilize school improvement funds to provide early education programs; and promote professional development, especially through providing joint training between early education and elementary teachers.

Introducing bills in committee still leaves early learning far from the President’s desk, but the number of plans focusing on high-quality early childhood education at the federal level represents a heartening commitment to the future of kids.

- Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER


Federal Proposal Would Build on State Efforts

February 26, 2013

Steve BarnettPresident Obama’s call to action on early education is a watershed moment that has the potential to improve education for millions of American students. Ensuring all students have the opportunity to attend high-quality preschool, regardless of income and geography, is a key component of an effective education system that prepares students for success in school and society.

State-funded pre-K has grown substantially over the last decade to serve 28 percent of 4-year-olds, up from 14 percent in 2001. Yet, this is only part of the picture. As many as 40 percent are served by public programs when Head Start and preschool special education are counted, though the latter may consist of only a few hours of therapy a week. Over 80 percent are in some type of out of home arrangement including private programs and family home child care. Unfortunately, research now makes it clear that the quality of many of these arrangements as assessed by direct observation is far too low to promote educational opportunity. Some are so poor they may actually increase children’s risk of school failure. Head Start’s weaknesses have been noted by many as debate over this proposal has unfolded, but Head Start is far better than many of the private centers and day care homes children attend. NIEER has just released an in-depth look at what the research tells us about the outcomes of early education which can help clarify some confusion seen in media report.

That is why it is so important to understand that the President’s pre-K proposal will raise quality and educational effectiveness, not just increase the number of seats available.  And, it will do this by lifting up the entire field.  The models of successful pre-K for all already operate show the way. Oklahoma, New Jersey’s Abbott program, and West Virginia all integrate private providers and Head Start into state-funded pre-K.  What does this mean?  Head Start teachers nationally are paid barely more than pet sitters and dog walkers. This is Head Start’s Achilles heel. Teachers in private child care make even less.  To use the New Jersey example, when integrated into state pre-K these teachers were given the opportunity to go back to school and get stronger preparation, they were assigned teacher coaches who worked with them as partners to improve their teaching, and their salaries were doubled. Of course, this came with accountability for results, but the vast majority delivered. Teaching quality in all classrooms, private and public, was raised from poor/mediocre to good/excellent.

Planning for this reform process has already begun in most states through their state early learning advisory councils.  In addition, 35 states and the District of Columbia developed reform plans when they applied for funds to expand early education through the federal Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge in 2011. However, only nine states were awarded funds. These applications demonstrate a clear interest and capacity by state governments to partner with the federal government to start all children on the right path. States have never been better poised to prioritize early education and the federal government’s role is welcome support.

The White House preschool proposal has a few key words that are important in understanding how this would play out: “federal-state partnership” and “cost-sharing.” This isn’t the federal government signing a blank check to foot the entire bill for early education; it is limited support based on the number of low-income children in a state and tied to a small number of standards already adopted by many states. If other states do not want to raise quality, they do not have to participate. If they do participate, they will be in charge, not the federal government, which could list its requirements on a single page.  The list of states that we believe might qualify with little or no change to state policy includes not just Oklahoma and Georgia, but also Alabama, Alaska, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Washington, and West VirginiaMississippi is currently advancing legislation that would meet the test as well.

Once it is understood, the President’s pre-K plan should be endorsed by practically everyone. It supports equity and excellence in the pre-K policies advanced by governors of both parties. Both critics and supporters of Head Start should welcome it as Head Start reform that will strengthen that program and improve its effectiveness. Those who want to see more choice and competition should applaud federal support for state programs that incorporate private providers. To return to our New Jersey example, two-thirds of the children are served by private providers supported by local school districts responsible for ensuring quality through teacher coaching and supports to help children with special needs succeed in regular classes.

Given all of its advantages, the primary objection in Congress to the President’s proposal is likely to be that we can’t afford new spending when deficits loom so large. Yet, this is fundamentally a pro-growth, deficit reduction proposal. The biggest returns to this investment will kick in years down the road when the deficit is projected to become a more serious problem. And, it addresses root causes of the deficit–slow growth and rising costs of government including health care costs. Quality pre-K will enhance productivity to increase growth, decrease the costs of school failure and crime, and reduce smoking and other risky behaviors that harm health. Sure, it’s just one small contribution to deficit reduction, but a $50 billion investment over 10 years could contribute a few hundred million dollars to deficit reduction.

Rejecting the President’s pre-K plan is the far more costly alternative. We cannot afford to leave so many children behind with more than a third not ready to succeed at kindergarten entry. We cannot afford the lost growth and increased costs to government when they subsequently fail. We cannot afford failing to recognize that this is not just a problem for the 45 percent of our children who live below 200 percent of poverty, but for the vast majority of families. Deficit hawks, education reformers, and civil rights activists should unite to lead the charge for this proposal in Congress.  States–red and blue–have already shown the way forward. Congress should follow.

- Steve Barnett, Director, NIEER

This entry is cross-posted to The National Journal and is in response to the post “Holy Preschool, Batman” by Fawn Johnson.


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