Top concerns about Common Core State Standards in early childhood education

March 26, 2015

There’s been lots of discussion about the Common Core State Standards recently, and their impact on classroom activity and child outcomes. Common Core is a major policy initiative to reform K-12 classroom practices, raise expectations and implement a new generation of assessments (at least in grades 3 and up), so it has major implications for Kindergarten-3rd grade (and early childhood education) teachers, children, and parents. It must be examined critically and debated. As we know, even if the policy is sound, implementation matters.

children in classA recurring concern is that the Common Core State Standards were developed from the top-down (setting standards for 12th graders first, and then working backwards to set expectations for the lower grades, failing to take sufficient account of research-based learning progressions for children from birth-age 5. A related issue: Some feel there was insufficient involvement of early childhood research experts in language, literacy, mathematics, and child development in the standards development process.

Over the next few weeks, we plan to have experts comment on the top concerns and issues we’ve heard about CCSS.

  • Rigorous standards may lead to reduced play and rich activity in preschool and Kindergarten classrooms.
  • Literacy instruction may become limited to a few texts and drill-and-kill teaching.
  • The standards are complex and extensive, and there is little guidance for teachers to implement them in Kindergarten classrooms.
  • Parents don’t understand the CCSS and are concerned about what they mean for their children.
  • The Kindergarten standards for literacy are not appropriate for children that age.
  • Assessment related to reaching standards will not be developmentally appropriate, and results may be misused.
  • Alignment with K-12 standards will mean teaching methods, subjects, and assessments that are not developmentally appropriate will be pushed down to preschool levels.
  • Math standards will be too challenging for young children.

We welcome your participation as well. Please comment and weigh in on the concerns and our experts’ responses.

Will FY2016 be the year for children? Or déjà vu?

February 4, 2015

In January’s State of the Union address, President Obama highlighted several initiatives meant to simplify child care for America families. The White House’s budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2016, released on Monday, provides further insight into the costs and details of these programs as well as additional areas of focus within the early childhood world.

FY2016 budget table

Early childhood education is often referred to as a “patchwork” system in reference to the number of public and private stakeholders–with varying program requirements and goals–who are involved, and the federal budget is no exception. Several departments have larger programs that operate projects in early childhood education. The Department of Education oversees Special Education Preschool Grants and houses the current Preschool Development Grants program, as well as the President’s proposed Preschool for All program. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) also collaborates on the Preschool Development Grants program. HHS oversees Head Start, child care, and the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV). The President has also proposed expanding the current tax benefits for families paying for child care–a complex change to tax policy which would not be covered by either department as it is not itself a program.

Much of what the White House is proposing in this budget has been seen before. The Preschool for All program is similar to the version proposed in the FY 2014 budget, and the Preschool Development Grants seek to distribute funds to more states than those already awarded grants in FY 2015. A review of budget documents from the Education and HHS departments does reveal some suggested changes:

  • Special Education Preschool Grants would include appropriations language that would allow LEAs to expand the age range of eligible children to include children ages 3 through 5, as well as requesting a waiver of some reporting requirements for LEAs that exercise this flexibility.
  • Head Start requested an additional $1.1 billion to expand service to full-day and school-year calendars. There is also $150 million for Early Head Start and EHS-Child Care partnerships as well as $284 to help existing programs offset rising costs.
  • Child Care: In the requested increase, there is a proposed $266 million to implement the reauthorized Child Care and Development Block Grant Act. There’s also a requested $100 million for Child Care Pilots for Working Families, which would test and evaluate models for working families, including those who work nontraditional hours. The administration has also introduced a 10-year, $82 billion plan for mandatory funding for the Child Care and Development Fund, to ensure that all low-income working families with children ages three or younger have access to quality, affordable child care.
  • An expansion of the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit (CDCTC) up to $3,000 per child would triple the maximum credit for families with children under age five and makes the full CDCTC available to families with incomes of up to $120,000. While this credit is largely discussed as a way to help parents pay for the care of their young children, it can also be used for older children and dependents who are elderly or have disabilities.

The Obama administration has touted this budget as crucial to progress for the middle class. These proposals focused on the early years on life would fill major gaps in service for many of America’s children–children in low-income families who do not have quality care while their parents work; children whose families feel the “middle class squeeze” and could greatly benefit from the increased CDCTC; children with special needs for whom quality early intervention services can make a world of difference. However, two essential questions should be asked about each element of the proposal. First, is it designed in such a way that it will significantly improve the quality of children’s early educational experiences? Much of the potential benefit to children and society depends on the answer. Second, what is the potential for passage?  Without support across the aisle, as well as at the state level, these proposals will remain just proposals. Recent experience suggests that, at least for education, proposals designed to help every child will be better received than those that exclude the families expected to pay for them.

– Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator

Early Education Has Its Day

December 11, 2014

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

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

Image Source: Department and Health and Human Services & Department of Education. (2014). What are preschool development grants?

Image Source: Department and Health and Human Services & Department of Education. (2014). What are preschool development grants?

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

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

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

– Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER/CEELO

Betting on Public Support for Preschool

July 21, 2014

This entry is cross-posted to The National Journal’s Education Insiders blog  in response to the prompt “Early Education Polls Well With Republicans, Swing Voters” from Fawn Johnson.


The new polling data from the First Five Years Fund are a source of hope that major new investments in early care and education will take place in the near future. This may even have presaged by recent advances in preschool investment across the country from New York to Michigan to California. Particularly interesting from a policy perspective is that the public has come to solidly support investments in our youngest children and to recognize the value of early child care, not just preschool education. Yet, the new polling data also point to some important concerns and, in particular, policy pitfalls that must be avoided as more politicians jump on the early care and education bandwagon.

Despite strong, broadly based support for government action, the public is also committed to reducing the tax burden on families. Support for a major new federal investment drops sharply, and I suspect does not succeed with the Republican base, if funded by even a targeted tax increase. Nevertheless, unless Congress is willing to fund it by increasing the deficit, some kind of loophole closing or targeted tax increase is likely to be necessary. A sunset provision on the targeted tax increase, requiring it to end or be reapproved after 10 years, might raise support. The other alternative is to fund new investments in early care and education by cutting other programs; as a majority of voters disapprove of this strategy, any proposal funded in this manner should be viewed as a poison pill.

However, the most serious concern is that politicians seeking voter approval will favor expansion of slots over quality and sloganeering over substance. The history of state pre-K and federal child care and Head Start policy provide ample reason for concern. High quality programs that provide long hours of care and a good education are expensive. Poor quality care and preschool programs that provide only a few hours a week are cheap. Given the resistance to tax increases, it will be tempting for politicians–Democrats and Republicans, the White House and Congress–to encourage wishful thinking and spread too little money over too many children and families. The result will be an increase in spending, but no real investment. Hope will be expressed that once the expansion is achieved, added resources can be obtained for quality or that somehow efficiencies will be obtained that will allow us to produce high-quality at a much lower cost than has ever been achieved before.

This next year could prove to be a turning point in the quest for public investment in high-quality early care and education. As nation emerges from the recession, resource constraints will ease. With economic growth, there will be possibilities for new investments without commensurate increases in tax rates. Will early care and education remain a top priority? And, will quality remain part of the formula? The importance of putting quality first cannot be overemphasized because the expansion of poor quality programs only creates a larger interest group that favors a continuation of poor quality. One early tell-tale sign will be the Obama Administration’s action on preschool development grants–will they emphasize increased numbers over quality, given the relatively modest budget available? Another will be Seattle voters’ preferences regarding their ballot initiative on quality preschool for all. I would like to bet on quality, but children’s advocates will need to work harder than ever if I am going to win that bet.

– Steve Barnett, NIEER Director

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

May 19, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

2013 State Preschool Yearbook Finds Need for Renewed Investment

May 13, 2014

Today NIEER released its 2013 State Preschool Yearbookat CentroNía/DC Bilingual Public Charter School in D.C. This newest installment of the Yearbook series covers policies, enrollment, and funding for state-funded pre-K programs in the 2012-2013 school year. Joining NIEER Director Steve Barnett at the event were Myrna Peralta, President/CEO of CentroNía; Roberto Rodriguez of the White House Domestic Policy Council; and Rob Dugger of ReadyNation/America’s Edge

Yearbook 2013

Click for the full report.

This year’s report found states still struggling to recover from the economic downturn that did so much damage to preschool programs in the previous year. As Barnett noted, “Our nation has emerged from the recession, but preschool-age children are being left to suffer its effects. A year ago, our data showed a half-billion-dollar cut in funding for state pre-K and stalled enrollment. For 2012-2013, we find that enrollment is down and funding per child, while up slightly, remains stalled at near-historic lows.”

Particularly of concern, the report found that:

  • In 2012-2013, enrollment decreased by about 9,000 4-year-olds from the prior year across the 40 states plus D.C.[1] that offer pre-K. This is the first enrollment decrease nationally NIEER has observed.
  • Slightly more than 1.3 million children attended state-funded pre-K, 1.1 million of them at age 4, accounting for four percent of 3-year-olds and 28 percent of 4-year-olds.
  • On the plus side, 20 states increased enrollment while 11 states reduced enrollment.
  • One program improved against NIEER’s Quality Standards Benchmarks, while two fell back.
  • Also good news, for the first time, every state-funded pre-K program had comprehensive early learning standards. This is first of the quality standards benchmarks to be met by all.
  • Four states, plus one of Louisiana’s three programs, met all 10 benchmarks for state pre-K quality standards, the same as in the previous year. This remains down from the peak of five states in 2010-11. Weak program standards persist in too many states, including lax standards for teacher qualifications in 23 programs and no limits on class size and/or teacher child ratio in a few large states–California, Florida and Texas.
  • Total state funding for pre-K programs increased by $30 million in real dollars, about a 1 percent increase.
  • State pre-K funding per child increased by $36 (inflation-adjusted) from the previous year, to $4,026.
  • Only 15 states could be verified as providing enough per-child funding to meet all 10 benchmarks for quality standards. As only 19 percent of the children enrolled in state-funded pre-K attend those programs, it seems likely that most children served by state pre-K attend programs where funding per child is inadequate to provide a quality education.

Dugger, whose organization supports the business case for early childhood education, put the report’s findings in context to America’s economic future. “The most important product the American economy produces are ready-for-life 18-year-olds,” he said. “The US cannot retain organic growth….unless it invests in its children in the early years.”

NIEER Director Steve Barnett & Roberto Rodriguez of the White House Domestic Policy Council read to children at CentroNía/DC Bilingual Public Charter School .

NIEER Director Steve Barnett & Roberto Rodriguez of the White House Domestic Policy Council read to children at CentroNía/DC Bilingual Public Charter School .

Rodriguez, of the Domestic Policy Council, highlighted federal/state partnership efforts underway, including $250 million for preschool development grants as well as $500 million to build Early Head Start/Child Care partnerships. He called increased investment in early childhood education “one of the most important things we can do as a country,” and called on governors, mayors, philanthropists, and policymakers to work together to prioritize this investment.

The report covers the most recently completed school year, 2012-2013. Trends may be looking up since then. Many states have recently made pre-K a priority in the time since that school year ended, with new initiatives passing in Connecticut, Maine, and Vermont, just this month and a doubling of state pre-K investment in Alabama over the last two years. New York provides a particular model for state-local collaboration, as leaders at all levels of government came together to prioritize early learning. These stories are a cause for optimism, and action: “If ever there were a time for leaders at the local, state, and national levels to unite in their efforts to provide high-quality preschool education to our next generation, this is it,” Barnett said.

Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education, called for just such participation on a media call discussing the Yearbook. “We just need Congress to catch up and pay attention to what is happening in the real world,” he said. Duncan added:

“Today, nationally, as the NIEER Yearbook shows, fewer than 30 percent of 4-year-olds are enrolled in state-funded preschool programs, and 10 states still do not offer it at all. Sadly, we’re 25th among industrialized countries in enrollment of 4-year-olds in early learning. If we’re going to lead in the global economy, we must do better – in countries like Germany and Japan, more than 95 percent of 4-year olds are enrolled in early childhood education. Quality early education can be a game-changer for the kids who need the most support.  It’s good for them and their families, and for our country’s long-term economic success.  Ultimately, it’s an investment in our collective future.”

The full Yearbook report can be found at here, along with state-specific information pages. Join the conversation on Twitter by tweeting @PreschoolToday and using the hashtag #YB2013.


[1] For the sake of comparison, the District of Columbia will be referred to as a “state” throughout this report. Hence, a total of 41 states provide state-funded pre-K.

Building a Strong Village to Promote Black Children’s Excellence: Early Childhood Education and the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans

April 30, 2014

The African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child,” recognizes the importance of supports for parents in raising healthy well-educated children who will succeed in school and life. The two most pressing education and health problems facing Blacks are the achievement gap and the “weathering effect.” Evidence for the achievement gap comes from several national data sources, such as the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) and the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS). Evidence for the weathering effect comes from reports highlighting the negative impact of chronic stress on children’s development, including the brain. African American children are more likely than others be exposed to the stresses of poverty including the violence that often afflicts communities with high concentrations of poverty, while having less access to high quality health care and education.   Because the Obama Administration understands the important role that education (and health) plays in children’s future success, the Administration has developed the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans.[1]

The White House’s Initiative espouses a P-16 approach to promoting education success for Blacks. The executive order that was established in July 2012 is comprehensive, spanning a vast array of education challenges faced by Blacks such as increasing their access to college on to the recruitment and retention of Black teachers. The Executive Director for the Initiative is David Johns, a former teacher who holds a Master’s degree from the Teachers’ College at Columbia University and who previously served as a senior education policy advisor to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.  Johns holds a Master’s degree from Columbia University. More about the Initiative can be learned by following the Twitter hashtags #AfAmEdChat and #teachthebabies.

In this blog, we discuss those aspects of  the Initiative that particularly pertain to early childhood education, and what the initiative can mean for early childhood education–by focusing on what educational structures are needed to ensure African Americans/Blacks are on the path to success even before they enroll in the K-12 system.

Why Early Education is Key to Building Education Excellence

The National Center for Education Statistics reports Black children attend full-day preschool (also referred to as “preprimary”) programs at higher rates than other racial/ethnic minorities.

One reason for this may be due to Black mothers’ higher workforce participation rate, compared to women of other races. Another reason could be because research finds that early childhood education works for African American children. In fact, the three best known studies (Perry Preschool, Abecedarian, Chicago Parent-Child Programs) were of programs that served predominantly African American children. More recent research finds that African American children benefit from high-quality preschool programs academically and socially. Such evidence leads to two overarching policy recommendations:

  1. invest in continued efforts to support early childhood education because it has proven effective in fostering Black children’s academic and social skills; and
  2. Target additional policy efforts during K-12 to ensure that continue to reduce the achievement gap.

These policy recommendations align with the missions/functions articulated in the Initiative, and therefore, our recommendations rest upon these missions. Below we discuss the research that contributes to the rationale for those most directly related to early childhood education.

Policy Recommendation #1:  Continue Investments in Early Education

  • Mission: Build African American children’s school readiness by enhancing their access to high-quality early learning programs. Overall, when compared to middle-class White children, low-income African Americans’ enrollment in high quality programs is lower. Policy efforts like expanding preschool for all children might facilitate children’s access to high quality early learning programs, especially given that a large portion of African Americans live in households that are at or below 200% of poverty. Given that African Americans are more often enrolled in full time programs, efforts should be made to expand access to, and improve the quality of, full-day programs.

Policy Recommendation #2:  Target Additional Efforts at K-12 to Sustain Early Education Efforts

  • Mission: Decrease the disproportionate number of African American referrals to special education. While African American children make up 17 percent of public school enrollment, they account for 31 percent of students identified as having mental retardation or intellectual disabilities, 28 percent of students labeled as having an emotional disturbance, and 21% of students who have learning disabilities. There is indication that African American children, especially boys, are often referred to special education rather than provided more individualized support for their needs.
  • Mission: Enhance access to effective teachers and school leaders by supporting efforts to recruit, prepare, and retain successful African American teachers and school leaders. A recent study by Iruka and colleagues (2014) shows that the majority of African American boys do well in their transition to kindergarten, but substantial percentage of even those who how early promise suffer declines as they transition into kindergarten.  These children would benefit from individualized support and attention in the early years that would ensure they flourish rather than fall behind.  Studies indicate that one year of low-quality teaching in the early years can have a detrimental impact on children’s later achievement and success.
  • Mission: Foster positive family engagement. Programs that support family engagement should be supported and encouraged. In order to get families and community members involved in a meaningful way, educational programs need to focus on effective family engagement. Iruka, Curenton, and Eke[2] (in press) explain that schools and early education programs must go beyond asking parents to volunteer for field trips and fill out forms. In the White House TweetChat on African American children & early education, one recurring topic was the need for programs to engage in meaningful outreach to families, and empower parents to have a true voice in their child’s education.
  • Mission: Reduce racial isolation and re-segregation of K-12 schools. African American children and families, regardless of income, are likely to live in segregated enclaves, which limit access to high quality employment, schooling, health care, community resources (e.g., parks, libraries) and housing. Children have fewer opportunities for stimulating experiences and individuals, which can limit a child’s imagination and potential to “dream big.” Further, these racially segregated enclaves are likely to expose children and families to violence and other stress factors that impact the child and family well-being. The recent recession, which caused many African American families to lose their homes and, subsequently, their wealth, has led to the de facto re-segregation of elementary schools.
  • Mission: Develop partnerships with public, private, philanthropic, and nonprofit stakeholders to increase children’s readiness for school.  Research shows that part of the achievement gap is due to learning loss in the summer.”  It is paramount that children and families have access to enriching after-school and summer programs to prevent the summer “brain drain,” the decline in learning that occurs during the summer.  In addition because the private child care market serves such a large proportion of young children, policy efforts should be made to promote collaboration between the public and private sectors offering preschool services.

Stephanie Curenton, Ph.D, is Assistant Professor, Rutgers University, Bloustein School of Planning & Public Policy; Adjunct Assistant Professor, Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, Institute for the Study of Child Development; and a NIEERResearch Fellow.

Iheoma U. Iruka, Ph.D. is Associate Director and Scientist at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute and Associate Research Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


[1] The White House also has Education Excellence Initiatives for Hispanics, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and American Indian and Alaskan Natives because there is an achievement gap for these ethnic minorities as well.

[2] Iruka, I. U., Curenton, S. M., & Eke, W. A. (in press). Culturally-Responsive, Anti-bias Framework of Expectation, Education, Exploration, and Empowerment (CRAF-E4). San Diego, CA: Elsevier.


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