Keeping early learning at arm’s length

October 29, 2014

We are a nation intrigued by lists, and I am no exception. I scour lists from top to bottom on any number of topics, from best companies to work for to international rankings for educational performance. I also look for any underlying trends that may tell the story behind the list.

It should come as no surprise that I eagerly reviewed the recently released list of states applying for $250 million in federal Preschool Development Grants. These grants–ranging in size from $5-20 million per state to develop a preschool program to $10–35 million annually for 4 years to expand existing preschool services for low- and moderate-income children–present an opportunity for states to reach children who have fallen between the cracks when it comes to participating voluntarily in a high-quality preschool, an opportunity the majority of Americans are clamoring for. Fifteen states and Puerto Rico were eligible to receive development funds with the remaining 35 states and District of Columbia eligible to expand existing programs.

As the list was released, 8 states and Puerto Rico submitted development applications and 27 states sought funding for program expansion. Eighteen states applying for expansion funds currently receive Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge (ELC) grants, with only ELC recipients Michigan and Wisconsin choosing not to apply.

States That Submitted Applications for the FY 2014 Preschool Development Grants

Screen Shot 2014-10-28 at 9.12.53 PM

Image from the US Department of Education Office of Early Learning

There are many lenses one can use to look for underlying story lines; geographic and political leadership being two common sets. Looking at a map of applicants, a swath across the Midwest extending from Canada to Mexico appears desolate if not for Texas’ application, and there must be something in the water leaving a bad taste for 3 of 4 states touching Lake Michigan–or all 3 states surrounding Yellowstone’s Old Faithful–causing them to keep this opportunity at arm’s length.

Governors were required to submit the application for these funds and, as such, wield a great deal of power and influence. And, if one were looking to pit Democrats against Republicans, she’d be disappointed, sort of. Half of the states seeking development grants, and 11 of 27 states going for the expansion gold, are red states, to demonstrate that early education is a bipartisan, perhaps nonpartisan issue for most states. Yet the glass looks half-empty as one considers the list of states not submitting applications. All 7 states eligible for development grants and 7 of 8 states eligible for expansion have Republican governors. Indiana was poised to submit an application, but Governor Pence’s decision to withhold his signature at the last moment, for reasons explained as the state initiates a pre-K pilot, moved it to the other side of the ledger. The hidden story behind decisions by Florida, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia may stem not from political disinterest, but from recognition that policies and resources have already resulted in achieving near-universal access for 4-year-olds.

Opportunities like this do not come along often. I’d be naïve to think that politics play an inconsequential role in this day and age. Based on the actions of states to pursue Preschool Development Grant funds, one can reasonably conclude that support for pre-K is bipartisan; however, the opposition to pre-K still remains partisan. As a result, the opportunity gap is alive and well, when it could be addressed with political will and leadership, and, I fear, we are destined to admire the problem of straight-arming children who continue to fall through the cracks.

–Jim Squires, NIEER Senior Research Fellow


The research says high quality preschool does benefit kids

October 21, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Steve Barnett, NIEER Director


If Everyone Wants Preschool, Why Isn’t It Growing?

October 21, 2014

This entry is cross-posted to The National Journal’s Education Insiders blog in response to the prompt “If Everyone Wants Preschool, Why Isn’t It Growing” from Fawn Johnson:

What catalyst is needed to dramatically grow preschool enrollment? Why has it stalled? What can state and city governments do to increase enrollment? Does it matter what kind of preschool kids enroll in? Should preschool enrollment be required, as K-12 is? Should lower-income households get priority when preschool slots are limited?

As always, Fawn Johnson poses insightful, but difficult, questions. One reason that preschool policy has not advanced more successfully despite overwhelming popular support is that those who oppose it wield considerable clout. Opponents across political leanings often assert that no public money should be used to help the middle class, though research shows that children of all income levels can benefit. Special interests of all stripes prioritize their needs over those of young children generally, and researchers and advocates are forced to set the research record straight.

Also, politicians are adept at giving the appearance of more support than they actually deliver. Very few voters have direct experiences that would help them sort out truth from fiction in this regard.Children with potted plants

Increasing public awareness is the primary reason that NIEER publishes an annual state-by-state review of preschool policy. Even so we encounter considerable difficulty setting the record straight, as politicians seek to confuse the electorate with their own media strategies. They introduce bills supporting preschool that they have no intention of passing. They propose budgets and spending plans that never fully materialize. They authorize expenditures in excess of appropriations and cut budgets mid-year. Final tallies are rarely released with the fanfare that accompanies all of the initial proclamations of support. And, all too many politicians are not above simply misstating the facts.

Finally, the impact of the Great Recession should not be underestimated. More than anything else, it took the wind out of the preschool movement’s sails. The recovery has been slow, but as revenues rise at local, state, and federal levels we can expect to see the growing support for preschool programs manifest in expansions of both enrollment and quality.

- Steve Barnett, NIEER Director


Resources for early childhood teachers in teacher evaluation systems

August 14, 2014

The Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes (CEELO) wanted to know how states are incorporating early childhood teachers in their teacher evaluation systems, and additionally, whether requirements for evaluating early childhood teachers are different from teachers of higher grades. CEELO has done extensive work and produced many resources on teacher evaluation in early education classrooms, including producing a policy report on an extensive study of 11 states. In addition, an Executive Summary  outlines the report’s policy recommendations and findings. There is also an annotated bibliography, Selected Resources to Support Early Childhood Teachers in State Educator Evaluation Systems, a collection of resources that were helpful in gathering information on teacher evaluation.

Some resources CEELO found especially helpful in collecting information were New Jersey’s Teacher Evaluation Support Document for Pre-K & K, which helps evaluators think about using the Danielson rubric with an early childhood perspective in order to evaluate these teachers fairly, and provides sample early childhood Student Growth Outcome charts; and Rhode Island’s Online Modules, video toolkits for creating SLOs and developing assessment.

Teacher evaluation has been at the forefront of education policy in the past few years. Teacher evaluation systems link the results of methods to evaluate teacher effectiveness to targeted professional development to help teachers grow in their profession. Evaluating birth-through-third-grade teachers in public schools is especially important, because we know that a teacher’s impact on children’s learning during the early years affects long-term educational outcomes (see our post from last week). Knowing where states are headed in creating policy to ensure every child is in a quality classroom–and taught by a high quality teacher–is important in making this issue a priority for policymakers. States are beginning to include guidance and supports for early childhood teachers in teacher evaluation protocols, rolling out new tools and rubrics for teachers and evaluators to better understand the process.

CEELO found that states vary on where they are in terms of implementation, and how teachers are licensed and evaluated. States are also responding to changes in teacher evaluation policy by increasing and targeting professional development to make sure educators understand this changing system. For example, New Jersey uses evaluation scores to determine a pathway to targeted professional development. All states have unique ways of sharing information, whether through regional education networks or online databases. This process is ongoing and states will continue to evolve every school year as new research and information becomes available on best practices.

The Center on Great Teachers and Leaders Databases on State Teacher and Principal Evaluation Policies includes a number of databases that track teacher and principal teacher evaluation policies. This site also offers users the option of comparing up to three states on their teacher or principal evaluation systems. This includes a variety of resources on professional development and online tools with state-specific contexts.

In order for progress to be made in teacher evaluation, CEELO recommends ensuring inter-department coordination and involvement on evaluation changes and suggestions. This is particularly important in making decisions related to early education classrooms, since many states are just beginning to implement programs to evaluate early childhood teachers. Continuing to encourage targeted professional development efforts also ensures that educators are aware of changing policies, and maintains coherence among educators keeping up with the changes.

–Michelle Horowitz is a Research Assistant at the National Institute for Early Education Research and the Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes.


Hiding Behind the Sofa: One Child’s Perspective of a Teacher’s Home Visit

July 30, 2014

The space behind the sofa in our den provided the perfect hiding place when Miss Miller, my kindergarten teacher, stopped by for her September home visit. I was caught off-guard by this “out-of-context” experience, trying to process competing feelings of excitement, apprehension, and bashfulness. While confident at school, I was transformed into a turtle-like schoolchild whose head popped out periodically to make sure she was aware of my presence. After all, she was on my turf.

Engaging families in the education of young children is nothing new. Education was always viewed as a partnership between parents and teachers, with teachers held in high regard by their families and parents valued for their contributions and ability to reinforce shared values and expectations. Home visits were part and parcel of the home-school connection a half-century ago in my youth, and parent-teacher conferences were sacrosanct throughout elementary years.

Hiding behind the couch, from Flickr Creative Commons user Taylor Brigode: https://www.flickr.com/photos/taylorlb/9110126712/in/photostream/

Hiding behind the couch, from Flickr Creative Commons user Taylor Brigode: https://www.flickr.com/photos/taylorlb/9110126712/in/photostream/

Yet the NIEER State of Preschool 2013 paints a somewhat different picture. The survey indicates a range of policies and practices for parental involvement across 53 state-funded pre-K programs in 40 states and the District of Columbia. Eight-five (85) percent require programs to provide some form of parent involvement activities, yet one in five programs does not require either parent conferences or home visits. Slightly more than half (51%) require programs to offer parenting support or training. Policies for 21% of programs allowed local jurisdictions to determine the type of parent involvement activities offered, reaffirming that a family’s zip code often shapes one’s early education opportunities.

Parent involvement was a cornerstone for Head Start from its inception and family engagement remains a key component. Regardless of the Head Start program model employed (center-based, home-based, combination option), parent engagement remains a program value and expectation. Head Start Policy Manual 70.2 was a mantra during my years with the program, defining the forms of parent participation including involvement in the decision-making process; engagement in the classroom as employees, volunteers, and observers; participation in and development of activities; and working with children in cooperation with Head Start staff. These elements have been expanded in current Head Start regulations (45 CFR section 1304.40), maintaining a provision for programs to offer at least two home visits annually. Other federally funded programs such as Early Head Start and Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) programs maintain active parent-provider engagement in program policy and design, and the defunct Even Start Family Literacy program was built upon a strong family-school relationship in its two-generation model. NAEYC featured home visiting in an article in Young Children last summer, and has a literature review on the topic as well.

The importance of strong parent-teacher relationships has never been questioned, yet with more parents participating in the workforce, engaging parents in meaningful ways appears to be more difficult. Home visits are no longer considered standard practice, due to scheduling challenges and safety concerns, and parent conferences conducted during regular program hours are often difficult for working parents to attend. This is particularly evident in kindergarten and the primary grades.

Though some wish to turn back the hands of time when stereotypical Ozzie and Harriet families were the perceived norm, policymakers and educators would be wise to support innovative policies and practices that adapt to the changing work-family-school context. Consideration should be given to new approaches such as workplace visits with the support of business owners, to provide paid release time for parent-teacher conferences and volunteering in one’s child’s classroom. Summer, evenings, and weekends also provide excellent times for teachers to exercise greater flexibility in connecting with parents, yet this would require a rethinking of the traditional school calendar and compensation schedules. Care must be taken to make these accommodations in a way that supports teachers and administrators, rather than creating a well-intended but burdensome add-on, and visits should not impinge on valuable time families spend together. It would be a shame for home visits to become a relic of the past.

Thinking back to Miss Miller’s home visit, by the time she was done I had fully emerged from my shell and was trying my best to thwart her escape to her next student’s home. She had toured my bedroom, surveyed my favorite toys and books, and gained a sense of my world. I’m sure she left with a better understanding of me within my environment, a stronger connection with my parents, and ideas for personalizing my formative education experience. I’m also sure my mother was relieved as Miss Miller drove away, in part knowing she had an ally when it came to coaching little Jimmy out of his shell and fostering his education.

–Jim Squires, NIEER/CEELO Senior Research Fellow


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


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.


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