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


“Fadeout” in Early Childhood: Does the hype match the research?

September 16, 2014

As teachers and students alike head back to classrooms, the hopes and dreams of another school year lie on the horizon. Parents are sending their children off to preschool for the big “first day of school,” especially in New York City, where 50,000 children have enrolled in the city’s expanded pre-K program, nervous and excited to see the difference in their child a year from now. Kindergarten teachers frequently say they can tell the difference between children who attended high-quality preschool from those who did not, but what does the research tell us about the lingering benefits of pre-k?

Yearbook set 4

As part of its “FastFact” series, CEELO has released Facts about Fadeout: The Research Base on Long-Term Impacts of High Quality Pre-K, addressing some of the most frequent questions we at NIEER and CEELO are asked, on what we know about the lasting impact of pre-K. The FastFact series seeks to synthesize relevant information on “hot topics” in early childhood education and provide resources for additional reading. This document is certainly not the definitive guide to the topic but rather a primer to move beyond accusations of “fadeout” as a punditry talking point, and into a meaningful conversation on how to ensure long-term gains from early education.

There is a large body of research exploring the impacts of pre-K, ranging from the immediate to the long-term, including a study of High/Scope following subjects until age 40, which demonstrated significant benefits to participants. There are also studies showing results that give researchers some pause, such as the Head Start follow-up finding that effects diminish by the third grade. Given the multitude of studies, each looking at different programs and using different methodologies, the FastFact summarizes key points, to clarify:

  • High quality prekindergarten programs have meaningful impacts on children’s development.
  • “Fadeout” is, more accurately, other children catching up.
  • Certain features of high quality programs, such as intentional teaching and well-educated teachers, produce larger initial effects which, in turn, can lead to larger long-term effects for children.

What, then, to make of the less-than-compelling findings from Head Start’s third grade follow-up? As NIEER Director Steve Barnett wrote in 2010 (and it still holds true today):

“One prediction I make confidently is that most responses to the new report on Head Start’s effects will be wrong. Advocates of Head Start will try to ‘kill the messenger’ by attacking the study and rejecting any notion that Head Start needs serious reform. Opponents of Head Start will claim that the program has been shown to be a complete failure. People on both sides will claim that the report shows ‘fadeout’ and many will blame poor public schools.”

As discussed in our new paper, the Head Start Impact Study is not the sole study of the effects of Head Start, and it does not take into account changes to the program’s operation occurring since 2007, due to actions by both the Bush and Obama administrations. Instead, the Head Start Family and Child Experience Surveys (FACES) study looks at data from (so far) 2003, 2006, and 2009, which covers the time period during which the program began phasing in more stringent teacher credential requirements. It found that “children made greater gains in language and literacy in 2006 and 2009 than in 2003. Language and literacy gains are larger for all three major ethnic groups in 2009 compared to 2003, sometimes two or more times as large.” Clearly, the story of what impacts Head Start has is still being written.

What of the idea that long-term impacts are only sustainable in intensive, “boutique” programs, as has been suggested by some bloggers-who-shall-not-be-named? The results of these programs seem to speak for themselves: providing children with high-quality early childhood programming, often for two years; ensuring well-qualified teachers and small class sizes; and providing additional supports, such as extended-day and -year programming leads to impressive long-term benefits for children. This does not, however, mean that these are the only programs that are worthwhile for children. As studies in Arkansas, Boston, New Jersey, Tulsa, and many others, demonstrate, large-scale programs serving a mix of children can still provide the base children need to build a strong education.

Ongoing evaluation and quality improvement are both essential to ensuring children are reaping long-term benefits from programs, but it is our hope this FastFact can provide policymakers with the foundation we need for productive conversations on how to ensure all children have access to these benefits.

- Megan Carolan, NIEER/CEELO Policy Research Coordinator


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


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.


Highly Qualified Teachers: The Workforce Early Education Needs and Deserves

June 3, 2013

Well-trained, responsive, and effective teachers are essential to a high-quality early education program. While research has sometimes been murky on what the appropriate training and credentialing for early educators should be, a lack of good data has made it difficult in the past to explore the current situation. Recent research has helped shed some light on what the characteristics of early childhood educators.

The 2012 State Preschool Yearbook indicates that progress has been made in increasing the qualifications of teaching staff. In the 2011-2012 school year, 58 percent of state pre-K programs required lead teachers to have a bachelor’s degree, increasing from 45 percent in 2001-2002. Eighty-five percent of programs now require lead teachers to have specialized training in early childhood, up from 74 percent a decade ago. For the first time in the 2012 Yearbook, NIEER asked for the breakdown of pre-K teachers by degree, which helps paint a picture of credentialing on the ground. While 22 programs were not able to report these figures, having some of this information is a step in the right direction. According to Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), the percent of Head Start teachers with a BA or higher increased from 45 percent in 2010 to 57 percent in 2011, indicating significant progress on teacher credentials in recent years. While the CLASP report goes into more detail, preliminary figures for the 2012 year can be gathered from the FY14 Congressional Justification for the Department of Health and Human Services (Head Start section beginning on page 95).  These figures are summarized in Figure 1.

Teacher Degrees, State Pre-K and Head Start

For both state-funded pre-K (when reported) and Head Start, the majority of teachers have at least a Bachelor’s degree, with 79 percent of pre-K teachers holding a BA or higher compared to 62 percent in Head Start. Interestingly, a greater proportion of state-funded pre-K teachers have less than an Associate’s degree, with 15 percent holding a CDA.  While a CDA does require some specialized training in early childhood or a related field, it requires fewer credit hours than does an AA. If the goal is to ensure all lead teachers have a BA, state-funded pre-K may face a longer road in supporting these teachers through the additional coursework.

Any discussion of teacher credentials must also discuss compensation: without adequate compensation, early education programs will likely see high turnover and difficulty in recruiting the best teachers who could be paid higher in K-12 classrooms. It is also difficult to require teachers to meet higher degree requirements without increasing salary. According to 2009 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual salary across settings for a Preschool teacher (not including special education) was just $27,450, compared to $50,380 for a Kindergarten teacher and $53,150 for Elementary School teachers generally. Information specific to both state-funded pre-K and Head Start programs bear out this trend of comparably low pay. Data from the 2009 Yearbook (the last year for which salary information was collected) indicates that for state-funded programs which could report data on salaries, 83 percent of pre-K teachers in public school settings and 88 percent in nonpublic school settings were paid below $50,000l, as seen in Table 1 below. For those reporting, the median salary category was $40-44,999 for those in public schools and $30-34,999 for those in nonpublic school settings.

Table 1: Lead Teacher Salary Ranges in Public and Nonpublic Settings, 2008-2009 School YearHead Start programs also pay low salaries, even lower than those of state pre-K teachers outside the public schools; even Head Start teachers with graduate degrees are paid at rates lower than Kindergarten teachers in public schools, as seen in Table 2.

Table 2: Head Start Teacher Salaries by Degree, National Average, 2011-2012

What does this all mean for the field? A new paper from Stanford University’s Center for Education Policy Analysis (CEPA) found that the turnover rate from 2009 to 2010 among school-based early childhood care and education workers was 13.6, while center- and home-based workers had turnover rates of 24.4 percent and 28.5 percent, respectively. These data may include providers and teachers not included in state-funded pre-K or Head Start data, but coupled with reports from Georgia’s highly regarded state pre-K program that teachers left in droves when salaries were cut due to a shortened school year, it is clear that teacher turnover is an issue of continued concern in early education.  The CEPA paper goes on to examine trends in the field across sectors from 1990 to 2010 and found that despite significant attention and investment in the field during this time period, the “workforce remains a low‐education, low‐compensation, and high‐turnover workforce.” As researchers and policymakers alike consider complex issues like teacher effectiveness and evaluation, aligning across sectors, and best reaching traditionally undeserved students, it bears reminding them that a well-educated, well-respected, professional workforce is essential to getting the most bang for the public’s buck in early education.

—Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator


The Perry Preschool Study and Head Start

March 8, 2013

This guest post is an open letter in response to The Wall Street Journal editorial “Head Start for All.”

Larry SchweinhartYour Review & Outlook “Head Start for All” (Feb. 25) makes several incorrect claims about the HighScope Perry Preschool Study. As director of the study, I’d like to set the record straight.

Your review claims that the Perry study and the Abecedarian study are the sole evidence that preschool works. But they are just the best known of a large number of studies finding that preschool works, that is, has its intended effects on children. Along with the city-wide Chicago Child-Parent Centers study, these studies go a big step further by finding strong long-term effects and return on investment.

In the presence of large returns on investment, the initial cost should be a secondary consideration. That said, the Perry Preschool cost per child was well below the $16,000 per child per year or more you said it cost. In current dollars, it cost $11,107 per child per year, about the same as the cost per K-12 student in the U.S. The Perry Preschool program is not that hard to replicate—and have its return on investment widely realized. We simply need to insist on reasonable program standards – qualified teachers using a proven curriculum, partnership with parents, and regular evaluation. Unfortunately, far too many existing preschool programs do not meet these standards.

The disappointing results of the national Head Start Impact Study are hardly a reason to abandon the program when other studies, like the Perry Preschool Study, show its enormous potential. The Head Start Impact Study does suggest a course correction, bringing the resources of Head Start more fully to bear on contributing to the development of young children living in poverty. Such improvements are achievable and, with them, widespread improvements in educational achievement, economic productivity, and reduced costs to taxpayers.

- Larry Schweinhart, President, HighScope Educational Research Foundation


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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