Formative Assessment:  Points to Consider for Policy Makers, Teachers, and Researchers

April 16, 2014

Formative assessment is one area in early childhood education where policy is moving at lightning speed. There’s been a lot of support for the appropriateness of this approach to assessment for young learners. Many policy makers and data users have “talked the talk,” perfecting the lingo and pushing the implementation of policies for this approach. Yet there are essential questions to consider when rolling out a plan or process for a state. In the brief released by the Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes (CEELO), I outline several considerations for policy makers in moving such initiatives. They’re briefly outlined below, along with considerations for teachers and researchers.

For Policy Makers

Policies around formative assessment in early childhood education will be most successful when the below “top 10” items are considered thoughtfully before implementing.

Overall Considerations for Policymakers Responsible for Formative Assessment Systems

  1. Does the purpose of the assessment match the intended use of the assessment? Is it appropriate for the age and background of the children who will be assessed?
  2. Does the assessment combine information from multiple sources/caregivers?
  3. Are the necessary contextual supports in place to roll out the assessment and use data effectively? (e.g., training, time, ongoing support)
  4. Does the assessment have a base or trajectory/continuum aligned to child developmental expectations, standards, and curricula?  Does it include all key domains?
  5. Does the assessment have a systematic approach and acceptable reliability and validity data?   Has it been used successfully with similar children?
  6. Are the data easily collected and interpreted to effectively inform teaching and learning?
  7. What technology is necessary to gather data?
  8. Are the data useful to teachers and other stakeholders?
  9. What are the policies for implementation and what is the roll-out plan for the assessment?
  10.  Will data be gathered and maintained within FERPA and other security guidelines? Are there processes in place to inform stakeholders about how data are being gathered and held securely to allay concerns?

I encourage all stakeholders in assessment (policy makers, administrators, parents/caregivers, etc.) to exercise patience with teachers learning the science of this process and perfecting the art of implementing such an approach. Although many effective teachers across the decades have been doing this instinctively, as we make the approach more systematic, explicit, and transparent, teachers may have a steep learning curve. However, with the considerations above as a part of the decision-making process, teachers will find it easier to be successful.  This policy report provides a guide and framework to early childhood policymakers considering  formative assessment. The report defines formative assessment and outlines its process and  application in the context of early childhood. The substance of this document is the issues for  consideration in the implementation of the formative assessment process. This guide provides a  practical roadmap for decision-makers by offering several key questions to consider in the process of  selecting, supporting, and using data to inform and improve instruction.This policy report provides a guide and framework to early childhood policymakers considering formative assessment. This guide provides a practical roadmap for decision-makers by offering several key questions to consider in the process of selecting, supporting, and using data to inform and improve instruction.

For Teachers

The intent of formative assessment is to implement the process of using data (observation or other) to inform individualized instruction. The link between this type of embedded assessment and instruction should be seamless. Teachers work with great effort at this on several different levels. Effective early childhood teachers:

  • use immediate feedback from children in the moment and adjust the interaction based on this feedback.
  • collect evidence over time to evaluate the child’s growth and to plan long-term learning goals. These goals are reviewed periodically and adjusted based on new evidence.
  • look at aggregate data across their classrooms.  They examine the data for trends and self-reflect on their teaching practices based on what the data are showing.

For Researchers

We must move forward by setting a strong research agenda on the effects of formative assessment in early childhood classrooms–and not allow policy to outpace research.  We need further research around using formative assessment processes to collect, analyze, and use the data to improve teaching and learning in the early childhood classroom. This must first include randomized trials of formative assessment, to examine the impact on classroom quality and child outcomes. The field needs a clear understanding of how teachers are trained and supported in collecting and using the data, and just what supports are needed for success. This should be coupled with a qualitative understanding of how teachers are using data in their classrooms. Finally, an understanding of who is using the data, in what capacity–and how it fits within the larger assessment system–should be components of any examination of formative assessment.

- Shannon Riley-Ayers, Assistant Research Professor, NIEER and CEELO


The Empire State Leads the Way

March 18, 2014

Two of New York’s most distinguished leaders who shared a family name (Roosevelt) were strong advocates for the 99 percent, long before that term was common with their campaigns for the “Square Deal” and the “New Deal.” Today’s leaders are poised to echo their efforts with what might be called the “Real Deal.” A key element of the real deal is to give every child access to a world class 21st Century education, beginning with high quality pre-K for all.  New York State has been promising universal preschool to its children for 20 years. With leadership from the NYC Mayor, the Governor, and Legislators in the Senate and Assembly they are finally moving to fulfill that promise–a victory for New York’s young learners and the middle class. Last week, the State Senate proposed supporting free full-day prekindergarten and after-school programs in New York City with $540 million per year in state funds over 5 years.  The Assembly has already endorsed Mayor de Blasio’s plan for expansion with a pre-K and after-school tax on NYC’s wealthiest.

The next step is for leaders to come together behind a single plan to move forward, with a firm commitment to financing and a timeline for delivering on this promise. Recent statements indicate that New York’s leaders are prepared to put partisanship and personal ambition aside to do right by the state’s children.  The Assembly and Mayor have indicated they can accept the Senate plan. The Governor has repeatedly said he supports fully funding pre-K and should join them and make this plan a reality. If he does so, he will have propelled the preschool-for-all movement to a major turning point, not just in New York, but in the nation.  New York is the third most populous state.  If it were an independent country it would have the world’s 16th largest economy. With high-quality public education beginning at age four for all, New York will become a model for other states and even countries beyond our borders.

As we reported in our 2012 State of Preschool Yearbook, New York State has some way to go to achieve this goal of national and international leadership in early education.  It currently serves about 44 percent of its 4-year-olds, ranking ninth in the nation for enrollment, but funding per child has not kept pace with program expansion, jeopardizing quality.
NY state enrollment
NY state spending

Providing adequate funding and a timeline for implementation is a major step toward the real deal in pre-K, but political leaders must also support the hard work needed to successfully implement this plan and deliver the promise.  This will require a relentless focus on quality, and a shift from campaigning to governing that will provide pre-K programs with the support and accountability required to achieve and maintain excellence in every pre-K classroom.  At this stage it is important to ensure that state and local agencies have the resources to guide this continuous improvement process, as in other states where pre-K has produced the promised results (Michigan, North Carolina, and New Jersey, to name a few).

When well implemented, pre-K is a valuable and important long-term investment.  At NIEER we estimate that by offering all children quality pre-K, New York will actually realize a net reduction of more than $1 billion in its education budget by 2030. This figure includes cost-savings as a result of reducing special education placement and grade retention.  It does not include other long-term benefits from improving the education of New York’s children–increased productivity and economic growth and better health outcomes, among them.

New York isn’t alone in the pre-K push. Even states that have not historically supported pre-K are getting in on the investment, including: a small program in Hawaii; a pilot program in Indiana; and a new program legislated in Mississippi.  Yet, New York’s UPK initiative, if done well, could become the nation’s leading example of good early education policy because of its proposed quality and scale.  It’s time for every New Yorker to get behind this initiative and work with the Governor, Mayor, and legislative leaders of both parties, to carry through on New York’s 20-year-old promise.

- Steve Barnett, Director

Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator

Kirsty Clarke Brown, Policy and Communications Advisor


Why preschool critics are wrong

February 28, 2014

In a recent blog on his Brookings Institution site, Grover Whitehurst claims that the preponderance of scientific evidence does not indicate lasting positive benefits from preschool.  Others disagree, he says, because they are not as “picky” about the evidence. As there is no disputing taste, I assume he means that the research he prefers is more rigorous and relevant, not just better aligned with his personal preferences.  Hence, we would be looking for a valid and reliable process when he arrays the research and grades each study.  In fact, his list of studies and his analyses are appallingly inaccurate for someone who claims to be an expert.  As shown in detail below, Whitehurst omits much of the relevant research, and he misrepresents the studies that he includes. Steven Barnett

Whitehurst claims that “Not one of the studies that has suggested long-term positive impacts of center-based early childhood programs has been based on a well-implemented and appropriately analyzed randomized trial.”   This claim is false based even on the studies he does cite.  His own statements in the blog regarding the Perry Preschool study and its re-analyses by Jim Heckman contradict this claim, as do older analyses demonstrating that minor departures from random assignment in the Perry study had no substantive effects on the results.[1] No study is perfect, so it is seems odd that Perry receives an A- for an inconsequential fault when other less than perfect studies get an A. Then there is the Infant Health and Development program (IHDP) study, which Whitehurst assigns higher grades than Perry, but which he seems to forget when making his “not one” study claim.

Yet Whitehurst’s credibility problem is far more serious when one turns to the studies that are missing from his analysis.

In fact, a number of other well-implemented and appropriately analyzed randomized trials find lasting effects from preschool education.  For example, a study of long-term effects conducted by the Institute for Developmental Studies (IDS) included 402 children randomly assigned to a public school pre-K program or to a control group at age 4 for one year.[2]  A teacher and an aide staffed each preschool classroom of 17 children. Positive effects were found through at least third grade.  Even longer term follow-up indicates adult gains in achievement, educational attainment, and employment, but suffers from severe attrition. So while we can have strong confidence in the results through third grade, we have less confidence in the very long-term results.  However, the findings for adults are consistent with the earlier results in the elementary grades and with findings in Perry and other studies.  Another randomized trial of preschool education is noteworthy because it was conducted with relatively advantaged children, and it also found evidence of lasting effects on achievement into the early elementary grades.[3]

Inexplicably, Whitehurst fails to recognize a large number of studies (once again including well-implemented randomized trials) that compare one form of preschool education to another to study the effects of curriculum, length of day, and other features.  When such studies find lasting differences due to the type of preschool program, from the end of kindergarten to the end of high school, they add to the evidence that high-quality preschool education per se has long-term effects.  This literature includes studies (herehere, and here) over many years, some begun decades ago with very long-term follow-ups and some very recent with much shorter follow-ups.[4]  These studies also add to the evidence for successful scale up in large-scale public programs.

As preschool research is conducted in other countries, not just the United States, there is a broad range of research Whitehurst omits that finds lasting benefits from quality preschool education, including rigorous studies in countries with universal programs and additional well-implemented, appropriately analyzed randomized trials.[5]  When similar outcomes from quality pre-K are found with different populations in different contexts, such studies are confirmatory—not irrelevant.  Taken together, they indicate that the relationships between quality preschool education and long-term outcomes are quite robust with respect to variations in the children and families served.

Returning to the matter of how Whitehurst represents the few studies he prefers to include, the ongoing Tennessee evaluation of pre-K effectiveness is one of only two to receive double A grades.  He calls this study a well-implemented and analyzed Random Control Trial (RCT) and reports that it finds no differences later in elementary school.

This description of the Tennessee study and its findings is shockingly inaccurate.

The Tennessee pre-K evaluation includes both a large randomized trial of pre-K that follows children using the data routinely collected by schools, and a smaller intensive substudy (ISS) in which randomization failed.  The results Whitehurst cites come from that substudy, which is not analyzed as a randomized trial.  Let me quote directly from the study authors: “The nonconsent rates for the two cohorts in the ISS sample mean that we do not have data on the main ISS outcomes for many of the children who were initially randomized, so analysis on the basis of that randomization is not possible.”[6]  To be perfectly clear, because so many fewer parents in the control group agreed to have their children tested in the substudy, randomization was not used to analyze the data.  Instead, the substudy used a quasi-experimental approach of the type that Whitehurst otherwise gives lower grades.

Yet it is not just the Tennessee study’s methods that are misrepresented, but also its results.  While the full randomized trial will not provide test score results until children reach the state’s third grade tests, it does provide results for grade retention.  Let me again quote the study’s authors directly:

For the Intensive Substudy sample, there was a statistically significant difference between the 4.1% of the TN‐VPK participants who were retained in kindergarten compared to the 6.2% retention rate for the nonparticipants. This effect was confirmed in Cohort 1 of the full randomized sample, with retention data still unavailable for Cohort 2 of that sample. In Cohort 1, 4.0% of the TN‐VPK participants were retained in kindergarten compared to 8.0% of the nonparticipants, also a statistically significant difference.[7]

In other words, analyses of both the compromised Tennessee substudy and the full randomized trial find that the pre-K program significantly reduced grade retention in kindergarten.  The only finding from this adequately randomized part of the Tennessee study is this persistent positive effect, and this effect is twice as large as that found in the quasi-experimental substudy (which still finds a significant positive effect of pre-K).  Yet, Whitehurst reported the study found “no differences later.”

I could go on to list additional problems with Whitehurst’s review, but surely these suffice to demonstrate that his summary of the evidence is just plain wrong–not picky.

- W. Steven Barnett, Director, NIEER and CEELO

This entry originally appeared in Valerie Strauss’ education blog “The Answer Sheet” at the Washington Post.

[1] Weikart, D.P., Bond, J.T., & McNeil, J.T. (1978). The Ypsilanti Perry Preschool Project: Preschool years and longitudinal results through fourth grade. Ypsilanti, MI: HighScope. Barnett, W.S. (1996). Lives in the balance: Age 27 benefit-cost analysis of the High/Scope Perry Preschool Program. Ypsilanti, MI: HighScope.

[2] Deutsch, M., Taleporos, E., & Victor, J. (1974). A brief synopsis of an initial enrichment program in early childhood. In S. Ryan (Ed.), A report on longitudinal evaluations of preschool programs Volume 1: Longitudinal evaluations (pp. 49-60). Washington, DC: Office of Child Development, US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Deutsch, M. , Deutsch, C. P. , Jordan, T. J. , & Grallo, R. (1983). The IDS program: An experiment in early and sustained enrichment. In Consortium for Longitudinal Studies (Ed. ). As the Twig is Bent: Lasting Effects of Preschool Programs(pp. 377-410). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. Jordan, T. J. , Grallo, R. , Deutsch, M. , & Deutsch, C. P. (1985). Long-term effects of early enrichment: A 20-year perspective on persistence and change. American Journal of Community Psychology13(4), 393-415.

[3] Larsen, J. M. , & Robinson, C. C. (1989). Later effects of preschool on low-risk children. Early Childhood Research Quarterly4, 133-144.

[4] Schweinhart, L. J. & Weikart, D. P. (1996). Lasting differences: The High/Scope Preschool Curriculum Comparison Study through age 23. Ypsilanti, M: High/Scope. Chambers, B. , Cheung, A. , Slavin, R. E. , Smith, D. , & Laurenzano, M. (2010). Effective early childhood education programmes: a best-evidence synthesis. Reading, England: CfBT Education Trust. Robin, K. B. , Frede, E. C. , & Barnett, W. S. (2006). Is More Better? The Effects of Full-Day vs Half-Day Preschool on Early School Achievement. New Brunwick, NJ: National Institute for Early Education Research. Preschool Curriculum Evaluation Research Consortium (2008). Effects of Preschool Curriculum Programs on School Readiness (NCER 2008-2009). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Research, Institute of Education Sciences, U. S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: U. S. Government Printing Office. Clements, D. H. , & Sarama, J. (2011). Early childhood mathematics intervention. Science333 (6045), 968-970.

[5] Ruhm, C. J. , & Waldfogel, J. (2012). Long term effect of early childcare and education. Nordic Economic Policy Review. Economics of Education, 23-51. Apps, P. , Mendolia, S. , & Walker, I. (2013). The impact of pre-school on adolescents’ outcomes: Evidence from a recent English cohort. Economics of Education Review37, 183-199.

Raine, A. , Mellingen, K. , Liu, J. , Venables, P. , & Mednick, S. A. (2003). Effects of environmental enrichment at ages 3–5 years on schizotypal personality and antisocial behavior at ages 17 and 23 years. American journal of psychiatry160(9), 1627-1635.

[6] Lipsey, M. W. , Hofer, K. G. , Dong, N. , Farran, D. C. , & Bilbrey, C. (2013). Evaluation of the Tennessee voluntary prekindergarten program: Kindergarten and first grade follow-up results from the randomized control design (pp. 22-23). Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt Peabody College.

[7] Lipsey, M. W., Hofer, K. G., Dong, N., Farran, D. C., & Bilbrey, C. (2013). Evaluation of the Tennessee voluntary prekindergarten program: Kindergarten and first grade follow-up results from the randomized control design (p. 50). Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt Peabody College.


The Profound Impact of Early Education

February 10, 2014

Every family in the United States should be able enroll their child in good preschool program, beginning at age three and ought to have access to good child care–including that provided by themselves at home–for infants and toddlers.  The benefits would be profound for our children and the larger society, especially children from low-income families–half of all young children–but not only for them. Today we are far from achieving this vision of a more nurturing society and our progress has been painfully slow over the last two decades.  All levels of government will have to increase their support for young children and families, including the federal government which can best lead the way by priming the pump–providing financial support and incentives that encourage and enable state and local governments to develop sustainable quality programs.  For example, federal matching funds that start off big and gradually decline are well-designed to address the major challenge to state and local funding of pre-K: states must pay for pre-K now, but the off-setting cost-savings grow year by year as children progress through the grades.

Only about half of 3-and-4-year-olds attend a preschool program. From a national observational study where the quality of care for 4-year-olds was directly observed, we know that few children attend good preschool programs. Public programs improve quality somewhat for children in poverty, so children in middle-income families actually attend worse programs on average. However, many young children are in family day care homes that provide even worse care, so much so that the family day care homes attended by most African-American and Hispanic children are of low quality. Our under-funded child care subsidy systems are perversely designed to encourage this and may actually increase the number of children in settings that harm their development.  As Cindy Lamy and I point out in our chapter in the recently published book Closing the Opportunity Gap, edited by Prudence Carter and Kevin Welner, much of the educational failure and inequality that plagues our country is rooted in children’s experiences before they enter kindergarten.

In recent debates some have claimed that the federal government already spends a great deal on the care and education of young children and that most of this is wasted on ineffective programs. These claims are based on faulty math and misrepresentation of the evidence. Take for example, Grover Whitehurst’s estimate that the federal government spends $5,000 on every young child in poverty. He begins with $20 billion in annual spending on children–fair enough, Ron Haskins and I calculated that number together. But there are 5 million children in poverty, which yields $4,000 per child in poverty. And, of course, all of this is not spent just on children in poverty, so it would be much more reasonable to divide by the number of children under 5 in low income families = about 10 million children, and a  figure of $2,000 per child.

How does federal spending on disadvantaged young children’s care and education compare with federal largesse more generally?  Let’s consider two examples. The tax break for capital gains and dividends which allows wealthy hedge fund managers to pay a 15% income tax rate costs taxpayers $83 billion annually. In 2012, the federal government spent more than $20 billion on farm subsidies received by a small, relatively wealthy population. The 2014 farm bill increases so-called “crop insurance” subsidies that are actually open-ended revenue insurance for farmers.  If Congress set evidence-based priorities for all programs based on returns to the taxpayers, young children would see more money, not less.

What about the claims that federal money spent on young children is wasted?  I would have to agree that lost opportunities abound, but not as the critic’s suppose. Let’s get this clear: the Head Start national impact study’s oft cited intent-to-treat estimates grossly underestimate the program’s actual impacts, and even modest Head Start benefits likely generate benefits that exceed costs. Critics also seem to be in some kind of time warp that missed the last decade of Head Start reform and the evidence that these reforms increased effects on language and literacy development (if only Congress would call an expert in early language and literacy development to testify, surely this would be noted).

The biggest problems with federal programs for young children are that they ask too much of too little money. Nevertheless, both child care and Head Start spending could be better focused on learning and teaching. No amount of wishful thinking will permit this to be accomplished by reducing their budgets or just giving the money to states. The first step to improve Head Start should be doubling notoriously low salaries for highly effective teachers. The second step should be to dramatically reduce bureaucratic compliance requirements for any Head Start that agrees to be judged instead by teaching quality and children’s learning gains. The President’s pre-K proposal is in its own way a Head Start reform proposal that puts states in charge of the education of 4-year-olds; those two steps I set out above would go far toward enabling Head Start to integrate with and enhance state pre-K. States like West Virginia and New Jersey have already successfully integrated their programs with Head Start and child care at high standards. Federal policy that followed such leads could support states to significantly improve opportunity for America’s youngest citizens.

- Steve Barnett, Director, NIEER

This entry is cross-posted to The National Journal’s Education Insiders blog  in response to the prompt “The ‘Noble Intention’ of Giving Early Education” from Fawn Johnson.


New York in a Preschool State of Mind

January 21, 2014

This afternoon, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo presented his budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2015, including significant investment in state-funded pre-K. The Governor called for an investment of $1.5 billion over five years, starting with $100 million in its first year up to $500 million in its fifth year. This funding is meant in addition to the $410 million the state already spends on its “Universal” Prekindergarten Program, with the goal of helping the program move towards the “universal” part of its name.

Pre-K has become a hot topic in the Empire State.  New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, as we have written before, has made universal pre-K in the Big Apple a key focus of his campaign as well as his first month in office. De Blasio has noted that while many New York City children are served in publicly funded preschool programs, demand far outstrips availability, and he has proposed an increased income tax on those earning over $500,000 to raise the estimated $340 million needed to pay for pre-K for all. An increase in New York City income tax would need to be approved by the state legislature. Governor Cuomo has stated his support of pre-K but also his opposition to increasing taxes, remaining true to his word today by proposing a plan to build pre-K into the state budget without creating a new tax.

It is easy to see these proposals as an either/or proposition, but the best route for New York’s educational and economic prosperity is both. We applaud Governor Cuomo’s focus on high-quality, full-day universal pre-K and a renewed commitment to providing funding for the program. Implicitly, this recognizes that, to date, the program has undercut quality, provided mostly half-days, and fallen far short of universal in reach. NIEER’s estimate of the cost of a high-quality, full-day program in New York state is just under $10,000 per child. In its first year, the $100 million expansion of the UPK program could fully fund 10,195, or 4 percent, of the state’s 4-year-olds. This would barely chip away at the gap of 50,000 children de Blasio has reported as having no or inadequate access to pre-K.  However, that assumes that nothing is done to raise quality or extend to a full-day existing slots, which could more than consume the entire $100 million without serving any new children.

Giving New York City the autonomy to raise its own taxes in order to invest in educating its children would ensure real progress toward raising quality and providing a full day, while increasing access.  It also would protect the spirit of local control that exists in American education and is one of the key strengths of the American approach to public education. Other cities and towns in the state may choose to move ahead more quickly, as well.

Governor Cuomo’s proposal was only announced today, and key details remain to be specified. In the ensuing conversations about how to proceed, New York could learn important lessons from the Abbott preschool program in New Jersey, which has built one of the highest quality preschool programs in the nation (for a discussion of the lessons learned from this program, see Steve Barnett’s video lecture as well as recent coverage in Slate and The American Prospect). For pre-K to truly succeed as a system, the state needs to set feasible timelines and research-based quality standards. Programs also need support in meeting those standards, as seen in New Jersey’s support of early childhood educator training programs to create a qualified, highly effective workforce. Pre-K cannot exist in a vacuum, but must be coordinated with child care and Head Start programs in the state. This is already underway in New York’s mixed delivery model. Finally, New York state must commit to what it would actually cost to fully meet their goal of full-day highly effective early education for all with a hard deadline for achieving that goal. NIEER provides estimates of the per-child cost of a high-quality program in its Yearbook. A joint report from the Center for Children’s Initiatives and The Campaign for Educational Equity focuses on the questions of funding and timing specifically in a New York context. Basing program funds on what can be found in the budget, rather than studying actual costs of providing a quality universal program, is a recipe for underfunding.

It is heartening to see two such high-profile elected leaders competing over who has the “best“ pre-K plan. Particularly as UPK in New York has been underfunded for well over a decade, it is our sincere hope that Cuomo and de Blasio can work together on both state- and city-level initiatives to create a quality, stable program and ensure that all of New York’s children are off to the bright start they deserve. From our perspective, the best option is likely to be implementing both plans–and together they can transform New York into a model for Governors and Mayors throughout the nation who seek to provide the best 21st Century education and brightest future for all young children.

- W. Steven Barnett, Director, NIEER & CEELO

Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER  & CEELO


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

November 18, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barnett, Carolan, and Johns recommend:

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

Pre-K Returns to Capitol Hill

November 13, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Kirsty Clarke Brown, Policy and Communications Advisor


Early Education in the Voting Booth

November 4, 2013

Education policy is often a campaign issue for politicians and very heavily debated in both major political parties. Lately, preschool has made its way to the forefront of political debate for both sides since the President proposed his “Preschool for All” plan, proposing incentives for states to offer high quality universal preschool to all children during his 2013 State of the Union address. On both sides of the political aisle many agree early education is fundamentally important for a child’s development and economic productivity, but there is more disagreement about the role of government and eligibility for government assistance with pre-K. Keeping up with where different candidates stand on these issues is important for the voter interested in education policy issues.  child raising hand in class

In New Jersey’s gubernatorial race, Democratic Senator Barbara Buono recently proposed an education initiative that would include expanding preschool and full day kindergarten. While Buono has not released a budget breakdown for this somewhat vague proposal, the campaign for Republican Governor Chris Christie has said this initiative would add an extra $3 billion to New Jersey’s education budget, currently standing at about $33 billion. New Jersey’s education budget is already one of the largest in the country, spending over $19,000 per child on education (in the 2011-2012 school year). Christie has expressed his concern with funding such an extensive early childhood program and has largely criticized Buono’s education plan and dismissed it due to its high cost. Senator Buono is prepared to increase New Jersey income tax and plans to use the millionaire’s tax to fund this large-scale program. According to NIEER’s calculations, roughly $300 to $600 million would be required if all 4-year-olds not already in a public program were offered pre-K for a half or full day, respectively. Given the discrepancy, it is unclear where the Christie campaign is acquiring its numbers, and additionally not all funding would necessarily come from the state. It is worth noting that in 2008, the New Jersey legislature passed the School Funding Reform Act which would incorporate Abbott preschool program funding into the formula and eventually expand the program to all 3- and 4-year-olds in 82 high poverty districts, eventually reaching an additional 30,000 children statewide. However, the expansion has stalled in the wake of budget difficulties. We would like to see a debate over the benefits and costs of pre-K expansion in New Jersey with hard, reliable numbers, and see this continue beyond the campaign regardless of who is in the governor’s offices, focusing particularly on the SFRA expansion which is already on the books. To date, New Jersey has done quite well with its investment in pre-K and there are several programs with a wide range of costs, all of them relative bargains.

Virginia’s gubernatorial race has raised attention around preschool as well. Republican candidate Ken Cuccinelli has criticized his Democrat opponent Terry McAuliffe’s education plans, which include expanding preschool, boosting teacher salaries, and making college more affordable. McAuliffe proposes expanding Medicaid coverage to save Virginia about $500 million dollars to use for education. Cuccinelli predicts that the pre-K spending will be far higher than this, estimating a $3.8 billion dollar price tag.  Virginia spends less than $4,000 per preschooler currently and has only about 75,000 4-year-olds not already in a public program.   NIEER’s estimate this to be $300 million, which assumes full enrollment although some families will choose private or homeschooling. Virginia could be spending more per pupil to raise program quality, but state costs are still unlikely to exceed $500 million even if the state paid the local share. Cuccinelli has proposed a voucher-like scholarship plan for preschoolers to expand options for children in low-performing schools.

New York City’s mayoral race has also included preschool in the debates. Democratic candidate and current Public Advocate Bill DeBlasio’s education plan involves creating a universal preschool program by increasing taxes on those who earn over $500,000. This would raise revenue for a universal preschool amounting to $580 million. Republican mayoral candidate Joseph Lhota is also a supporter of universal preschool and all day pre-kindergarten, though he disagrees with the funding plan for the program. Lhota says the money to fund universal preschool is already within the budget and government needs to “find more efficiencies to pay for programs just like this.” In New York, there seems to be agreement that a lack of preschool results in an achievement gap initiated by the large income gap that the city holds. As DeBlasio calls it, it is a “Tale of Two Cities,” with New York having such a large income gap. Research has demonstrated that universal preschool can equalize the playing field for students by increasing test score percentiles in all income groups in children. Providing universal preschool also will minimize income inequalities over time, and could increase future earnings for disadvantaged children by 7 percent to 15 percent. New York state is already discussing expanding its preschool program. By minimizing the income gap in education, the achievement gap will in turn shrink over time.

Several other elections have early education implications, including Boston, Colorado, Memphis, and Maryland. On November 5th, many citizens will vote for their choice candidates. Education, especially early education, is a critical topic that not only affects us today, but also affects our future; something to keep in mind as you head for the ballot box.

- Michelle Horowitz, Policy Research Assistant


Switching Lanes: New Roadmap for New York Universal Prekindergarten

October 24, 2013

While New York provides state-funded pre-K to 44 percent of its 4-year-olds, the state has consistently fallen short of the “universal” aim of its goals. A new effort from the Center for Children’s Initiatives (CCI) and The Campaign for Educational Equity (CEE) aims to change that, with today’s release of Making Prekindergarten Truly Universal in New York: A Statewide Roadmap.

The Roadmap is the result not only of a rigorous research process, but also of several meetings hosted by CCI and CEE with leaders in early childhood and New York-specific education policy, to fully understand the needs of early childhood students. NIEER Director Steve Barnett said, in response to this Roadmap, “The proposed road map to universal pre-K is the single most powerful education reform that New York could undertake.  It would ensure that every child has the opportunity to succeed in school from the very beginning.  This is a road map to equity and excellence that will raise test scores while decreasing costly failure, repetition, and special education.” A similar program in New Jersey districts with a high concentration of low-income families has already produced student gains and cost-saving benefits for schools. Choosing to follow this roadmap could put New York on the path to greater long-term economic growth and a better start for thousands of children.

Barnett wrote about New York in March, offering recommendations for how the state should move from its not-so-universal program to a program serving all children in the state: focusing on quality, a realistic timeline, and ensuring stable and adequate funding. The CCI and CEE report addresses these with its key recommendations, proposing an 8-year timeline to provide access for all 3- and 4-year-olds in the state:

  • Years 1-3: All 4-year-olds in districts with high concentration of low-income households
  • Adult playing cars with childYears 4-5: All 4-year-olds in all districts
  • Years 6-7: All 3-year-olds in districts with high concentration of low-income households
  • Years 8: All 3-year-olds in all districts

The proposal has a distinct focus on ensuring that program funding is adequate to

support a high-quality program, including health, social, and family engagement services, as well as funds for infrastructure to bring the program to scale. Prekindergarten funding should also be incorporated into the K-12 state education finance system. Initially, the state should pay the full cost of pre-K, with the long-term goal of appropriate state/local cost sharing.

How do CCI and CEE define “quality?” Many of their recommendations align with what NIEER recommends in the research-based 10 Quality Standards Benchmarks in the State of Preschool Yearbook.  Standards for New York include:

  • Provide access to a full-day (six hours and 20 minutes) program, five days per week, 180 days per year. Extended hours should be made available where needed.
  • Maintain current state limits of no more than 17 students with one teacher and one assistant, but cap classes at 15 students with one teacher and one assistant where substantial numbers of students need more intensive support, including English Language Learners and students with disabilities.
  • Pre-K teacher in all settings should have a B-2 instructional certificate, or certification for teaching students with disabilities or English Language Learners valid in the early childhood grades, within five years.
  • All teaching assistants within five years should have at least “Level 1 teaching assistant certification,” and the state will move towards requiring all to have a Child Development Associate (CDA).
  • Maintain current professional development requirements (175 hours per 5 years for lead teachers), with the goal of 40 hours per year.
  • State should provide list of curricula aligned with New York State Prekindergarten Foundation for the Common Core. The list should be reviewed every two years.
  • Provide comprehensive services and supports for at-risk students, students with disabilities, and English Language Learners (ELLs).
  • Provide safe, quality, and accessible learning environments.
  • Provide and sustain data systems, and technical assistance, to use valid and reliable instruments to track student progress in all settings.

-Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator


Local Control in Early Education

October 16, 2013

Local control, or at least the perception of its presence, is a closely guarded tenet in state and local politics. It provides citizens with a sense of purpose, identity, autonomy, and power, allowing local constituents to influence the policies and programs affecting them right in their front yards. We see this in matters such as states’ and communities’ taxes or property rights. Education is perhaps the single most engaging issue when it comes to local control, and its reach into early education policy and practice is becoming increasingly evident, as more children enroll in state-funded pre-K programs.

Results of the NIEER 2012 State Preschool Yearbook indicate that provisions for local control are infused in legislation and regulation for pre-K policy and practice in all 40 states and the District of Columbia with state-funded pre-K programs (Figure 1). Looking across eleven measures, all 54 programs across these states and DC report at least one instance of districts being authorized to exercise local control in decision making.

Figure 1: Number of States Permitting Local Options for Pre-K by Policy Area

 Figure 1: Number of States Permitting Local Options for Pre-K by Policy Area

 

The Compass Points Northeast

States vary in the latitude they permit local control of state pre-K policies and practices (Figure 2). Northern New England states demonstrate the greatest evidence of local control. Massachusetts reported the most options for local control policy among all programs, appearing in 8 of 11 areas, with Maine and Vermont permitting local decisions in 7 areas. At the other end of the continuum, Arizona, New York, Rhode Island, and one South Carolina program reported local decision-making in only a single policy area, with 7 additional states allowing 2 policy areas to be determined locally.  States with multiple pre-K programs often see variations across their programs. Seven states with multiple pre-K programs (Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Wisconsin) permitted differing levels of local control across programs while only Vermont and the District of Columbia shared aligned options for their programs.

Figure 2: Number of Pre-K Programs Permitting Local Policy Options

 Figure 2: Number of Pre-K Programs Permitting Local Policy Options

Looking closely at 11 survey questions that included “locally determined” as a response option, several categories emerged in which local control shaped program design: Access and Eligibility, Operating Schedules, Supplemental Services, and Child Assessment.

Access and Eligibility

State requirements for districts to offer pre-K programs was the most frequent policy option demonstrating local control:  41 programs in 30 states and DC indicated some level of local choice. In some situations responses were based on a district’s decision to offer the program, in others it was influenced by a state’s ability to competitively fund a limited number of programs or slots.

Local programs in several states were afforded discretion in defining the age at which children may enroll in state-funded pre-K. Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Vermont allowed local districts to establish a minimum age for participation (sometimes within defined parameters) and seven states (Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Wisconsin) permitted local determination of a maximum age limit, including provisions for districts to issue waivers.

Eleven programs in 10 states allowed local communities to establish specific risk factors other than income to determine eligibility.

Operating Schedules

Three survey questions addressed operating schedules of state-funded pre-K programs. Policies in 18 of 40 states and the District of Columbia allowed individual programs to determine the number of hours per day each would operate. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia exercised local control when determining how many days per week programs would operate, and the number of weeks per year was locally determined in 12 states.

Supplemental Services

Two questions in the survey where local control were frequently reported addressed services supplementing the educational program. Screening and referral requirements examined provisions for vision, hearing, health, and behavioral assessment with follow-up. Thirty-four programs in 24 states and DC allowed each site to determine which, if any, screening and referral services would be provided.

DC and 11 states offered local control options for support services for children and families, including nutrition services, parent education, child and family health services, home visits, transition to school activities, and parent conferences.

Child Assessment

States provided information about policies regarding local choice for child assessment instruments used in their state pre-K programs (Figure 3). Thirteen states required that programs use defined instruments for pre-K assessment, while 12 others allowed local programs to decide which instrument or instruments would be used. Eight states reported no policy requirements for use of a pre-K assessment, while 10 allowed limited choice from a menu of approved instruments, all aligned to the state’s early learning standards.

Flexibility permitted programs to choose assessments aligned with state early learning standards and match the goals and priorities of individual program. Sixteen different pre-K child assessment instruments were identified by states and Washington DC, with performance-based Teaching Strategies GOLD and the Work Sampling System appearing most frequently.

Figure 3. Number of States Permitting Local Choice of Prekindergarten Assessment

Figure 3. Number of States Permitting Local Choice of Prekindergarten Assessment

An Array of Choices, But at What Cost?

As data clearly indicate, local control is alive and well in policies across state pre-K programs. In some situations, programs are able to determine “what” they do, in others it is a matter of “how” to do it. Either way, decisions about program operations are not set in stone.

Certainly, there are advantages to local determination of program policies and practices. It affords greater grassroots involvement recognizing that people live in communities, not in the aisles of the state house, where most are aware of what is wanted and needed in relation to community values. Stakeholders invest their time, energy, and resources when they feel their involvement contributes to a genuine difference they can see. Local control fuels a sense of empowerment among educators, administrators, and policymakers. Further, local control fosters innovation.  Conventional wisdom recognizes that not all communities are created equal, so creative solutions must take advantage of available resources and talents. As the altered adage states, “One size fits one.”

Ah, did someone just mention “Equity” when looking at these data? Clearly, there is a downside to local control as well. Zip codes across and within states define opportunities for children in terms of access and services. Local control may be associated with, or the cause of, inequalities of opportunity, disparities in resources, and gaps in achievement that persist despite political posturing and wrangling. Nine states continue to lack state-funded pre-K (although efforts are underway in several states) and even in states with pre-K many children are not being served at all and those that are may be getting quite different services.

The issue of state or local control may be moot, however, if there is insufficient oversight of program quality. The best policies make little difference for children unless they are enacted; and monitoring is critical to ensure implementation with fidelity to produce intended results for children and measures of accountability for state and local leaders. Too often, local control results in a myopic view of the state of affairs or leaves local leaders sorting through a bushel of apples and oranges unable to make sense of what went awry and for what reasons.

- Jim Squires, Senior Research Fellow

- Michelle Horowitz, Research Assistant


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