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


State prekindergarten programs: A decade of progress

July 9, 2014

By Alison May

Alison May is a staff coordinator of the National Conference of State Legislature’s Children and Families program. This  post originally appeared on June 30th on the blog of NCSL. 

Steve Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), highlighted some of the key findings of NIEER’s annual State Preschool Yearbook during a June 24 NCSL webinar entitled State Prekindergarten Programs: A Decade of Progress. Specifically, Barnett talked about the data and national trends for enrollment in, quality of, and spending on state-funded preschool programs.

The webinar was designed for current and alum members of the Early Learning Fellows program, which is NCSL’s premier program for legislators and legislative staff who are experienced or emerging leaders on early childhood and early learning issues.

This year marked a decade since the first Yearbook was published on data collected from the 2001-2002 school year. Barnet also highlighted notable recent studies of pre-K effects and talked about what works and doesn’t work in prekindergarten to produce larger gains in young children. “As policymakers, you might want to have some input on what we know works and some of the approaches that don’t work very well,” said Barnett. He also indicated that policymakers might want to consider designing programs with intentional teaching, individualization and small groups.

The full webinar is available on NCSL’s YouTube channel. We would direct your attention to the question-and-answer session (beginning roughly 40 minutes in) between Steve and the Early Learning Fellows, which touches on digging in to quality standards, access issues for younger children and utilizing funding sources, including federal funds.


2013 State Preschool Yearbook Finds Need for Renewed Investment

May 13, 2014

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

Yearbook 2013

Click for the full report.

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

Particularly of concern, the report found that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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


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.


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