Did Michigan Create an Incentive to Sacrifice Pre-K?

November 30, 2009

When Michigan’s leaders finally settled on a FY 2010 budget, it looked as if the cuts to the Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP) weren’t so bad, considering the dire condition of the economy there. The part of GSRP that’s formula-funded received the same $88.1 million allotted to it in FY 2009. The portion that is competitively funded was reduced from $15 million to $7.5 million. That’s a big hit, especially considering those funds had gone to Head Start and other providers serving kids most at risk of school failure. Still, total state pre-K allocations appeared to have dropped by about seven percent — less than many had feared.

Or did it? Upon closer inspection, one finds the budget enables districts to opt out of providing formula-funded GSRP altogether and apply the pre-K funds to shortfalls in K-12 education. That will be a temptation for many districts since they received a $292 per-pupil reduction in K-12 funding. Districts that never started pre-K classes this year because of funding uncertainty may be especially tempted to make up their K-12 cuts by sacrificing pre-K. School districts must apply to the state superintendent if they choose to take this route and they must prove they are using the GSRP funds to plan some form of school reform or consolidation. They are not required to implement the plan, simply create one. Districts have until December 1 to tell the Department of Education what they will be doing with their pre-K funds.

The decision by Michigan’s leaders to include this provision was intended to provide districts flexibility in difficult circumstances. In early education circles, however, it looks more like a “stealth incentive” to chip away at a respected state pre-K program that achieves 8 out of 10 benchmarks on NIEER’s Quality Standards Checklist and serves 18 percent of the state’s 4-year-olds. That’s because Michigan school districts have little latitude when it comes to making up funding shortfalls. As a result of the 1994 tax reforms, school funding is essentially state-controlled. Districts have had to make up funding cuts by cuts in spending or dipping into their fund balances when they have them. Thus, the new wrinkle regarding GSRP funds stands as a new addition to a very short list of options.

The uncertainty all of this creates for those charged with providing early care and education is enormous. Lindy Buch, Director of Michigan’s Office of Early Childhood Education and Family Services says that 20 long-standing agencies have already lost funding and cut programs. Getting a handle on the number of districts intending to apply for flexibility is proving difficult because of the time needed and cost of re-programming the state’s electronic grants system to include this information. Parents and others concerned about early education, should try to get at least a rough idea of district plans sooner rather than later in order to forestall “penny wise and pound foolish” attempts to cut pre-K at the local levels.

What We Don’t Know Will Hurt Us

November 19, 2009

Does it really surprise you that children entering kindergarten unprepared places them at a disadvantage over the long term? No, right! Well, it did surprise many Americans, according to a recently released survey from the Pearson Foundation.

According to the poll, about three-quarters of Americans assume that even if children enter kindergarten not ready for school, they will acquire the necessary literacy skills in elementary school to catch up with their peers. However, the research evidence shows the contrary – children who enter kindergarten unready usually do not catch up. In fact, research points out that children who enter kindergarten behind are three to four times more likely to drop out of school when they get older.

More than half of the population polled was unaware that family income is the best predictor of whether or not a child will succeed in school, nor were they aware that nearly half of the children from low-income families begin first grade up to two years behind their peers from higher income families. In addition, three-quarters of Americans are unaware that about 60 percent of low-income parents do not own age-appropriate books for their children.

While the vast majority of people polled acknowledged that early childhood illiteracy is problematic, they did not recognize that the simple act of reading to 3- to 5-year-olds can have significant impacts on children’s academic and life-long success.

“It’s common to under-estimate the importance of early literacy experiences for young children’s later language and literacy development, especially those experiences before the age of 3,” says Shannon Ayers, an assistant research professor at NIEER and a specialist on early literacy.

“Experiences of a caregiver cooing back at an infant provide the basis for conversation turn taking, and singing lullabies and silly rhyming songs provide experiences with the cadence of language,” she adds. “Lap reading and talking about stories and personal experiences with children offers exposure to story structure, print, and language (vocabulary development) in a comfortable, loving way that will provide the foundation for later learning.”

NIEER discusses literacy in the preschool classroom and its link to academic and lifelong achievement in the policy brief Early Literacy: Policy and Practice in the Preschool Years.

The Benefits of Investments in Early Development Around the Globe

November 13, 2009

Worldwide, a huge source of human potential is lost as children grow up without the benefit of effective investments in their early development. More than 200 million children under 5 years of age are not reaching their full mental, physical, and social developmental potential, says a recent report from The Open University based in the United Kingdom.

Many people associate early interventions to support child development with preschool education. That is only a part of the story in countries where problems like growth stunting, hunger, disease and extreme poverty necessitate early investments that focus on directly improving nutrition and health as well as care and education. With wide variations in the approaches to investments in early development and in children’s environments in the international arena, policy makers around the globe are asking, “How effective are the various programs in improving the development of children and does this vary across countries with very different economic conditions?”

To help answer that, NIEER recently conducted a meta-analysis of studies that looked at 30 interventions with varying approaches in 23 countries in Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America. What NIEER found is encouraging: Regardless of the type of program, all had moderate positive effects in all domains of child development. The size of the long-term effects is similar to that found in a comprehensive meta-analysis of the U.S. studies. On average, they were about one-quarter to one-third of a standard deviation, with cognitive effects at the higher end, which translates to a gain of about 5 points on an IQ test. Studies that evaluated effects at older ages showed positive effects being sustained through adulthood.

Policymakers want answers to questions like what types of programs are most cost-effective, whether single-focus or combined-focus programs are best, and what treatment dosage is likely to yield the greatest gain in a given set of circumstances. While many of those answers will require further research, our findings shed some light. Interventions providing direct child care and education were more effective than other types of programs, particularly in terms of cognition. Interventions that combined education and care with attention to nutrition or health were more effective than cash transfer programs that gave money to parents in order to achieve a goal such as making sure kids get medical attention or programs that were solely nutritional in nature. Read the rest of this entry »

Avoiding the “Poverty Trap”

November 9, 2009

Poverty is a problem in America, and it is a more serious problem here than in many other nations including some with average incomes considerably below ours. However, it is not the only problem in America, nor is it the sole cause or even most important cause of our student achievement problem. Nevertheless, our debates about education policy and education reform typically focus on reducing the “achievement gap” between rich and poor. While this is an admirable goal, focusing on the achievement gap as the primary problem is a mistake—conceptually, practically, and politically.

The conceptual mistake is to confuse the federal poverty line with a real and meaningful distinction that defines two clearly different populations. The federal poverty line is an artificial cutoff that many experts find unsatisfactory. Relatively few children and families stay below this line for long periods of time and many move back and forth across the poverty line. In reality, there is no sharp differentiation in school readiness or later educational success between those above and below the poverty line, instead there is a strong linear gradient along which school readiness, achievement, and high school graduation rates increase with income. There is no clear point at which risk for failure sharply changes. Canadian cardiologist, children’s advocate, and founding president of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research Dr. Fraser Mustard has shown that gradients linking income to development extend to other domains including health and are not limited to the United States.

The practical mistake is to design education reforms to focus on poverty and the achievement gap by providing additional resources and programs only to children in poverty. This is how most government programs for young children are designed including child care assistance, Head Start, Early Head Start, and many state pre-K programs. Because children move in and out of poverty these programs end up either providing little continuity of service (child care) or arbitrarily serving children who happened to be poor at time of enrollment but often are not poor later on and failing to serve children who become poor later.

Moving the cut-off up to 130 or 185 percent of the poverty line doesn’t really solve the problem, it just pushes it up the income gradient. As a result we fail to treat most of the problem. Don Yarosz and I have shown that in sheer numbers most school failures and high school dropouts are accounted for by families in middle-income families. Similarly, most children who are poorly prepared for school, whether we look at cognitive or social development, are from middle-income families. Indeed, most children who have abilities below those of the average child in poverty at kindergarten entry are from middle-income families. Read the rest of this entry »

How the Fade-out Myth Gets Perpetuated

November 2, 2009

Last week, the Associated Press (AP) reported on an evaluation of Tennessee’s state-funded pre-K program commissioned by that state’s Comptroller’s office (See, for example, Memphis Daily News, “Report: Tenn. Pre-K Not Effective After Second Grade”). As the headline indicates, the report is being widely cited as finding that pre-K has no lasting impact. This would be dismaying if true, because Tennessee has relatively high standards for its pre-K program, as indicated in NIEER’s 2008 State Preschool Yearbook. However, those claiming that Tennessee pre-K has no lasting effect might want to actually read the full report carefully, because it does not substantiate that claim.

Anyone reading beyond the executive summary will find that the authors themselves conclude, “Although the effects of Pre-K on long-term academic achievement are not evident in the present study, the lack of a statistically significant difference in measures of student achievement in the long term can not logically be attributed to an ineffective Pre-K intervention.” In other words, this study can’t really answer the question of whether Tennessee’s pre-K has lasting effects.

Readers can be excused for being confused by misleading statements in the executive summary that combine the conclusions of a rather one-sided literature review with an unjustified interpretation of this study’s findings. To wit: “Consistent with the results of the present evaluation, many studies find improved language or math skills in Kindergarten following Pre-K, but these effects have often dissipated by the First or Second Grade.” The literature review in this instance fails to acknowledge recent meta-analyses that find lasting effects and a number of rigorous evaluations that have reported lasting effects from higher quality early childhood programs in the last several years. They help perpetuate a fade-out myth that is no longer supportable by the research. (Stay tuned for a second installment on this topic.)

My own take is that just like the last report on this evaluation, this one provides clear evidence that the analyses have not been able to overcome serious design problems including selection bias. As my grandmother who taught school in Tennessee might have said, the stitching is mighty fancy, but it’s still a sow’s ear. The real question here is why the Comptroller spends taxpayer money on this flawed study year after year.

Steve Barnett
Co-Director, NIEER

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