A Curious Proposal to Privatize New Jersey’s Already Privatized Pre-K

July 30, 2010

The recent New Jersey Privatization Task Force recommendations on pre-K disregard the facts and oppose the best interests of New Jersey’s children. The report highlights pre-K as an example of “successful” privatization, but then calls for the state to replace this successful private-public educational partnership with low-quality child care. This plan is taken straight from the playbook of former Governor Whitman who first tried to substitute cheap child care for education and failed. The plan was firmly rejected by New Jersey’s State Supreme Court then. Governor Christie and the legislature should reject it now, as well. How the Privatization Task Force ended up recommending the destruction of one of the state’s best known privatization successes is worth exploring in some detail.

The rationale given by the task force for replacing preschool education with a child care voucher is to save on the costs of building new facilities. See link at: http://www.state.nj.us/governor/news/reports/2010/approved/reports_archive.html That argument doesn’t hold water. Facilities account for only about 10 percent of the overall cost. If the state saved big on facilities, say 20 percent, it still would only save two percent on total cost. Besides, most of the pre-K classrooms New Jersey needs have already been built, and as we already noted preschool is largely privatized so most facilities are private. When new facilities are needed, the state ends up paying for facilities one way or another whether it’s through public construction or payments to private providers who must pay their rent or mortgages.

Even when new facilities are built, cost is nowhere near the $43,000 to $53,000 per seat stated by the report. They start with an exaggerated baseline figure for cost per classroom and then divide by 10 to arrive at cost per seat. Since there are 15 children per classroom, they should have divided by 15, a number that is 50 percent higher, and which will result in a much lower per-pupil building cost. There are New Jersey preschoolers who do need new facilities. Many of them are in temporary trailers that are long due for replacement with real classrooms. Put it all together and the state might save a fraction of one percent of the annual cost of pre-K on facilities.

The way the task force report misrepresents the pre-K program and its history suggests that this report is not really trying to save money on facilities. What it seeks to do is return to the lower standards and inadequate funding provided under child care regulations. To build this case, the task force stacks up one falsehood after another. This faulty case begins with the report’s claim that school districts require all 4-year-olds to enroll in district run programs. This is flatly untrue. Public pre-K in New Jersey is entirely voluntary, and even children in public pre-K are mostly served by privately owned and operated programs. Another false assertion is that 100 percent of children were served by private providers prior to the state’s new pre-K program. The truth is that many children were served by no preschool program, public or private, while the public schools served 30 percent and Head Start served more than 20 percent. Today it is likely that the number of New Jersey’s children served by private pre-K providers is actually higher than it was before the state’s pre-K program because state funding has increased the number of children served and most of those served attend private programs. More importantly, these children now receive from private providers a good education that has demonstrated results. Private providers get these results because they are now adequately funded and receive support from the public schools.

The task force also falsely asserts that there is no documented benefit to the state-funded pre-K program compared to less expensive child care, a claim that Dick Zimmer (the task force chair) continues to make. The truth is that the poor quality of the private programs children attended and their lack of learning are well documented, and the transformation of private providers into high-quality educational programs as a result of higher standards and adequate funding is equally well documented.

The state and local school districts have supported private providers in raising their quality. The state put into place a system for continuous quality improvement under which the quality of education in private providers rose dramatically. The public school role includes providing teacher coaches who work with teachers in the private providers to improve their practice. Progress is regularly assessed based on children’s test scores, as well. Public schools also support the education of children with special needs and other difficulties who were not adequately served in private programs previously. Private provider preschools in the state pre-K program are now overwhelmingly good to excellent.

In sum, private providers have prospered in the state’s preschool program. Local boards of education retain local responsibility for ensuring the quality of education for children in their communities and for ensuring that programs are financially well-managed and deliver a good education. In carrying out these responsibilities only a few of the smaller school districts have chosen to provide pre-K through the public schools alone. In most, if not all of these districts, the number of classrooms is so small that it makes more financial sense to provide them directly than to contract out.

For those concerned about saving the state money on the costs of facilities, there are a host of remedies that could be considered, public and private. In the child care business it is common to separate the provision of the program from the construction, maintenance, and ownership of the facilities. Many child care providers rent rather than own their facilities. Privatization of facilities construction might make sense even for public schools. The National Institute for Early Education Research has an entire report on creative solutions for facilities finance.

However, what the task force proposed under the guise of privatization is substituting child care and its regulations for preschool education. A more wasteful recommendation is hard to imagine. The state has invested substantial funding and hard work over the past 10 years to build a public-private partnership that provides high-quality preschool education. This transformation has been documented by data collected annually and is heralded nationally.

Rigorous research demonstrates that New Jersey’s state-funded high-quality pre-K programs improve children’s school readiness and raise test scores in the early grades. Children who attend state-funded pre-K starting at age 3 are half as likely to fail and repeat a grade. Pre-K starts these children on a path to higher achievement, increased graduation rates, and less delinquency and crime. This would not happen under weak child care regulations with inadequate funding and no support from the public schools. Research shows that the kind of cheap voucherized child care the Task Force proposes actually harms the development of children cognitively, socially, and emotionally. What the Privatization Task Force proposes would be a disaster for New Jersey’s children today and a disaster for New Jersey’s taxpayers in the future.

We are all in favor of eliminating waste and increasing efficiency. If the state wants to save money on pre-K without harming New Jersey’s children, we believe it could save $100 million a year with simple research-based changes that would not reduce effectiveness. With a little hard work subjecting questionable practices to rigorous evaluation the state could save substantial dollars based on fact, not fiction. These dollars could be used to raise child care standards and reimbursement rates throughout the state and to expand effective pre-K to even more children. That may not have the same ideological appeal as the quick fix of vouchers and lower standards, but most of us learned as preschoolers that only in fairy tales does trading the cow for a handful of magic beans end well.

Ellen Frede and Steve Barnett
Co-Directors, NIEER

How the Arts Help Kids Develop

July 26, 2010

When renowned abstract expressionist Robert Goodnough created his paintings, he probably didn’t have an audience of 3-year-olds in mind — and when New Jersey built its performing arts center (NJPAC) in Newark, playing to preschoolers probably wasn’t high on the list of justifications. These days, however, both are regularly pressed into service to help young children develop a broader range of skills. Most people agree that exposing young children to the arts helps them develop but there hasn’t been enough said about how this should happen. That’s changing thanks to a series on children and the arts created by Caucus: New Jersey with funding from the PNC Foundation.

In the first segment, developmental psychologist and NIEER research coordinator Judi Stevenson Boyd is joined by Alfredo Franco of the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers, Ronnie Ragen at the Trenton Community School, and Caitlin Evans Jones from NJPAC for a discussion about leveraging the arts to the advantage of preschoolers. It’s a dynamic discussion with concrete examples provided by all. Looking at Goodnough’s 1964 work (untitled), it’s easy to see why Franco chose it to help preschoolers find their own inner expressionist.

Why Curriculum Decision Makers Should Look at All the Evidence

July 15, 2010

Developing guidance on what works in early education is always challenging and that certainly applies to the difficult business of evaluating and selecting a curriculum. Whenever specific early education curricula are evaluated, judgment calls have to be made on the strengths and weaknesses of the evaluation including such issues as the duration and quality of training in the curriculum prior to the evaluation, how well the measures used actually measure children’s learning and development (are they broad enough and deep enough?), and how well any given curriculum is implemented in the classroom at the time the research was conducted.

When the final results are published, these become the go-to issues when people scratch their heads about why a curriculum did or didn’t do well in the review. Recent efforts to summarize evidence regarding the effects of various curricula have brought these issues front and center. The 2008 federal Preschool Curriculum Evaluation Research (PCER) report found most curricula in the study provided little or no advantage over existing practice. On an ongoing basis, the Institute for Educational Sciences’ What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) provides reviews that yield lackluster ratings for a number of programs.

Among the findings WWC reports is that the Tools of the Mind Curriculum had no significant effects. What may not be clear to readers is that the study WWC reviewed was designed to determine whether Tools of the Mind could produce equivalent academic results while improving results for self-regulation and social behavior compared to a more traditional curriculum that was also expected to produce strong academic gains. Indeed, this is exactly what was found—strong reductions in behavior problems and improvements in self-regulation with academic gains at least as strong as from the other curriculum. However, WWC does not take into account any effects of early childhood curriculum on executive function, self-regulation, or any aspect of social and emotional development.

The latest effort in this arena comes by way of Johns Hopkins University where Bette Chambers and a team of colleagues have taken another look at many of the same preschool programs appearing in the federal efforts. The team conducting the review says 40 studies evaluating 28 different programs met its research standards. Without getting bogged down in details, suffice to say that they made different judgments than did WWC about what studies to include and how to evaluate their results. It should come as no surprise that the results of the Johns Hopkins review differ substantially from those of the federal efforts. The Johns Hopkins team review awards favorable ratings to 11 of the 28 programs and reports that six show “strong” evidence of effectiveness.

Many will be asking whether the Johns Hopkins review provides a better basis for choosing a curriculum than the previous reviews. Not really. Their criterion for “strong evidence of effectiveness” is two findings of effect sizes larger than .20 on any measure regardless of the importance of the outcome. They ignore the nature of the comparison made in the study (was it to another strong curriculum or poor practices?), and they also ignore non-academic outcomes. I respectfully suggest that neither the Johns Hopkins review nor the federal efforts provides an adequate basis for choosing a curriculum. Together they provide useful information but remain incredibly narrow. They still do not completely survey the relevant studies of curricula (for example, rigorous studies of the High/Scope approach), consider many of the outcomes we in early education are trying to produce, or take into account much of the field’s knowledge about what works. Much of this comes from basic and applied research on the education and development of young children that does not follow the “horse race” model for curriculum comparison studies.

On a practical level, the question for curriculum decision makers becomes what resources to consult in deciding on a curriculum for their programs. The best advice is to take a very broad look at the evidence that includes wide-ranging analyses such as NIEER’s meta-analysis of 120 studies; even if this does not point to specific curricula it does help identify characteristics of more effective early education from the broadest set of comparative studies collected to date.

Readers interested in more detailed, concrete advice on how to choose a highly effective curriculum should consult NIEER’s policy brief Preschool Curriculum Decision-Making: Dimensions to Consider.

Steve Barnett
Co-director, NIEER

A Glimpse into France’s Ecole Maternelle

July 7, 2010

The overwhelming majority of early childhood education in France takes place in public preschools such as the well-known ecole maternelle. These programs must meet national standards and are sufficiently subsidized by the government to enable children from middle class families to attend at little or no cost. Not surprisingly, enrollment of French children in the ecole maternelle is near universal at age 3.

That’s not the case in the U.S. where the majority of preschool-age children attend some kind of program at age 4, only about half at age 3, and many private and public programs are of questionable quality. This week, National Public Radio’s Paris-based Eleanor Beardsley dropped in on an ecole maternelle where her son Maxim is enrolled. The broadcast includes perspectives from other parents whose children attend, and commentary by NIEER co-director Steve Barnett who draws the contrast between what’s available to the parents of French preschoolers and their counterparts in the U.S. Barnett recently returned from an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development conference on early childhood issues in Paris and reports that as in the U.S., early childhood programs in much of the rest of the world exist under the threat of the budget knife that could cut preschool quality globally. Citizens everywhere must be concerned about the tendency for governments to sacrifice quality rather than quantity when budgets are tightened.

Listen to the NPR broadcast about early childhood education in France.

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