Enlisting Early Education in the Drive for Fiscal Responsibility

November 18, 2010

Now that the elections are behind us, we’re beginning to hear less spin and more in the way of concrete ideas from those whose jobs it is to put the country on sounder footing. At the federal level, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, co-chairs of President Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, have released a Power Point outlining their proposals.  It’s a worthy document and not just because it addresses tough issues like health care, social security, and the tax code. It also lays down guiding principles that call for investing to promote economic growth and keep America competitive. What’s more, it points specifically to education as one of those areas (Principle 6).

It’s heartening to see the commission chairs promote investing in education as critical to achieving long-term fiscal responsibility. Bowles and Simpson clearly recognize that without investing in a better-educated workforce, we are not likely to achieve the commission’s over-arching goal of cutting our national debt to 60 percent of GDP by 2024 and below 40 percent by 2037. The wave of new governors who ran on platforms primarily dedicated to cutting costs would do well to heed this message. The road to future prosperity does not lie on the cost side of the ledger alone.

There’s no telling what policies might emanate from the commission’s effort. Its significance lies not so much in this or that recommendation, but in the fact that taken together, they represent a larger reform agenda that marks a shift away from waste to evidence-based investment.

Speaking of waste, one area Bowles and Simpson identify for achieving savings is farm subsidies. This is fertile ground for freeing up money some of which might better be spent for more productive purposes than producing commodity crops. The maze of subsidies going to farmers, who represent between 1 and 2 percent of the population, now tops $20 billion annually. In the world of early childhood education, that’s real money. If only 10 percent of that were dedicated to a federal early learning challenge fund that awarded competitive grants to the states for the purpose of developing more and better early childhood education, that would be progress. And, it just might turn the heads of some of those governors intent on cutting their way to fiscal prosperity.

Steve Barnett

Co-Director, NIEER

When it Comes to Pre-K, New Mexico Has What it Takes

November 12, 2010

The New Mexico PreK initiative expanded quickly when it began in 2005.  Five years later it was serving upwards of 5,000 children. Unlike other state programs with speedy ramp-up times, this one has undergone rigorous examination throughout its early growth period and stood up well. A multi-year evaluation study, funded by the State of New Mexico, began the same year as the PreK program itself.

This month, my research colleagues and I issued the latest in our series of reports focusing on the impacts of New Mexico PreK on children’s vocabulary, math, and literacy skills at the beginning of kindergarten. Our data (for the 2008-2009 school year) were gathered from a sample of 1,359 children from Public Education Department (PED) and Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD) PreK sites statewide.  Kids attending the program scored significantly higher on assessments of vocabulary, early math, and literacy in comparison to children who did not attend.

These results show that children gained important skills in areas such as addition and subtraction, telling time, knowledge of letters, and familiarity with words and book concepts. The vocabulary test is predictive of reading success and general cognitive abilities. Our conclusion: Kids who attend New Mexico PreK are better prepared to enter kindergarten than those who do not.

These positive findings merit particular attention in the context of New Mexico’s current budget shortfall.  First, the state has discontinued funding our PreK evaluation.  More importantly in the day-to-day lives of New Mexicans, the state PreK appropriation has decreased for the current school year.  This represents the first decline in state funding since New Mexico PreK began five years ago.  And, as a result, PreK enrollment declined this fall by more than 10 percent.

Over the past five years, program administrators at PED and CYFD showed they know how to launch a good program and expand it with high quality standards.  And a greater percentage of 4-year-olds in New Mexico were enrolled in state prekindergarten than in any other Western state except Colorado.  But continued expansion of this effective program may be threatened.  Even at its highest point of enrollment last school year, fewer than one in five children were enrolled. In her campaign, Governor-elect Susana Martinez said she will protect public education. Let’s hope that extends to maintaining and expanding the investment in New Mexico’s well-documented PreK winner.

Jason Hustedt

NIEER Senior Research Fellow

Assistant Professor

Department of Human Development and Family Studies

University of Delaware

Playing Sidekick to Sid the Science Kid

November 5, 2010

The Wall Street Journal has a fascinating articletoday about the strategies media companies are using to attract preschoolers to their television content. It points out, among other things, that PBS Kids focuses on cognitive development.

As an adviser to Sid the Science Kid, I can attest to the truthfulness of that claim. My role in helping shape the show began with a phone call.  “We’d like you and Moisés (Román, Director of the University Village site of UCLA Early Care and Education) to write the curriculum for the project and to be our educational advisors.”  The call came from Joyce Campbell, Vice President for Children’s Programming at KCET, Los Angeles. The project to which she referred was the brainchild of KCET and The Jim Henson Company, an initial idea that grew into Sid the Science Kid, a television show that now airs nationally on PBS Kids.

When that call came, I admit to being somewhat star-struck.  This was an opportunity to partner with the people who brought Oscar, Ernie, Bert, and the gang into the lives of my young self and, some years later, my preschool children.  Why did people of this caliber want to work with me?  The answer to that question is one of the reasons why we have ended up with an educational approach that is engaging for children and adults and that has been linked to children’s excitement about science and to their learning, both anecdotally and through initial research studies.  Larger-scale research studies are underway.

The reason that Moises and I were asked to collaborate was because we are co-developers of Preschool Pathways to Science, an early childhood science curriculum.  While we both know quite a bit about children’s science learning, we bring complementary expertise. Moises is an education practitioner while I’m a research psychologist, specializing in early cognitive development.

I use the word “collaborate” very deliberately.  It is not always the case that there is a curriculum that guides the production of children’s programs.  If there is, that curriculum might not be written by someone with expertise in the content of the program (in this case science), in young children’s learning and development, or in children’s learning of the particular content domain of the show.  Even if those criteria are met, the curriculum developer might not be invited to stick around and continue to advise on the specific content of each script. Read the rest of this entry »

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