Early Education: The Power to Reduce Future Crime Victimization

July 29, 2011

While the goal of high-quality preschool programs is to ensure all young learners are ready to succeed in school, these programs are linked with a number of impressive long-term outcomes. Children who attend high-quality preschool are more likely to graduate from high school and go on to higher education than are their peers who did not attend. They are also less likely to require special education services or repeat a grade in school, both of which contribute to savings for taxpayers.  Benefits extend well beyond reducing education costs. The societal and cultural improvement stemming from education reduces future crimes and future victimization. Students who attend these programs are less likely to become teenage parents, become dependent on welfare, and, notably, commit crimes as teenagers or adults. A recent study from the University of Minnesota found that, years later, participants in a high-quality preschool program had lower rates of incarceration and substance abuse than did their peers who were not enrolled.  Deterring children from future crime benefits not only those individuals, but all those in society who may have become victims of crimes against person and property. Outcomes like this have triggered a wave of support for pre-K programs from groups ranging from Fight Crime: Invest in Kids to The Boys and Girls Club of America, among other organizations.

However, the long-term benefits of high-quality programs are being sacrificed for short-term savings during this economic downturn.  As The State of Preschool 2010 found, states have reduced funding for pre-K programs while unemployment and falling wages have placed more children “at-risk” of involvement in delinquency and crime.  In the 2009-2010 school year, state funding for these programs nationwide fell by nearly $30 million from the previous school year to about $5.4 billion, marking the first drop in total spending since NIEER began tracking.  Spending per-child adjusted for inflation also has fallen by about $700 over the decade so that recent cuts add to a long-term unfavorable trend.  Nationwide, at least 23 states fail to spend enough per child in their programs to meet the 10 quality benchmarks set by NIEER; another 10 state governments provide no funding at all for pre-K.

Trends have been better for availability of pre-K than for funding, but not what one might expect given the benefits.  While access to state-funded preschool has increased over the last decade (see Figure 1 for details), we’ve seen slow growth in the percentage of 4-year-olds enrolled as well as a complete stagnation in 3-year-old enrollment in recent years. And, there is a wide variation among states in terms of pre-K access – ranging from 1.1 percent of 4-year-olds in Rhode Island to nearly 71 percent of 4-year-olds in Oklahoma.  Far too many children are missing out on early learning opportunities that will have positive outcomes throughout their lives, including reducing the likelihood of serious crime, arrest, and incarceration as teenagers or adults.

Figure 1: Access to State-funded Pre-K, 2002 to 2010

Indeed, research indicates that between 35 and 45 percent of American students enter kindergarten not “school ready” — these are the students who can most benefit from the long-term academic and social benefits of pre-K.  Some quick number crunching tells us that for an additional $1.7 billion, the nation could enroll all at-risk 4-year-olds in high-quality pre-K; another $5.8 billion would extend that opportunity to all at-risk 3-year-olds nationwide.

While taxpayers may pause at the price tag for state-funded pre-K programs, it is a small fraction of the costs our society pays for failing to start vulnerable children on the right foot.  A 2007 study by Robert Lynch finds that high-quality pre-K for just the poorest 25 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds would result in $77 billion in annual decreased crime and child abuse costs by 2050.

Other research has pointed to similarly staggering figures regarding child abuse and neglect. The direct cost of child abuse and neglect in the United States totals more than $33 billion annually. The indirect costs of child abuse, including special education, mental health care, juvenile delinquency, lost productivity, and adult criminality, increase this total to more than $103 billion annually. While taxpayers might feel burdened by a $1.7 billion investment in at-risk 4-year-olds, this number seems insignificant compared to the $103 billion they will eventually spend on the results of lower education standards and the continued cycle of crime and abuse.

Likewise, reducing the number of both perpetrators and victims of crime is an important goal in American society. The criminal justice system, including incarceration, costs billions of dollars each year, to say nothing of the loss of life, property, and security experienced by too many victims each year.  A report by Mission: Readiness reveals that criminal convictions contribute to the fact that 75 percent of America’s young adults are ineligible for military service. And, as recently noted by the National Center for Victims of Crime (NCVC), children are more likely than adults to be exposed to violence and crime, placing them directly in a vicious cycle with often disastrous results. As Mai said in a recent blog at The Crime Report, “Without the proper support to cope with their experience, young people are more likely to face, and cause, additional crimes in their own community.”

While even the highest quality preschool program cannot completely eradicate crime from our society, early interventions can significantly reduce the problem and better prepare the next generation for more productive, brighter futures. As a society, we have the resources to help young people avoid becoming victims and resist turning to crime.  Protecting our children is an investment that cannot start too early.

– Steve Barnett, Co-Director, National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER)

– Mai Fernandez, Executive Director, National Center for Victims of Crime (NCVC)

Pre-K Disparities: What You Get Depends on Where You Live

July 20, 2011

When we analyzed the data for The State of Preschool 2010, a disturbing trend that we noticed the previous year continued to appear: during these difficult economic times, disparities among states in providing high-quality preschool education are growing larger. Consequently, children’s access to and quality of experiences in preschool vary drastically depending on where they reside. For instance, a relatively small percentage of children (6 percent) in Alabama have access to a high-quality program (meeting all 10 of NIEER’s quality benchmarks) while their peers to the south in neighboring Florida have a better chance of having access (68 percent) to a lower quality program (meeting only three of 10 benchmarks). Alabama’s neighbors to the west in Mississippi have no state-funded preschool program at all to attend. This problem is not limited to the deep South – patterns like this repeat across the country. And tight state budgets are only exacerbating the problem.

While some states continued to move forward during the recession, others fell further behind, and some have dropped precipitously. Oklahoma remains the only state where almost every child has the opportunity to attend a quality preschool education program at age 4, but other states are at least approaching the goal of offering some state-funded education program to all children. In 10 states, the majority of children attend a public preschool program of some kind (see Table 1). At the other end of the spectrum, 10 states have no regular state preschool education program, although children may receive early learning experiences through Head Start and special education (see Table 2). In six states, fewer than 15 percent of 4-year-old children are enrolled in any public preschool program including Head Start.

Table 1: Top 10 States Serving 4-Year-Olds in State Pre-K

State Percent of 4-year-olds served

State Pre-K

State Pre-K and Special Education State Pre-K, Special Education, and Head Start








West Virginia




















New York












* All 4-year-old special education children in Oklahoma are in the state pre-K program.

Table 2: No-Program States

State Percent of 4-year-olds served
Special Education Special Education and Head Start















New Hampshire



North Dakota



South Dakota









Other important disparities across the states include:
• State spending ranged from less than $1 million in Arizona to more than $790 million in both California and Texas. Ten states spent nothing on state pre-K.
• For states with initiatives, state funding per child exceeded $5,000 per child in 13 states, while in six others it fell below $2,500.
• Most states failed to meet NIEER benchmarks for teacher and assistant teacher qualifications. Seven states had programs that met fewer than half of our benchmarks for quality standards. The states failing to meet most benchmarks include three of the four states with the largest number of children — California, Florida, and Texas.
• There are no maximum class sizes or limits on staff-child ratios in Texas, the only state that fails to set either. California and Maine have limits on staff-child ratios but no class size limit. Most other states limit classes to 20 or fewer children with a teacher and an assistant.

3-Year-Olds Losing Ground?

Disparities aren’t limited only to geography but also extend to age – by and large, state preschool programs are for 4-year-olds. Even in states that enroll high percentages of their 4-year-old population, 3-year-olds have little or no access to state-funded preschool education.

Already low, enrollment of 3-year-olds decreased during the 2009-2010 school year, reversing an upward trend since the 2003-2004 school year. State pre-K programs served 170,885 3-year-olds, a decrease of almost 5,000 children from the previous year. Only 4.1 percent of the nation’s 3-year-olds are served in state-funded pre-K, meaning that even small declines in service provision can be dramatic. Thirteen states decreased their enrollment of 3-year-olds while11 states increased.

Illinois, New Jersey, and Vermont are clear leaders in enrollment of 3-year-olds (see Table 3), although no state serves even a quarter of their children in state pre-K at age 3. However, while Illinois is still the leader in serving 3-year-olds, the state actually declined in the percentage of 3-year-olds served from the 2008-2009 school year to the 2009-2010 school year.

Even when accounting for state pre-K, special education, and Head Start enrollment, only Vermont, Illinois, and New Jersey serve more than a quarter of their 3-year-old population. Arkansas is close behind with 24.5 percent of their 3-year-olds served through the state pre-K, special education, and Head Start programs. Interestingly, although it does not have a state-funded pre-K program, Mississippi serves more than a quarter of their 3-year-olds in Head Start and special education, surpassing most states that do have state-funded pre-K with access for 3-year-olds.

Table 3: Top 5 States Serving 3-Year-Olds in State Pre-K


Percent of 3-Year-Olds Served

State Pre-K

State Pre-K and Special Education State Pre-K, Special Education, and Head Start




New Jersey
















* All 3-year-old children in Kentucky’s preschool program are special education students who have either a developmental delay or an identified disability.

While we are encouraged by success stories such as Oklahoma’s near universal status with a high-quality program and West Virginia’s move toward a high-quality universal program, we are troubled by the fact that many children are growing up in states with little or no access to preschool education or access to programs of low quality. As the expression goes, states are the laboratories of democracy, but wide disparities in educational opportunities for children bring to mind mad scientists rather than the Curies. We remain concerned as pre-K programs face difficult budget choices that can exacerbate today’s disparities and hope all stakeholders can work together to preserve the future for the youngest learners.

– Jen Fitzgerald, Public Information Officer, NIEER
– Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER

NIEER’s Comments on Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge

July 11, 2011

As NIEER noted last week, officials from the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services released draft guidelines for the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC) program and will be accepting comments on those guidelines until 5pm EDT today. The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) applauds this early learning initiative and offers the following comments.

– The program calls for a focus on children from birth to age 5. This is an ambitious approach. It should be recognized that current federal and state policies are not adequate for 3- to 5-year-olds; states cannot simply assume this work is done and move on to children under age 3. Neither federal nor state programs for 4-year-olds are sufficiently effective, and 3-year-olds are basically ignored by most states’ early education policies. Yet, simultaneously improving all services for children from birth to age 5 would be a tremendous undertaking and states are hard hit now by the recession. States should be permitted to take on major investments in one sector or program at a time in the context of a broader plan for the entire system. They should not be pressed to produce unrealistic plans for creating seamless high-quality, birth to age 5 systems in a short time with inadequate resources.

– Far too much publicly subsidized and provided early care and education is of such low quality that it fails to significantly enhance child development. Some publicly funded services may even have modest negative impacts on children. The questionable quality of services provided by some public programs for young children makes quality enhancement a more pressing goal than expanding access. Increased enrollment should become a goal only after a program is good enough to substantially enhance learning and development. Infant-toddler care should have a particularly high priority for quality improvement.

– Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS) are not a proven approach to improving student learning. A QRIS can incentivize some programs to improve their quality for higher reimbursement rates, but those programs are likely to be the ones with the most resources from the start. Too often, programs that are struggling financially will be unable to raise their quality enough to earn the higher rate without more assistance than most QRIS provide. For various reasons QRIS may provide little more than window dressing with respect to improvements in quality or financial incentives for improvement. Ratings systems can become ineffectual. Increased investment in research is needed to learn from different state experiences as they develop and implement QRIS.

– Assessment is a useful tool in continuous program improvement, but must be used with caution. Assessments alone should not be used to make high-stakes decisions about individual programs or children. The regulations call for increasing understanding among educators as to the uses and limitations of various assessment types—this is paramount to ensuring data is collected and used responsibly to improve programs. Assessments aligned with standards can give useful information on what is and is not working in a program, and should be used to guide trainings, professional development, and technical assistance. Yet, many professionals do not sufficiently understand the strengths or limitations of various assessments and the appropriate purposes for which they may be used. For example, it is common to see screening tests used completely inappropriately. Beyond the particulars of assessment, it is important that early childhood professionals be educated about the difficulties in making causal inferences about programs from assessment data and the kinds of evaluation designs required for valid inferences.

– The development of the required kindergarten entry assessment for all students is an ambitious feat, and applicants may need significant guidance in implementing a strategy that works. Current regulations call for educators to implement assessments, though policymakers must be warned of the potential bias of not using third-party evaluators. A kindergarten entry assessment can also only supply so much information regarding readiness and progress without some prior assessment to use as a “baseline.”

– Developing valid and reliable assessments that can be used for every child entering public kindergarten by the 2014-2015 year is a large task with considerable expense. The federal government provided Race to the Top assessment grants for consortia of states to develop valid assessments for students in the upper grades. A similar grant program for early learning would enable states to work together on an early childhood assessment system that is valid, reliable, and manageable. Such an endeavor is likely to be unaffordable state by state; additionally, the field could benefit from collaborations among states so that information collected is comparable across state lines.

– Workforce development is an important goal in providing high-quality early learning experiences. We support the regulations’ focus on improving educators’ knowledge and competencies, and further professionalizing early childhood education to recruit and retain the best teachers. Collaborating with institutions of higher education is essential to ensuring credential requirements truly reflect the skills and knowledge needed to teach young children. Professional preparation and development efforts should formally integrate with higher education to permit seamless career development. Every child deserves a well-educated lead classroom teacher, and one route to this is a bachelor’s degree with an appropriate specialization. Teachers should be properly trained in curriculum, assessment, and pedagogy. Similarly, professionals benefit from supervision by properly trained administrators (e.g., principals, directors, coordinators). Furthermore, NIEER recommends that states address policies for scheduling and staffing patterns requiring adequate time away from children to plan curricula based on assessment and to engage in professional development.

– Judging states based on commitment and investment since 2007 may disadvantage those states whose attempts to develop early learning systems have been slowed by budgetary constraints, especially given the fiscal conditions of these last four years. These states could significantly benefit from additional funding and technical assistance offered through RTT-ELC. Peer reviews should use caution when measuring states against the criteria of prior commitment, as these funds may be exactly the “jump start” some states need to catalyze early learning investment.

NIEER looks forward to the release of the final regulations and to the chance for states to bolster their programs for the youngest learners.

– W. Steven Barnett
Co-Director, NIEER

And They’re Off!: Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge Details Announced

July 7, 2011

Last week, in conference calls with stakeholders and reporters, officials from the Departments of Education (ED) and Health and Human Services (HHS) provided further details on the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC) program. The Obama administration announced $500 million for the competitive grants in late May, and will accept feedback on the draft guidelines until July 11 before finalizing the regulations.

The competition is guided by three sets of priorities: absolute, competitive preference, and invitational:

• Absolute: These must be addressed in each state’s application.

  • Early learning and development standards and kindergarten entry assessments
  • Tiered quality rating and improvement system (QRIS)

• Competitive Preference: These criteria will secure “extra” points for applicants.

  • Include all early learning and development programs in the tiered QRIS

• Invitational: These are areas of particular concern for the Departments.

  • Sustained program effects in early elementary grades
  • Encourage private sector support through public/private partnerships

The program will rely on four selection criteria:

• Building successful state systems that align a variety of programs (Head Start, child care, state-funded pre-K, etc.).
• High-quality standards and comprehensive assessments focused on a broad range of domains to enter kindergarten ready to succeed. This includes engaging and supporting families and encouraging healthy development across domains.
• Developing high-quality, accountable programs using a robust tiered QRIS. This necessitates common statewide tiered program standards, promoting participation in QRIS across sectors, implementing rating and monitoring, and validating effectiveness of the QRIS.
• Developing and retaining an effective, high-quality workforce through improving knowledge, competencies, and credentials across the early childhood workforce.  States should also work with the higher education community to engage in this process.

Grant caps were developed by ranking each state based on its share of the national population of children birth to age 5 from low-income families.  Recognizing that rural communities have unique needs, the Departments may “exercise discretion” in ensuring states with large rural communities are well-represented.

Category Budget Cap States
Category 1 Up to $100M California, Florida, New York, Texas
Category 2 Up to $70M Arizona, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania
Category 3 Up to $60M Alabama, Colorado, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin
Category 4 Up to $50M Alaska, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, West Virginia, Wyoming

After reviewing the full text released by ED and HHS, a few trends are clear throughout the draft guidelines:

• There is a clear emphasis on collaboration across sectors and settings.  The grant ultimately seeks to help states remove various early learning programs from their separate silos and create a coherent statewide system. The Departments provide a comprehensive list of program settings to be involved, including state-funded pre-K programs, Early Head Start and Head Start programs, and programs funded by Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), and/or the Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF).
• States are expected to use RTT-ELC funds to supplement (and not supplant) state funding for these programs, as well as leverage existing resources to create stable funding both during and after the grant period. Particular attention is drawn to the quality set-asides in CCDF.  Secretaries Duncan and Sebelius had earlier emphasized the potential of utilizing funding from CCDF, Early Head Start and Head Start programs, IDEA, and Title I.  The feds are so eager for states to consider leveraging CCDF funds for early learning initiatives that they may submit revisions to their CCDF plans (due August 1) to align with their RTT-ELC applications.
• In this same open letter, governors were encouraged to utilize existing resources, both in terms of building on existing programs as well as working with organizations and agencies in their states already in the field. In particular, they singled out existing State Advisory Councils on Early Childhood Education and Care (SACs). In fact, having an operational SAC is an eligibility requirement of the grant, though how much participation will be required of SACs is not explicated.
• The Departments call for the development of a high-quality workforce through improving knowledge, competencies, and credentials. While the regulations call for collaboration between state programs and higher education institutions to improve credentialing, there are no clear guidelines as to what makes a “good” credential or well-qualified teacher.  Policymakers must ensure that the goal of increasing the number of credential recipients is not at the expense of maintain and improving the credential quality.
• The regulations call for increasing access to high-quality programs for high-need children. The best way to achieve this is by improving the quality of programs already enrolling children, rather than creating additional programs that cannot maintain high quality. In many states, the early childhood services offered are not of the highest quality to contribute to long-term growth. To expand the reach of these programs would be counterproductive.

Draft guidelines are available for the grant program at www.ed.gov/early-learning. Comments will be accepted through 5 PM (EDT) on July 11. The final guidelines will be published in mid-August, and states must submit applications by mid-October. The grant period will be from December 2011 to December 2015.

Rundown of Organization Responses

There has been no shortage of analysis and commentary in the early learning blogosphere since the May announcement of the funds.  Below are links to some helpful recommendations and suggestions from organizations regarding the Challenge.  Please note that most of these documents were assembled before guidelines were further specified and so may only briefly touch on issues that are now paramount to applications.

The Huffington Post’s Education section gets reaction to the draft guidelines, including some comments from NIEER’s co-director, Steve Barnett.
• New America Foundation provides an archive of their Early Ed Watch blog’s coverage of RTT-ELC.
• Sara Mead at Education Week has voiced several concerns about the program, including peer review, the lack of clear role for foundations, and the vague goals initially offered, starting with the official announcement.
• The National Journal’s Expert Blog on Education offers a veritable pu pu platter of recommendations and cautions.
• CLASP offers research and resources directed towards each area highlighted in the ELC goals.
• Marian Wright Edelman and the Children’s Defense Fund put RTT-ELC in context.
• The First Five Years Fund’s The Starting Point blog provides strategies for early brainstorming on this short timeline.

Over the next few weeks, we expect to see more recommendations, suggestions, and commentary as experts and policymakers digest this information.

– Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER
– Jim Squires, Senior Research Fellow, NIEER

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