Sharing Time: Looking at a Busy Week in Early Education

September 30, 2011

It’s been a big week for pre-K in the news.

Education Nation, NBC’s annual education summit, presented its second offering this week, and it had a heavy focus on early learning. Dr. Nancy Snyderman, NBC’s chief medical editor, moderated the panel “Brain Power: Why Early Learning Matters” featuring early learning notables, including researchers, practitioners, advocates, and a little star power from actress-advocate Jennifer Garner.  While the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge was clearly a point of interest, the panel also discussed a number of issues NIEER has recently explored, including policies on family engagement, how to reform Head Start, and the 10 states that do not offer state-funded pre-K. More of Education Nation’s early education coverage can be found here, including NIEER data making a cameo appearance in this Today Show interview as well as in the Start Early, Aim High panel discussion earlier this month.

Also this week was the release of Pre-K Now’s final report, “Transforming Public Education: Pathway to a Pre-K-12 Future,” which reflects on the growth of state-funded pre-K during their decade of advocacy while pushing for increased alignment with the K-12 system moving forward. Their recommendations include expanding preschool-for-all programs to more children, aligning standards with state elementary and Common Core standards, supporting early educator professional development, and re-assessing governance structures to make effective use of existing resources.

The report succinctly lights a path for early learning advocates to follow as Pre-K Now closes its doors, though these goal reached a whole new audience thanks to a Time magazine article, “Rethinking Pre-K: 5 Ways to Fix Preschool.” The article, which was among the most popular of the week, provided “reality checks” on which aspects of the report’s recommendations are most likely to be implemented.  Program data used in the article from the 2010 State of Preschool Yearbook makes clear that resource constraints have taken a toll on state-funded pre-K programs and could continue to slow growth going forward. In particular, at a time when accountability is the watchword in education reform, NIEER Director Steve Barnett is quoted in the article saying, “Evaluations take a lot of time and money. With budget cuts, I’m afraid they will be the first to go.” Indeed, the 2010 Yearbook did see a slackening of accountability standards in many programs, a trend we fear may be repeated in our 2011 report. Look for NIEER data also in the article “The Preschool Wars,” which looks at the battle for pre-K in North Carolina and elsewhere, in the October 10 print issue of Time magazine (available online now for Time subscribers).

NIEER, Pre-K Now, and Education Nation made a number of other media appearances this week.  An MSNBC interview with Dennis Van Roekel of the National Education Association draws attention to the need for greater access to high-quality pre-K programs, especially for children who may not be school ready. Another piece with Mark Shriver, of Save the Children’s U.S. operations, calls for increasing investment in early interventions, even in an era of budget cuts.

After this week of much discussion, it is clear that early childhood education has made great strides in recent years, but still has far to go to help all children who can benefit. For those in the field—educators, researchers, advocates, and parents—who know the challenge of advocating for increased resources during these austere times, there may be motivation in the President Obama’s address to students this week: “It means that you have to stay at it.  You have to be determined and you have to persevere.  It means you’ve got to work as hard as you know how to work.  And it means that you’ve got to take some risks once in a while.”

– Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER

Childhood Obesity: A Growing Problem

September 27, 2011

Obesity, especially beginning in childhood, has become a growing problem in the United States. The rate of childhood obesity has been increasing at a breakneck speed so that currently a third of children are obese (16.4 percent) or overweight (18.2 percent), according to a recent report from the Trust for America’s Health. Childhood obesity is linked with numerous negative effects that can follow a person throughout their lifetime, including greater risk for other health problems such as asthma, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure. Given the risk of these negative outcomes, early intervention is seen as paramount by many. With that in mind, President Obama made a proclamation on August 31st, declaring September to be National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month. To that end, the federal government’s Let’s Move! initiative encourages children and families to make healthier choices regarding exercise and meals. But as President Obama noted in proclamation, “Everyone has a role to play in preventing and reversing the tide of childhood obesity.” This does not exclude preschool programs and, indeed, in the past research has found that a preschool program’s choices of daily activities and menu selection could play a role in reducing childhood obesity. For more on the role of preschool in promoting healthy lifestyles, stay tuned for NIEER’s upcoming brief on health policies in pre-K.

– Jen Fitzgerald, Public Information Officer, NIEER

All in the Family: Engaging Families in Children’s Early Learning

September 26, 2011

Ask any parent, teacher, or researcher, and they will tell you the same thing—education starts, and extends, well beyond the walls of the classroom.  Parents are children’s first teachers, and families play a crucial role in education, especially for the youngest learners.  Noting the importance of this, the week of September 26-30 is being celebrated as Head Start Family Engagement Week.

Since its beginning, the federal Head Start program has made community and family engagement a key piece of its efforts to prepare at-risk children for school. Of course, other early childhood educators also emphasize engaging parents.  NAEYC and Pre-K Now collaborated on the paper Family Engagement, Diverse Families, and Early Childhood Education Programs: An Integrated Review of the Literature, which provides guidance on family engagement based on a review of a range of literature. They recommend that early learning programs:

  • Integrate Culture and Community: Utilize role models of diverse backgrounds; translate materials in to the native languages of participating families; provide an interpreter; interact with families and children within communities, outside of the classroom environment.
  • Provide a Welcoming Environment: have staff available at the entrance to guide families; post clear signs; encourage parents to provide feedback through a variety of avenues.
  • Strive for Program-Family Partnerships: include families in decision-making regarding both their individual child and the program; provide resources to be used at home that connect with classroom activities.
  • Make a Commitment to Outreach: when possible, make home visits so teachers can learn from families; provide education activities that families can do at home.
  • Provide Family Resources and Referrals: provide preventative health and family services, including transportation and child care; provide opportunities for families in parenting and adult education classes.
  • Set and Reinforce Program Standards: emphasize outreach; provide ongoing professional development to expand culturally-sensitive, evidence-based family engagement practices.

During the 2009-2010 school year, NIEER collected data on family engagement policies in state-funded pre-K programs. The table below presents a list of family engagement activities and the number of programs that require them.

Table 1: Family Engagement Activities in State-Funded Pre-K Programs, 2009-2010

Family Engagement Activities

Number of Programs

Percent of Programs

Participating/volunteering in classroom or school events



Parent/family shared decision making and governance, parent advisory committee



Program orientation



Parent/family workshops



Family literacy activities



As per federal Head Start regulations






Parent/family education classes



Parent/family participation in determining activities/events



Specific activities are locally determined



Other activities, beyond answer choices above



Family engagement activities not required by state policy



* Note: Most programs require multiple family engagement activities; therefore the percentages do not total 100 percent.

Of the 54 programs profiled in the 2010 Yearbook, the most popular answer was “locally determined,” indicating that there is a great deal of variation in family engagement policy. Allowing local providers to determine their own family engagement activities allows for customization based on local needs, but there may be great inequality in the level of engagement from site to site. For more information on family engagement policies in state pre-K programs, see this blog post with data from the 2009 Yearbook.

– Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER

The Empty Space on the Carpet: Absenteeism in the Early Years

September 19, 2011

While the Perfect Attendance award may be a coveted prize for some, young students are missing an alarming number of school days. According to the national nonprofit Attendance Works, about 1 in 10 kindergarteners and first-graders are chronically absent—that is, missing 18 or more days of the school year, or about 10 percent of class days. Most research on attendance does not start until kindergarten, but a new analysis in Chicago makes clear the issue persists even earlier.  During the 2009-2010 school year, 62 percent of preschoolers in the city’s state-funded Preschool for All program were chronically absent. In more than a quarter of program settings, the rate of chronic absenteeism reached 80 percent. From preschool to grade 3, 15 percent of all students missed 18 days or more of school. Attendance problems were especially seen at schools in low-income areas.

Absenteeism is a serious obstacle to getting the most out of school, even starting in early elementary school. Chronic absenteeism in kindergarten and first grade is linked with a decline in test scores and can cancel out a degree of school readiness.  As one principal noted in the Catalyst Chicago article, “We have an excellent, excellent Head Start teacher, but she worries she’s not as effective because the students simply aren’t there.” A study by the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) also found that children who were chronically absent in kindergarten were likely to continue this pattern in first grade, though the study did not address preschool attendance.  If half the battle is showing up, these young students are not making the cut.

So why are so many young learners not making it to circle time?

The Preschool for All coordinator for Chicago Public Schools cites the lack of support staff—having only two social workers for over 400 classrooms leaves teachers in the lurch in fighting the absentee battle. Beyond just Chicago, parents may think consistent attendance isn’t important until “real” school starts in first grade.

Part-day programs may also play a role—parents with inflexible schedules need to arrange alternate child care after the school day ends, as well as transportation to a second site. This hassle may be enough to just forego the pre-K classroom for the whole day if another setting is easier. As shown in Table 1, in the 2009-2010 school year, only 12 of the 54 state-funded programs profiled in NIEER’s Yearbook required all children to have full- or school-day schedules (minimum of 5.5 hours per day). Many other programs allow for local flexibility or may combine two part-time slots to create a full day, but these strategies may still leave parents without the opportunity for full-day classes for their preschool-age children.

Table 1: State-Funded Programs Requiring School- or Full-Day Schedules, 2009-2010

State Hours of operation per day
Alabama Full day, 6.5 hours/day
Arkansas Full day, 7 hours/day
Georgia Full day, 6.5 instructional hours/day
Louisiana 8(g) School day, 6 instructional hours/day
Louisiana LA4 Full day, 10 hours/day; School day, 6 hours/day
Louisiana NSECD Full day, 10 hours/day
New Jersey Abbott School day, 6 hours/day
North Carolina School day, 6-6.5 hours/day
Rhode Island Full day, 6 hours/day
South Carolina CDEPP Full day, 6.5 hours/day
Tennessee Full day, 5.5 hours/day
District of Columbia PEEP School day, 6.5 hours/day

Some state-funded programs provided extended-day services using program funding, though others require that it be paid for out of a separate funding source. These wrap-around services may be limited to children whose families receive child care subsidies or meet other requirements set by a state human services department, leaving working poor or middle-income families without extended-day services. As Table 2 shows, only 47.3 percent of children in Head Start programs in 2009-2010 were in a full-day, 5 days-per-week setting; another 4.5 percent attended full-day classrooms but only four days per week.

Table 2: Head Start Enrollment by Schedule, 2009-2010

Enrollment Option Percentage of Children
Center-based Full Day (5 days per week)


Center-based Part Day (5 days per week)


Center-based Full Day (4 days per week)


Center-based Part Day (4 days per week)


Home-based Program


Combination Option Program


Family Child Care Option


Locally Designed Option


Note: These figures do not include the Migrant or American Indiana Alaskan Native programs.

Source: 2009-2010 Head Start Program Information Report (PIR) Enrollment Statistics Reports – National Level

The Office of Head Start provides some support in converting part-day slots to full-day slots, though they are still a long way from providing this to all students. In addition to being more convenient for working families, full-day prekindergarten and kindergarten programs have been found to have a greater impact on children’s learning than half-day programs.

How can preschool programs combat the problem of chronic absenteeism? Catalyst Chicago reports that some programs are requiring parents to sign contracts regarding attendance expectations. Some districts may be able to drop students once they have missed a certain number of days, while others use the contracts as a means of communicating expectations, albeit without teeth. Others suggest that improving outreach, as both Chicago and Detroit have done with older grades, and conveying the importance of consistent attendance in pre-K is a less punitive approach.  Mandating full-day programs and making it easier to provide extended-day services on site could relieve burdens for parents and improve attendance rates; even requiring a school-day schedule would simplify pick-up for parents with students also in older grades.

State-funded pre-K programs have made tremendous progress in the past decade, increasing enrollment, beefing up standards, and expanding program options. But all of these efforts are undermined if programs cannot get kids into the story corner.

– Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER

Words around the World: Celebrating International Literacy Day

September 8, 2011

Since 1967, September 8 has been celebrated as International Literacy Day, with the goal of focusing attention on the need to improve literacy worldwide. As students, parents, and teachers settle into their back to school routines, it is worth looking at the status of literacy both at home and around the world.

NIEER Director Steve Barnett and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan read to preschoolers at the State of Preschool 2008 release.

According to the fact sheets from the International Reading Association, an estimated 860 million of the world’s adults do not know how to read or write—more than twice the entire United States population.  More than 100 million children globally lack access to education.  Illiteracy plays a role in a damaging cycle of poverty, poor health, and a lack of mobility.  In countries with a literacy rate below 55 percent, the average per capita income is $600.  Geography plays a huge role in this cycle: 98 percent of non-literates live in a developing country. About 52 percent of non-literates live in India and China, and the continent of Africa has a literacy rate of under 60 percent.  The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNSECO) also provides compelling information on the extent of this problem globally.

Either out of naiveté or a desire to believe the problem hasn’t reached our shores, it is easy to think of illiteracy as a problem “over there.”  In reality, though, Americans whose literacy skills are never fully developed lag behind fully literate peers in a number of ways.  Research from ProLiteracy Worldwide finds that one half of all adults in federal and state correctional institutions in America cannot read or write at all, and reading problems are seen in 85 percent of juvenile offenders.  Health costs for individuals with low literacy skills are four times higher than those with individuals with high level literacy skills. Students with poor literacy skills may struggle in a number of subjects and some will eventually drop out before high school completion, a grim outcome when the income gap between those with a bachelor’s degree and those without is ever growing.

Starting children early on the road to literacy is an important step in helping develop these skills.  Recognizing this importance, NIEER has several recommended resources on developing early literacy skills in the early years, including:

For the literate, we cannot remember what it was like before letters automatically formed into words and words into sentences. We cannot turn off our ability to read and cannot imagine being unable to read our homework, a grocery list, or even street signs. For millions, though, this is their reality. Ensuring high levels of literacy attainment, beginning with the earliest years, both at home and abroad pays dividends in promoting educational attainment and creating a more capable workforce.  Improving literacy rates is a massive goal which requires more than one day of activism, but today is be a good time to start. And what better place to start than with early interventions?

– Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER

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