Holiday Greetings from NIEER

December 19, 2011

With 2012 right around the corner, I wanted to take some time to share NIEER’s work during the past year and give you a heads up on what we have planned for the New Year.

In April, we released The State of Preschool 2010 in Washington, D.C., joined by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Marci Young of Pre-K Now. The report, which found unprecedented decreases in both per-child and total state spending on state-funded pre-K programs helped jump start the national conversation on early childhood as a priority in difficult times.  We are now working on the 10th year of data for our State Preschool Yearbook and are looking forward to sharing the results with you sometime in the spring.

In August, Science magazine published a special issue, “Investing in Early Education,” which explored a range of issues in the field from experts. I argued that recent findings on Head Start—a program that came under significant public scrutiny this year—called for mending a program that can help the very poorest of children, rather than ending it.

We continue to conduct research in a growing number of states here at home.  Stay tuned for results from our randomized trials comparing full-day and half-day programs and on the effects of pre-K for all, which will be released early in the New Year.  Also to be released early in the year are findings from our national survey of preschool teachers.  In addition, we are continuing an effort we first told you about in October 2010 to study pre-K programs in Colombia, and our researchers are engaged in ongoing basis with evaluations of city and state pre-K programs.  The picture we featured above captures the dedication of our Colombian team as they visited families despite the devastating floods that hit last year.

The NIEER offices will be closed from December 24 through January 2, but we’ll be back in the new year continuing on with these and other projects. We hope you’ll stayed tuned for all we have to offer.

Happy holidays from all of us here at NIEER.

– Steve Barnett, Director, NIEER

Crossing the Finish Line? Race to the Top–Early Learning Challenge Winners Announced

December 16, 2011

The U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services today announced the nine states that will receive funding through the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC).  Thirty-five states, D.C., and Puerto Rico applied for a share of the $500 million available through this competitive program, which has been the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s efforts on early childhood education. The application process operated on a tight timeline: the program was announced over the summer, applications were due in October, and funds had to be awarded before December 31. Specific budgets will be released after the federal departments have conferred with the individual states.

Congratulations to those nine winners announced today, who may only just be regaining their breath after the mad dash to the application finish line. Those states are California, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Washington.

These states are no strangers to the Race to the Top competition – six of the nine have previously been awarded funding through the two earlier rounds of RTT targeted toward K-12 improvement; California, Minnesota, and Washington were the only ones not to be awarded RTT funds previously. All state applications are available online, and reviewer comments and scores are posted as well.

The press conference itself was a who’s who of early childhood education celebrities, including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius. Barbara Bowman, co-founder of the Erikson Institute and NIEER Scientific Advisory Board Member, called for “well-rounded programs offering [children] multiple opportunities to learn” while James Heckman, a Nobel Prize winner for his work on the economics of education, heralded the program as “a critical first step in recognizing the importance of the early years…that will promote better education, health, social, and economic outcomes for all…”

RTT-ELC garnered significant attention within the early childhood community—the inclusion of money under the umbrella of Obama’s trademark Race to the Top during such austere budget times was seen as a good sign. While responses to the specifics of the program were mixed, all observers can agree that RTT-ELC represents a big step as state-funded early learning programs are elevated to an issue of national interest.

As a quick refresher from NIEER’s original coverage, the competition was 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

Consideration for the grants relied on four selection criteria focused on aligning a variety of programs; establishing high-quality standards and comprehensive assessments to improve kindergarten readiness; implementing a statewide tiered quality rating improvement system (QRIS); and developing and retaining an effective early learning workforce.

Winners were also selected  based on demonstrated past commitment to early childhood education. Many stakeholders were concerned that this factor would work against states who are only just starting  state-funded early childhood education programs—perhaps an accurate sentiment given that all grant winners already provide state-funded pre-K under NIEER’s definition; Arizona (whose program was cut in the 2010-2011 school year), Hawaii, Mississippi, and Puerto Rico were all denied funding. However, as reflected by NIEER’s rankings on access and spending, as well as quality standards benchmarks, these programs are largely those who have demonstrated a commitment to early education but still have much work ahead of them. Table 1 shows these rankings for the nine RTT-ELC winners, based out of the 40 states that had state-funded preschool programs in the 2009-2010 school year.

Table 1. 2009-2010 NIEER Yearbook Rankings for RTT-ELC Winners

State Access for 4-year-olds Access for 3-year-olds State (including TANF) Spending per Child All Source Spending Per Child Quality Standards (out of 10)
California 23 6 12 18 4
Delaware 32 None served 7 13 8
Maryland 12 None served 21 3 9
Massachusetts 28 14 24 26 6
Minnesota 39 22 5 11 9
North Carolina 20 None served 13 10 10
Ohio 36 19 23 25 2
Rhode Island 40 None served 9 5 10
Washington 31 16 6 12 9

Only five of the nine winners currently serve any 3-year-olds, and only California breaks into the “top ten” for percent of 3-year-olds served; none make the top ten for percent of 4-year-olds served. Spending is a mixed bag. As can be seen by the difference between state per-child spending and all source spending per child, many of these states already utilize multiple funding streams (from federal and local sources) to supplement state funds. The majority of these programs generally meet a high number of quality benchmarks, with both North Carolina and Rhode Island’s state-funded pre-K programs achieving all 10 of NIEER’s benchmarks. On the other side of the coin, though, are both California and Ohio who have struggled to implement high-quality standards through difficult budget times. Both Delaware and Minnesota already partner with their existing Head Start programs to provide early education, which may have served them well in a competition that calls for alignment across sectors.

During the 2009-2010 school year, these programs served a combined 234,566 young learners in state-funded pre-K programs with a total of $1.2 billion in state and TANF funds. However, these states vary widely in terms of the size of their programs and states. Funding from these grants will not be limited only to state-funded pre-K programs, so it is useful to understand how many 3- and 4-year-olds are currently served in a variety of government-funded early education programs. To that end, Table 2 includes the enrollment and spending figures for these nine state pre-K programs and Table 3 shows total enrollment for state pre-K, special education, and state and federal Head Start.

Table 2. Enrollment and Spending Data for RTT-ELC Winners in 2009-2010

State State Pre-K Enrollment Percent of 3-year-olds Enrolled Percent of 4-year-olds Enrolled State Spending per Child Enrolled in State Pre-K Total Per-child Spending from All known Sources
California 147,185 10% 17% $5,410 $5,571
Delaware 843 0% 7% $6,795 $6,795
Maryland 26,147 0% 35% $4,116 $9,645
Massachusetts 13,468 4% 14% $3,895 $3,895
Minnesota 1,874 1% 1% $7,301 $7,301
North Carolina 31,197 0% 24% $5,239 $7,824
Ohio 5,700 1% 2% $3,902 $3,902
Rhode Island 126 0% 1% $5,556 $9,127
Washington 8,026 2% 7% $6,817 $6,817

Table 3. State and Federal ECE Enrollment for RTT-ELC Winners in 2009-2010

State Enrollment in State Pre-K, Special Education Pre-K, and State and Federal Head Start (Unduplicated)
Percent of 3-year-olds in state Percent of 4-year-olds in state
California 18% 31%
Delaware 11% 18%
Maryland 10% 46%
Massachusetts 14% 26%
Minnesota 10% 15%
North Carolina 7% 35%
Ohio 14% 19%
Rhode Island 10% 19%
Washington 9% 20%

As Sara Mead noted shortly after the announcement, “The list also should clearly underscore that ELC is NOT a pre-k program: Rhode Island, for instance, has only a recently-created pre-k pilot, and Minnesota serves relatively few children in pre-k.” In a program that called so clearly for inter-agency collaboration and recommended private-sector partnerships, the impact will go far beyond just pre-existing state-funded pre-K programs. There will be no shortage of analysis on the impact in Head Start and child care in the coming days, months, and years.

A number of these states have been in the news recently for their early education programs, and the news has not all been good. California merged its pre-K and child care programs in the 2009-2010 school year but has faced continued funding challenges. North Carolina, once a national leader in early childhood education, has been involved in a lengthy legal battle over the program; Steve Barnett recently wrote that the state is “on the verge of abandoning its commitment to high-quality pre-kindergarten education.” Rhode Island only recently started its small pre-K program, while Ohio completely cut one such program as of the 2009-1020 program year. It is hoped the RTT-ELC grants will spur these states to become true national leaders.

– Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER

– Jen Fitzgerald, Public Information Officer, NIEER

Investing in Future Jobs: Will North Carolina Fail the First Hurdle in the Economic Race?

December 1, 2011

North Carolina, on the verge of abandoning its commitment to high-quality pre-kindergarten education, could not have worse timing. In the midst of a struggling recovery, now is not the time to give up on an investment research has proven to provide terrific economic returns.

North Carolina’s pre-K program, formerly known as More at Four, was ranked as one of the best programs nationally in terms of quality. Solid research from University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill shows More at Four improved readiness and raised third grade test scores for at-risk children.

Nationally, the research is clear that effective preschool programs like North Carolina’s permanently raise achievement, decrease dropout, and increase employment, productivity and earnings as recently reported in the distinguished journal Science.

Over the last half century, North Carolina’s leaders took on the enormous task of updating the state’s traditional economy of textiles and tobacco to refocus on newer fast-growing industries such as biotech and information technology. They did so, in part, by investing in improvements in education needed to boost the skills of the work force.

It’s a good thing they did or North Carolina would have an unemployment rate much worse than the 10.5 percent reported in September.

Given North Carolina’s legacy of pro-business policies and the ongoing economic development arms race between the states, one would think North Carolina would jealously guard its comparative advantages as it looks forward to economic recovery. Sadly, this is not the case.

In this year’s budget, the legislature reduced funding to state pre-K and Smart Start programs by 20 percent, meaning they could serve several thousand fewer children this fall. If this cut is sustained, thousands more children will enter kindergarten each year unprepared to succeed in school.

More recently, Judge Howard Manning, Jr. stepped in as part of the ongoing Leandro case to rule that it’s unconstitutional for the state to prevent eligible at-risk children from enrolling in state pre-K.

After Manning’s ruling, Governor Beverly Perdue issued an executive order requiring the state to accept all eligible 4-year-olds into North Carolina’s pre-K. Perdue’s plan restores enrollment to previous levels by January at no added cost to the taxpayer and provides a roadmap to achieve full enrollment on a reasonable time table over the next few years.

What remains to be seen is whether state lawmakers will support the plan Governor Perdue has put forward. The first test will be whether they pass the legislation needed to restore services to thousands of children in January at no cost.  If they fail this first hurdle, it will serve as yet more evidence that not only has North Carolina’s economy declined, so has the quality of its leadership.  And time is fast running out to take advantage of the opportunity the governor has offered.

Unless this situation is resolved to the benefit of the thousands of kids who lack a fair shot at succeeding in school, North Carolina risks rolling back years of progress made by earlier leaders who remember all too well what life was like when cotton was king.

– Steve Barnett, Director, NIEER

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