State Support for Head Start Over the Years

March 27, 2012

In addition to offering state pre-K and child care subsidies some states support pre-K by adding on to the federal Head Start program. Supplementing Head Start programs with state funding allows states to build upon the federal Head Start program–funding more children, providing extended-day and/or extended-year services, or making quality improvements. This is especially important for several states that don’t otherwise fund pre-K at the state level. In 2009-2010 this included Idaho and New Hampshire.  Delaware, Minnesota, and Oregonserved enough additional children through their Head Start state supplements for these to qualify as de facto state pre-K programs by NIEER’s definition.

It’s been a long time since we’ve looked longitudinally at states’ supplements to the federal Head Start program. Unfortunately, we haven’t had good news to report. Data from The State of Preschool 2010 indicate that states have cut funding and serve fewer children since we started tracking these numbers in The State of Preschool: 2003 State Preschool Yearbook.

Between fiscal years 2002 and 2010, the total number of states supplementing Head Start dipped only from 17 to 16, with Indiana and Ohio halting state funding of Head Start programs while Idaho began providing a state supplement.  In addition, Hawaii began funding a state supplement to Head Start in the 2003-2004 school year, but then stopped this funding in the 2007-2008 school year. Overall, as indicated in Table 1, adjusted and nominal spending, as well as enrollment, have all declined in this time period; adjusted spending was nearly cut in half.

Table 1: Changes in Head Start Supplements, 2001-2002 to 2009-2010


 Changes, 2001-2002 to 2009-2010

 Spending (2010 $)



 Nominal Spending



 Enrollment, 3s and 4s



As shown in Table 2, the decreases took place at the beginning of the last decade, followed by an uptick until the 2009-2010 school year when it is likely that the recession started taking its toll.

Table 2: Longitudinal Changes in Head Start State Supplements

As we prepare for the release of the 2011 edition of the State Preschool Yearbook, we are seeing more of this downward trend. States are reporting less support for the 2010-2011 school year and are indicating that the 2011-2012 school year will fare even worse. Some states are completely eliminating their supplement to the federal program as a budget closing measure. This could present a double-whammy as stimulus money that benefitted federal Head Start is simultaneously disappearing at a time when the high child poverty rate makes clear how much young learners need these services. Stay tuned for when The State of Preschool 2011 is released on April 10th.

– Jen Fitzgerald, Public Information Officer, NIEER

– Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER

Filling an Assessment Need with the Early Learning Scale: NIEER’s New Preschool Assessment

March 14, 2012

© Judi Stevenson-Garcia

As NIEER noted in a 2004 policy brief, “Child assessment is a vital and growing component of high-quality early childhood programs. Not only is it an important tool in understanding and supporting young children’s development, it is essential to document and evaluate program effectiveness. For assessment to be widely used though, it must employ methods that are feasible, sustainable and reasonable with regard to demands on budgets, educators and children. Equally important, it must meet the challenging demands of validity (accuracy and effectiveness) for young children. It is the balance between efficiency and validity that demands the constant attention of policymakers — and an approach grounded in a sound understanding of appropriate methodology.”

There are several purposes for using child assessments in early childhood. Generally, issues with assessment at this early age are often grounded in a mismatch between the chosen assessment and the purpose of the assessment.  First, there are screening measures used to quickly highlight children in need of further assessment or intervention.  There are standardized assessments to examine how children perform in relation to their peers, to evaluate the need for special services or to use in research evaluation protocols.  Lastly, there are measures that document development and performance in students’ natural learning environment; these measures are best used to inform teaching.  A recent report by the Educational Testing Service (ETS) describes the status of pre-K assessment policies and implementation in state-funded programs.

Teachers are already burdened with many responsibilities, and field research and professional development conducted by researchers at NIEER revealed that teachers feel overwhelmed by assessment requirements. Because of this, teachers are unable to effectively use assessment data in concert with instruction.  Teachers expressed that they viewed assessment as an exercise of immense paperwork rather than a valuable resource used to improve student learning.  In response, NIEER developed an observation-based performance assessment that is comprehensive and standards-based, but is also manageable and meaningful.  The Early Learning Scale (ELS) was developed using respected research and with extensive input from teachers using it in the field.  The ELS allows teachers to use high-quality data to effectively inform instruction and to make a direct impact on teaching and learning.

After a thorough review of child development research and literature, the authors of the ELS developed the scale, pilot-tested the instrument in preschool classrooms, and determined it is a reliable and valid measure, as described in the full technical report.  This assessment system assists teachers in targeting the individual needs of children ages 3 to 5. Focusing on 10 measurable items across three critical domains—math/science, social-emotional/social studies, and language/literacy—the ELS provides teachers with a manageable and effective tool for assessing children’s progress toward early learning standards and expectations.

Using a curriculum-neutral approach, the ELS teaches educators how to become “participant observers” who use the rich data they collect to make accurate evaluations, plan instruction, and communicate effectively with parents and caregivers about children’s development.  Before implementing the ELS, teachers are required to complete in-person training or self-paced online training, both of which are extensive and comprehensive. Furthermore, this training provides teachers with instruction on the importance of assessment, the components of an effective assessment cycle, how to use the ELS instrument, how to plan activities that will lead to efficient documentation, and how to meaningfully use data to plan for instruction.

For preschool programs interested in online capabilities, the ELS is available in paperless format via the Internet. The online version of the ELS was developed in conjunction with The Center: Resources for Teaching & Learning and is identical to the print version, except that the data is entered online and is available for evaluation electronically. Plus, the online version of the ELS offers handheld capabilities. Using a smartphone or tablet, teachers can record observations in real time and then upload them to the website, where observations are linked to items on the ELS.

To learn more about the ELS, call Lakeshore at (800) 421-5354 and ask for Custom Learning Solutions.

– Shannon Riley-Ayers, Assistant Research Professor, NIEER

– Judi Stevenson-Garcia, Research Coordinator, NIEER

Where State Pre-K Assessment Stands

March 8, 2012

Assessment of children participating in state-funded pre-K programs has been highlighted recently, in part due to the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge funding competition’s focus on assessment strategies for our youngest learners. In response, Educational Testing Service (ETS) has submitted to the field State Pre-K Assessment Policies: Issues and Status, a timely report on the status of policies for the assessment of learning outcomes at the pre-K level.  Debra J. Ackerman and Richard J. Coley, the researchers behind this report, answer the following questions:

  1. “Which learning outcome measures, if any, are specified in Pre-K policies?
  2. Do these specified measures fall under the categories of direct assessments, observation checklists or scales, or a combination of both assessment approaches?
  3. How much choice do Pre-K providers have in selecting the measures to be used in their classrooms?
  4. How frequently are learning outcome measures to be administered and reported?” (p. 3).

Detailed in several easy-to-navigate charts, the authors report state-specific data regarding the type of assessment required in policies, the specific name(s) of the assessment(s) required, the role of program choice in selecting an assessment, and the frequency of administration and reporting on these measures. Although the data shows variation in the requirements for early childhood assessments for state pre-K programs, several trends were noted.

First, the authors found a preference for a universal measure or a limited menu of options providing choice to the local provider. There is also an indication that states are mostly administering assessments and reporting at least two times per year, although several states do not specify how often child outcomes should be measured and reported.  Lastly, only a small number of states report policies that require a type of direct assessment.  This type of assessment is generally an individually administered assessment that is norm-referenced and provides opportunities to aggregate data and compare results over time. On the other hand, more states require observation checklists and scales. These assessments are generally conducted during the regular school experience requiring some observation and recording of children’s skills by the classroom teacher and are used to inform instruction.  Furthermore, eight programs reported policies requiring a combination of approaches while 19 programs allowed individual providers to choose which measures to use.  This report provides policymakers with data on the landscape of early childhood assessments so that stakeholders can evaluate the options that other states are utilizing and perhaps identify new assessments or approaches to consider.  It also provides some guidance for choosing an early childhood assessment and provides questions for key stakeholders to consider in this selection.  The NIEER policy report, Preschool Assessment: A Guide to Developing a Balanced Approach, recommends that the measures for assessment be selected by a qualified professional to ensure they meet acceptable psychometric standards as well as being developmentally appropriate for the children being assessed.

A developmentally appropriate assessment new to the arena that meets the criteria of being reliable and valid is the newly available Early Learning Scale (ELS) developed by researchers at NIEER – myself, Judi Stevenson-Garcia, Ellen Frede, and Kim Brenneman. The ELS is an observation-based performance assessment which was developed in response to a request by educators for a concise and manageable tool that is also comprehensive and based on standards.  The ELS is currently in use by pre-K teachers in West Virginia (as noted in the ETS report), among other places, and provides programs with an assessment system capable of informing instruction and making a direct impact on teaching and learning.  More information on the ELS is available in this NIEER technical report, and the ELS will be available for purchase in April from Lakeshore Learning Materials.

In conjunction with the ETS report reviewed here, readers are encouraged to peruse Developing Kindergarten Readiness and Other Large-Scale Assessment Systems, a recent report from the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).  This report by Kyle Snow provides further guidance for policymakers in building an effective assessment system for young children.  Detailed considerations and caveats are provided on the selection, administration, and utilization of large-scale assessment systems for young children.

Assessments are vital and useful tools in high-quality preschool education classrooms as they allow programs to chart progress and make improvements. In addition, they are a key component not only of program quality but also for understanding and supporting young children’s development. However, assessments should be used with caution and should not stand alone when making high-stakes decisions about the future of an individual program or child. It is therefore necessary that pre-K providers to be knowledgeable about assessments in general as well as to have access to reliable and valid assessment tools. The ETS report State Pre-K Assessment Policies: Issues and Status, as well as the other resources I’ve mentioned here, will help policymakers and practitioners make important decisions about assessments.

– Shannon Riley-Ayers, Assistant Research Professor, NIEER

“Privatizing” Pre-K Is About More than Saving Money

March 2, 2012

It was with no small measure of alarm that we learned this week of a proposal in the North Carolina legislature to completely privatize pre-K classrooms by the summer of 2013. It’s part of a draft report that calls for pre-K to be the exclusive domain of child care centers and to be removed from the public schools that currently serve about half the state’s preschoolers. It also would decrease eligibility from an annual family income of about $50,000 to $22,000— for all practical purposes, the poverty line.

If passed, this legislation will erase years of progress that made North Carolina one of the premiere states for delivering quality preschool education. In the process, it will relegate the children most at risk of school failure to programs that will more closely resemble babysitting than anything that enables children to start school ready to learn.  Although it seems that the North Carolina legislature may back away from some aspects of the proposal, the proposal’s core principles are likely far from dead.

For anyone wondering how policy leaders could consider consigning the state’s disadvantaged kids to such a poor start in life, this should serve as a wake-up call. They should realize that those who are pushing to eviscerate high-quality state pre-K are not the least bit interested in the welfare of the children. Rather, they are pursuing a different agenda, seeking instead to separate preschool from public education. Rayne Brown, the co-chairwoman of the committee that came up with this plan told the Winston-Salem Journal she thinks privatization would be a “great thing to do and that it would help shrink government.”

This is not just more of the public employee/teacher union bashing that has been popular of late.  It is part of strategy to deny rights and escape responsibilities that adhere to public education through state constitutions.  By shifting preschool to child care and out of education, prohibitions against funding religious education are eluded and children’s rights to an effective education are made irrelevant. Make no mistake, this is a carefully crafted legal strategy spreading across the states wherever legislators fear that courts might force them to offer young children a real (and more costly) education or interfere with the legislature’s desire to funnel public funds to the religious and business institutions of their choice.

To my mind, children’s advocates who now almost uniformly describe preschool programs as “early learning” rather than “education” and support moving administration of early childhood programs out of state education departments are playing right into the hands of their opponents.  As children’s advocates care deeply about the quality of education and closing the achievement gap, they will find the consequences tragic.  The legal foundations of public education make it uniquely suited to bringing all sectors—including Head Start and faith-based organizations—into comprehensive state systems with uniformly high quality standards and adequate funding.

– Steve Barnett, Director, NIEER

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