New England’s Pre-K Patchwork

May 29, 2012

A common pastime in colonial America was the quilting bee when neighbors gathered with scraps of fabric, needles and thread to create something functional. The product of these gatherings, in combination with lengthy discussion about local affairs and gossip, was a uniquely designed quilt that provided comfort to those who would huddle underneath on chilly nights.

While quilting bees may have fallen out of favor, their spirit lives on in the early educations systems of the six New England states. Yesteryear’s seamstresses today might be called “stakeholders” or “policymakers,” but all have the common task of utilizing a hodge-podge of available resources to fashion a distinct, tangible product based on an envisioned concept.

We need look no further than The State of Preschool 2011: State Preschool Yearbook to see the common and distinct features of pre-K programs across the six states. In many ways, New England is a microcosm of the nation’s pre-K system.

Five New England states currently support state-funded pre-K programs. New Hampshire is the sole outlier, joining 10 other states across the country without state-funded pre-K. Rhode Island is the most recent entrant, starting a high-quality pilot program in 2009-2010. Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont each support pre-K, some for three decades, with Vermont and Massachusetts operating multiple programs simultaneously.

Two states, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, have promised to undertake ambitious early education system reform initiatives bolstered by their winning coveted Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge grants in 2011. Each New England state submitted an application with the exception of New Hampshire.

Access for children varies widely across New England. Vermont is ranked first nationally for percent of 3- and 4-year-olds enrolled, while Rhode Island’s pilot program ranks 39th  in enrollment of 4-year-olds. Having no program, New Hampshire doesn’t make the chart while Maine (19th), Massachusetts (26th) and Connecticut (24th) huddle around the middle of the pack. Over the past decade, Vermont’s movement toward voluntary universal access has taken root while enrollment efforts in Connecticut and Massachusetts slid backwards.

When it comes to quality pre-K, New England looks like the rest of the nation. Only newcomer Rhode Island joins the select five states meeting all 10 research-based quality standards benchmarks. Vermont continues to meet only four quality standards while each of the other three New England state pre-K programs improved over the decade to now meet six.  Only Maine and Rhode Island require all lead teachers to possess at least a BA, though nearly 100 percent of Vermont teachers have a BA or higher. For the sake of comparison, 27 states nationwide meet more than six benchmarks.

The same disparate scenario holds true for resources. As 2010-2011 figures below shows, Connecticut is second in the nation in dedicating state and total resources for pre-K, trailing only New Jersey. Rhode Island isn’t far behind. Massachusetts remains in the middle of the national pack, down sharply from 8th a decade before. Maine dramatically improves its near-bottom national standing for state support when total resources are considered. Providing only $3,272 per child, Vermont finds itself at the bottom of New England resource rankings and among the nation’s lowest funded programs. That’s still $3,272 more than New Hampshire offers, though, and is temporarily low due as the funding formula lags enrollment growth because it is based on a multi-year average.

Vermont is the only New England pre-K state to rely exclusively on state funding (though some districts choose to supplement with Title I or in-kind support), while the others combine state funding with federal and/or local resources. Half of the New England states – Connecticut, Maine, and Rhode Island – spend enough money per child to meet all 10 of NIEER’s quality standards benchmarks.

It is a shame that the best practices of each state could not be combined in a quilt that would provide every New England child with access to a very high-quality pre-K program. Depending on where a 4-year-old lives in New England, he or she could travel 100 miles and have a very different opportunity to grow and learn.

If the quilting bee participants of colonial times were to look at early education today in these states, they might be proud that their successors continue to honor the tradition of rugged individualism and making do with whatever resources can be mustered. One thing is for certain about this approach, though: many children and families are likely to be disappointed that they are still left out in the cold.

– Jim Squires, Senior Research Fellow, NIEER

FDR’s Advice to Pre-K’s Big Four

May 15, 2012

When the auto industry mentions “The Big Three,” all eyes turn to Detroit. The Big Three’s dominance in automotive engineering lasted for decades before years of failing to pay attention to critical signs caught up with them. As NIEER’s The State of Preschool 2011: State Preschool Yearbook indicates, early education has its own version of dominance in “The Big Four” – California, Florida, New York, and Texas – whose stories deserve a closer look.

Four states in very different regions largely dominate pre-K enrollment numbers in the United States and each served more than 100,000 children in the 2010-2011 year. Texas, Florida, California, and New York together serve more than 642,000  3- and 4-year-olds in their state pre-K programs, nearly half (48.5 percent) of the country’s reported 1.3 million students in state-funded pre-K enrollment. The Big Four’s reach is significant but, as the Yearbook reveals, there’s more to the story than enrollment figures alone.

Florida, a pre-K “late bloomer” whose program began in 2005, led the country in enrolling the highest percentage of 4-year-olds in state pre-K programs in 2010-2011, reaching more than 75 percent. Similarly, New York and Texas served approximately half of 4-year-olds age-eligible for pre-K (though New York remains stalled in achieving universal access by the 2013-2014 deadline established by the state’s Legislature). If you are 4 years old in California, your chances of participating in a state pre-K program drop even lower to one in five. Quite a spread, indeed indicating insufficient capacity to enroll all age-eligible children.

Total Number of Children Enrolled State-Funded Pre-K in “the Big Four”

* During this time, New York provided pre-K through more than one program.

Quality among the Big Four is another story. New York fared best among the group meeting seven of 10 NIEER’s quality standard benchmarks (20 states meet eight or more). The other three states find themselves in the shallow end of the national pool with California and Florida meeting only three benchmarks and Texas slightly better at four. This means that almost half of the nation’s children attending pre-K cannot be guaranteed the kind of quality early education experience known to benefit them.

As we have learned from previous research, quality costs. Quality is not inexpensive, but it is cheaper than the long-term costs associated with poor quality. As states continue to use a variety of funding mechanisms for pre-K in difficult economic conditions, it stands to reason that failing to make adequate investments do more harm than good. Each Big Four state came up short for providing sufficient resources to meet NIEER’s 10 Quality Standards Benchmarks, as seen below and in Table 7 of our State Preschool Yearbook.

Per-Child Funding Levels Necessary to Ensure High Quality in “the Big Four”

In order to meet all 10 Quality Standards Benchmarks and pay pre-K teachers on par with kindergarten teachers, each of these four states would need to provide additional funding per child. Nationwide, programs spend a total of $4,847 per child from all funding sources. Of the Big Four, only California exceeds this average. In both Florida and Texas, per-child funding would need to be nearly doubled in order to ensure high quality.

The Big Four aren’t the only ones guilty of prioritizing expansion over quality—over the last 10 years, per-child funding has decreased nationwide by more than $700 per child, which inevitably affects the quality of a child’s preschool experience. At the same time, enrollment nationwide has roughly doubled. Quality, access, and resources demand a delicate balancing act, but states have focused their attention on increasing enrollment, to the detriment of other areas.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said, “We can afford all that we need; but we cannot afford all we want.” If policymakers in the Big Four and other states are to make good on their promise of cultivating an educated public and skilled, competitive workforce, they’d be wise to heed FDR’s advice. Voluntary access to high-quality early education for all children is more than a want; it is something we need, and state budgets and policies should reflect our needs.

– Jim Squires, Senior Research Fellow, NIEER

Learning about Teaching: What We Know about Early Ed Professionals

May 8, 2012

Our 2011 State Preschool Yearbook got a lot of attention for sounding the alarm on decreasing per-child funding threatening program quality. Nothing is more important for providing a high-quality early education than highly effective teachers and assistant teachers. NIEER’s research-based quality standards benchmarks credit teacher requirements in five different ways:

· Lead teachers must have a bachelor’s degree or equivalent;

· Lead teachers must have specialized training in early childhood education;

· Assistant teachers must have a Child Development Associate (CDA) credential or equivalent;

· Lead teachers must receive at least 15 clock hours per year (or 6 credit hours per 5 years) of professional development; and,

· Regular site visits are conducted to monitor program implementation.

Of the 39 states offering state-funded pre-K in the 2010-2011 year, only eight states (plus the Louisiana NSECD program) met all five of these benchmarks for lead and assistant teachers. A related issue is teacher pay, which is on average much lower in preschools than in elementary schools. Although 19 states required all lead teachers to have a BA with specialized training, a mere 7 states had this requirement and pay them comparably to kindergarten teacher salary as of 2009-2010.

As can be seen in the graph below, the percent of programs meeting each teacher qualification benchmark has certainly increased over time, though some more so than others. For example, the increase in programs requiring at least 15 hours per year of professional development—from 64 percent to 84 percent—indicates a growing understanding that continued support for teachers is necessary beyond just initial training. The growth in requiring lead teachers to have a BA has been comparatively slow, but is especially laudable considering the economic difficulties of the last decade and the fact that more advanced teacher degrees likely drive up the program costs.

This table displays programs meeting the teacher qualification benchmarks over a 10-year period as a percent, to take into account the changing number of total programs each year. Information on site visits was not collected until the 2004-2005 year.

Where programs still consistently fall short is in the qualifications required of assistant teachers—only 26 percent of programs required assistant teachers to have a CDA in 2001-2002, which increased to only 31 percent of programs in 2010-2011. Only two programs exceeded the benchmark by requiring an AA for assistant teachers in all settings of their preschool programs (i.e., nonpublic and public), while at least four programs had no formal educational requirements for their assistant teachers. It is clear that the focus over the last decade has been strengthening lead teacher requirements, perhaps out of the assumption that these teachers have the bulk of the interaction with children. However, considering that most programs require an assistant teacher in order to meet the 1:10 staff-to-child ratio we look for, assistant teachers have a clear presence in the early childhood classroom. If preschool programs are truly to have effective team teaching, states must provide adequate pay, supports and training for assistant teachers to ensure all staff interactions with children are of high-quality and developmentally appropriate.

The question of how to ensure we have great teachers in pre-K classrooms is not only for program administrators to answer; teacher preparation programs need to step up. A recent study from the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment explored higher education programs that prepare early childhood education teachers. As noted by Laura Bornfreund of the New America Foundation, diversity across states makes good data hard to come by:

“…[E]arly childhood preparation programs vary greatly for a few reasons. States lack common education and licensing    standards for teachers of children, birth to 5. Some states don’t require student teaching at all. At the institution level, preparation programs are often housed in different departments. Some may be based in the School of Education but often they are located elsewhere, such as Family and Consumer Science Departments, for example. And when early childhood preparation programs say that they are including infants and toddlers in their scope, they may primarily address K-3.”

In educational settings, diversity is a wonderful thing—there’s hardly a loftier educational goal than students and staff from different backgrounds working and learning together. But the current diversity in the requirements and quality of teacher preparation programs has nothing to do with ensuring that the teaching force is diverse and produces a cacophony of bureaucracy and lack of standardization in preparation that serves neither teachers nor students well.

All this comes on the heels of a Government Accountability Office report on the early child care and education (ECCE) workforce that found the 1.8 million employees in pre-K, child care, and Head Start are still faced with low levels of education and compensation. The report found that preschool teachers, who were the highest paid among these professionals, still only made about $18,000 per year (excluding pre-K teachers in elementary schools). Data from the American Communities Survey indicated that 72 percent of these workers lacked an associate’s degree or higher. Clearly, the preparation, support, and compensation of today’s early childhood workforce is out of sync with what we know is best to provide our children with a high-quality early education.  Despite these challenges, ECCE teaching staff do the best they can for our children, understanding that, as Garrison Keillor said, “Nothing you do for children is ever wasted. They seem not to notice us, hovering, averting our eyes, and they seldom offer thanks, but what we do for them is never wasted.”

So to the 1.8 million ECCE teachers out there—thanks on behalf of the millions of young children you serve everyday!

– Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER

– Steve Barnett, Director, NIEER

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