Not Just Wishful Thinking

January 10, 2013

Steve BarnettEnsuring that all our children are ready to succeed when they enter kindergarten is a tremendous task, made much more difficult in the United States by high levels of poverty and low levels of parental education. One in four preschoolers lives in poverty, nearly half in low-income families. Twenty-seven percent are born to mothers without a high school diploma or GED. Assessments at kindergarten entry show that surprisingly many children from middle-income families are poorly prepared to succeed. There are many public policies that could contribute to reducing this problem, and there is no single solution, but let us consider one that seems obvious and for which there is considerable evidence, public preschool programs.

Public preschool education could be an important part of the solution, but currently it is not given a chance. Ensuring school readiness through preschool education is precluded by low levels of investment and high levels of wishful thinking. Far too many children lack access to preschool education, and it is least available to those who could benefit most. The majority of 3-year-olds in homes where Spanish is the primary language don’t attend any preschool program. Some don’t qualify for publicly funded programs because their parents work long hours to keep them out of poverty. Others live in states that don’t fund any preschool program at all or in neighborhoods that aren’t served. As a nation we spend far more public money on prisons than on preschools. Federal and state governments together spend less on preschool education than Americans spend on pet food.

The latest research on preschool program outcomes to cross my desk is the third grade follow-up of the national randomized trial of Head Start. It is now clear: Head Start produces no perceptible lasting gains in any domain of child development. This does not rule out very small persistent gains, but Head Start is not meeting its goals. Yet, much of the field seems to be in denial, responding that bad public schools erode the effects of Head Start. Somehow they fail to see that even initial gains are quite small and that children in the study made much larger gains in kindergarten and the early grades than they did in Head Start. Other studies confirm that learning gains in kindergarten are much larger than in Head Start. The root of the problem is that Head Start is locked into a program model that fails to focus on intensive education and pays teaching staff abysmally. This model has failed every true experimental test (Early Head Start, the Comprehensive Child Development Program, the Child and Family Resource Centers).

State pre-K programs often are little better than Head Start since they too usually lack the funding and standards of public education for kindergarten. State subsidized child care (as opposed to preschool education) is so poor that it may actually harm child development on average. Clearly, just shifting Head Start to the states is not enough to solve the problem. However, for all the faults of public education, one only has to look at growth curves for learning over time to conclude that if preschool were supported like kindergarten, children would be much better prepared. And, looking at the programs found to produce substantive lasting gains for children in well-controlled studies, the common theme is that they are much more educationally intensive than our current preschool programs. It is time to face facts and change directions.

If the United States is to effectively address the school readiness problem, public preschool programs must provide much more intensive education to many more children. Only public preschool education for all children is likely to achieve this goal. Means-tested programs exclude too many children who need help. The federal government should incentivize states to offer preschool programs that meet a small number of well-defined criteria for quality and set a goal to serve all children by a certain date. Then let states innovate as they have a track record of creating flexible public-private preschool partnerships. The focus of accountability should be on strong teaching and truly substantive gains in broad child development. Head Start should be integrated into public education as a funding stream to enhance the education of young children in poverty so that they start early and receive the best teachers and smallest classes. Once we stop thinking of preschool as charity and start thinking of it as an investment in everyone’s future we might actually do what is necessary to meaningfully improve the education of young children.

– Steve Barnett, Director, NIEER

This entry is cross-posted to The National Journal and is in response to the post “Pre-K for Everyone?” by Fawn Johnson.

The Importance of Having Data; Or What Would Sherlock Holmes Do?

January 8, 2013

“‘Data! Data! Data!’ he cried impatiently, ‘I cannot make bricks without clay!’”
— “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sherlock Holmes isn’t the only one relying on data. As anyone in the education world—researchers, parents, teacher, principals, and students—can tell you, decision-making in education is increasingly based on data that shows us what is and isn’t working. So what happens when we don’t have the data we need? Schools that receive federal and state education funds often have specific data reporting requirements, making centralized data collection and analysis relatively convenient. But early childhood education, fragmented across states, localities, programs, and sectors, presents a challenge to the data wonk.

Sherlock Holmes statue

Sherlock Holmes muses on some data points.

Lisa Guernsey and her team at the New America Foundation’s Early Education Initiative have been leading a recent charge to improve data collection. Last month, they released their updated Federal Education Budget Project (FEBP), an impressive database of federal data on education spending and enrollment at the district level. For the first time, FEBP sought to provide pre-K spending data at the state and district level, but noted that many state-funded pre-K programs are not necessarily governed by the same district borders as are K-12. Their policy brief accompanying FEBP’s release sums it up:

“Pre-K and kindergarten data at the local level are labyrinthine and disorganized, hampering any ability to craft policies for equitable access and funding. States must collect more complete and comparable data from school districts and CBOs if policymakers and the public are to understand the state of education for young children in their communities and states.”

So how do we improve early education data? Elementary, my dear Watson.

Improve Existing Information Collection

We don’t just need more data, we need more of the right data, presented in a clear and timely way. The U.S. Census Bureau asks about pre-K participation in its American Community Survey. However, this question suffers from several methodological short-comings: it relies on parent reporting of participation (rather than data from the schools) and includes children ages 3 to 4 enrolled in nursery school or preschool during the previous two months, which may then include children who do not remain enrolled for most of the year, while excluding children enrolled earlier or later. Ultimately, as acknowledged by Alex Holt at the New America Foundation, this question “is so convoluted that we consider the data from it to be effectively useless. Even at the federal level, the U.S. government has no idea how many children are enrolled in pre-K.” Likewise, the information collected on prekindergarten enrollment by the National Center for Education Statistics through its schools survey includes only those children served in programs operated in public elementary schools, without differentiating between 3- and 4-year-olds.  Across all data sets there is considerable uncertainty regarding the extent to which we can accurately identify all classroom participation regardless of the name attached (child care, special education, state pre-K, local public school, Head Start, private preschool, etc.) and even more uncertainty regarding whether we can identify types of programs.  Even separating public and private is difficult because of ambiguities. (For example, many state pre-K programs are operated by private providers, and even Head Start providers are mostly private non-profits.)  So, information is widely available to researchers but it may not answer the questions they’re asking.

Develop Comprehensive Data Systems

The Early Childhood Data Collaborative advocates for coordinated longitudinal early childhood data systems, which are state efforts to collect data to track children’s progress from early childhood and beyond. Their 10 fundamentals of data systems seek to improve data collection and allow stakeholders to link information both longitudinally and to other key programs, while ensuring the system is well-managed, secure, and maintains privacy. Their recent brief on those states who addressed longitudinal data systems in their Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC) applications highlighted important trends, including filling gaps in current data (including information on the workforce) and collaborating across early childhood education systems and agencies.

The very inclusion of data systems as an optional component of RTT-ELC indicates the need for data has been elevated to a place of important within the federal government and hopefully drives continued collaboration among states to improve their current systems.

Fund Quality Data Collection Efforts

Finally, as a field, we need to continue supporting high-quality research collecting data on policies within early childhood education programs. In a piece at The Huffington Post, Lisa Guernsey writes in support of NIEER’s State Preschool Yearbooks, noting:

“The idea behind the yearbooks, Barnett said, was ‘to create an archived data set that would be consistent across the states.’ By making the information available to all, he explained, reporters and policymakers who wanted data would not have to call all 50 states, ‘and state officials could provide information that was comparable to what was provided by the state next door.’ NIEER … sought to halt the spread of misinformation about which states were offering good pre-K programs and enrolling high numbers of children, and which ones weren’t.”

After the Pew Charitable Trusts ended their 10-year investment in the Yearbooks, NIEER has been seeking for a new funder for what’s become one of the most well-respected, well-cited data sources on American early education. Guernsey refers to the times before the Yearbook as “the dark ages,” and it’s hard to imagine going back to a time without it, without media coverage from CBS and NBC and the support of the U.S. Secretary of Education. We’ve seen tremendous growth in not only the media attention on pre-K, but in state-funded pre-K itself: by the 2010-2011 year, nine more pre-K programs were available than in the 2001-2002 year, and quality standards have increased overall even as the Great Recession has worn away at program funds.

Our annual Yearbook publication is a true labor of love, one we’re proud to produce each year, and we’re overwhelmed by the positive response of the early childhood community in supporting and sharing our work. Yet, even this work only covers one of the major segments of the field. We need good data to make the right decisions for early education and the future of America’s students. Only by supporting, collecting, analyzing, and sharing this information with the field will we be able to live up to this advice from the esteemed Detective Holmes: “No, no: I never guess. It is a shocking habit, destructive to the logical faculty.”

– Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER

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