When it Comes to Preschool, Modest Results May Be Meaningful

January 30, 2014

We ask a lot of early childhood programs: we want them to foster academic development, teach social skills, build character, and provide child care. And there are big expectations for their effects, encouraged by the successes of the Perry Preschool Project and the Abecedarian Project. In recent years, however, evaluations of the effects of some early childhood programs, most notably the Head Start Impact Study, have disappointed.

We need to invest in early childhood programs while being honest about what is required to produce the outcomes we want, and about what size effects current programs are likely to produce. We should not be surprised that recent evaluations are showing more modest effects. New programs are not as intensive as the Perry Preschool Project, for example, and some, such as Head Start, are at best distant relations in terms of their approach to early education.  There is far too much wishful thinking among policy makers who want Perry Preschool results at one-fifth the expenditure per child.

Another reason for more modest effects is that the comparison group in more recent evaluations has had greater access to formal early education. Today’s comparison groups are more likely to be attending some other kind of public preschool at age 4 than in the past (see figure). So when a program does not produce an effect on achievement, it means that it is not doing a better job, on the whole, than alternative early childhood experiences. For studies of either Head Start or public school pre-k today, the other program may serve a significant part of the comparison group.  As the average alternative early childhood experience has improved, such comparison gives the appearance of smaller effects for each program.

preschool enrollment rates

This also means we should pay special attention to programs that do manage to produce meaningful results. One such example is the Abbott districts program in New Jersey, a high-quality full-day pre-k program for 3- to 4-year-olds in the state’s highest poverty districts. It is the closest we have gotten to the Perry Preschool Project on a large scale—e.g., teachers with at least a bachelor’s degree, strong coaching and supervision, and no more than 15 students per class. Most importantly, estimates of the effects in these districts on long-term achievement are fairly comparable to Perry’s effects on long-term achievement.

So we need to acknowledge that many evaluations of early childhood programs will not blow us away. When they do, as well as when they don’t, we should pay special attention to the design and cost associated with those outcomes.

– W. Steven Barnett, Director, NIEER

This entry was originally posted at the Brookings blog Social Mobility Memos, in a series of responses from attendees at the recent Social Mobility Summit.


Implementing SEA Policies Cohesively, with a Focus on Early Childhood

January 28, 2014

A common New Year’s resolution is to be better organized. This often refers to closets or file cabinets, but we can begin to consider the benefits of better organizing our work on initiatives in education. One way to do this is by strengthening the connections between the reforms underway, so that we are working on them in tandem, and ensuring that development in one area is linked to progress in others. Educators are implementing the Common Core State Standards, for example, while working through new approaches to teacher evaluation across the country.

For State Education Agencies (SEAs), this means working diligently to support local education agencies (LEAs) as they interpret and implement these policies and initiatives. SEA early childhood personnel have the additional responsibility and challenge of interpreting and helping others view these through an early learning lens, to ensure developmentally appropriate practices even among those who may not be familiar with those practices and their importance.

Instead of looking at implementation of standards, examination of quality, and adherence to new teacher evaluation methods as separate (and each individually daunting) tasks, we suggest that SEAs and LEAs approach these with coherence. The brief Creating Coherence: Common Core State Standards, Teacher Evaluation, and Professional Learning, from the Center on Great Teachers & Leaders at American Institutes for Research, is a great resource for starting the process. In this guide, the authors present four detailed steps to creating a cohesive approach to implementing Common Core, teacher evaluation systems, and professional learning. The steps are:

  1. Identify the instructional practices that support Common Core implementation.
  2. Determine how well the Professional Practice Framework supports the core instructional practice.
  3. Review and refine the professional learning supports.
  4. Based on the review, consider next steps for refining, enhancing, or using teacher evaluation and professional learning reforms.

In New Jersey, NIEER and our partner the Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes (CEELO) have partnered Small group learningwith the Division of Early Childhood Education, NJ Department of Education to initiate a professional learning community (called the Early Childhood Academy) to support coherence, incorporating these practices. It offers a forum for LEAs to come together to discuss critical initiatives underway in the Garden State.  These include teacher evaluation, Common Core State Standards implementation, and improving classroom quality. Incorporating steps 1-3, teachers have had an opportunity to review teacher evaluation requirements and consider specific examples of how the requirements work within early childhood. Participants reviewed an evidence-based document designed to guide observers using teacher evaluation rubrics by providing evidence from an early childhood perspective. Each district will work on creating their own district evidence-based document specific to district curricula. In this academy, we’ve committed to understanding these reforms in the early childhood classroom; considering how to interpret and support implementation without compromising what makes early childhood different from other elementary grades; and keeping developmentally appropriate practice at the forefront.

The goal of the Early Childhood Academy is to build communities of practice among New Jersey school districts to provide support in their understanding of critical topics and their application to early childhood. Districts learn from and support each other as they address new issues, or provide an early childhood context for K-12 planning. The EC Academy brings representatives from districts together to discuss key topics guided by literature, expert and district presentations, and facilitated discussions across and within districts. Intended as a long-term project, the Academy will grow in year two to include cohorts of districts that engage in systematic data collection for continual improvement guidance– which will assist in implementing Step 4—using responsive coaching practices, and intentional and facilitated cross-district visits, in addition to group meetings. Furthermore, the focus of the EC Academy will continue to grow from preschool and kindergarten into the early elementary school years to develop a comprehensive and seamless focus on school district issues from preschool through third grade.

Through this academy, we have generated a strong communication network among key stakeholders within and across districts. First, within-district communication has been fostered through requirements for district team attendance and participation. Each district team includes a central office administrator, a building administrator, and an early childhood teacher. Second, across-district communication is generated; as one participant noted, “you can borrow practices from other districts to make your district stronger.”

I strongly encourage others to consider school level, district level, or state level peer learning communities (PLCs) around EC-specific interpretation and support on key initiatives, to help districts and individuals interpret policies cohesively and specifically for early childhood. District participants quickly recognize the benefits of a coherent and organized approach, and we expect benefits to children’s learning and development to grow from this strong foundation.

– Shannon Ayers, Assistant Research Professor, NIEER & CEELO


New York in a Preschool State of Mind

January 21, 2014

This afternoon, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo presented his budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2015, including significant investment in state-funded pre-K. The Governor called for an investment of $1.5 billion over five years, starting with $100 million in its first year up to $500 million in its fifth year. This funding is meant in addition to the $410 million the state already spends on its “Universal” Prekindergarten Program, with the goal of helping the program move towards the “universal” part of its name.

Pre-K has become a hot topic in the Empire State.  New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, as we have written before, has made universal pre-K in the Big Apple a key focus of his campaign as well as his first month in office. De Blasio has noted that while many New York City children are served in publicly funded preschool programs, demand far outstrips availability, and he has proposed an increased income tax on those earning over $500,000 to raise the estimated $340 million needed to pay for pre-K for all. An increase in New York City income tax would need to be approved by the state legislature. Governor Cuomo has stated his support of pre-K but also his opposition to increasing taxes, remaining true to his word today by proposing a plan to build pre-K into the state budget without creating a new tax.

It is easy to see these proposals as an either/or proposition, but the best route for New York’s educational and economic prosperity is both. We applaud Governor Cuomo’s focus on high-quality, full-day universal pre-K and a renewed commitment to providing funding for the program. Implicitly, this recognizes that, to date, the program has undercut quality, provided mostly half-days, and fallen far short of universal in reach. NIEER’s estimate of the cost of a high-quality, full-day program in New York state is just under $10,000 per child. In its first year, the $100 million expansion of the UPK program could fully fund 10,195, or 4 percent, of the state’s 4-year-olds. This would barely chip away at the gap of 50,000 children de Blasio has reported as having no or inadequate access to pre-K.  However, that assumes that nothing is done to raise quality or extend to a full-day existing slots, which could more than consume the entire $100 million without serving any new children.

Giving New York City the autonomy to raise its own taxes in order to invest in educating its children would ensure real progress toward raising quality and providing a full day, while increasing access.  It also would protect the spirit of local control that exists in American education and is one of the key strengths of the American approach to public education. Other cities and towns in the state may choose to move ahead more quickly, as well.

Governor Cuomo’s proposal was only announced today, and key details remain to be specified. In the ensuing conversations about how to proceed, New York could learn important lessons from the Abbott preschool program in New Jersey, which has built one of the highest quality preschool programs in the nation (for a discussion of the lessons learned from this program, see Steve Barnett’s video lecture as well as recent coverage in Slate and The American Prospect). For pre-K to truly succeed as a system, the state needs to set feasible timelines and research-based quality standards. Programs also need support in meeting those standards, as seen in New Jersey’s support of early childhood educator training programs to create a qualified, highly effective workforce. Pre-K cannot exist in a vacuum, but must be coordinated with child care and Head Start programs in the state. This is already underway in New York’s mixed delivery model. Finally, New York state must commit to what it would actually cost to fully meet their goal of full-day highly effective early education for all with a hard deadline for achieving that goal. NIEER provides estimates of the per-child cost of a high-quality program in its Yearbook. A joint report from the Center for Children’s Initiatives and The Campaign for Educational Equity focuses on the questions of funding and timing specifically in a New York context. Basing program funds on what can be found in the budget, rather than studying actual costs of providing a quality universal program, is a recipe for underfunding.

It is heartening to see two such high-profile elected leaders competing over who has the “best“ pre-K plan. Particularly as UPK in New York has been underfunded for well over a decade, it is our sincere hope that Cuomo and de Blasio can work together on both state- and city-level initiatives to create a quality, stable program and ensure that all of New York’s children are off to the bright start they deserve. From our perspective, the best option is likely to be implementing both plans–and together they can transform New York into a model for Governors and Mayors throughout the nation who seek to provide the best 21st Century education and brightest future for all young children.

– W. Steven Barnett, Director, NIEER & CEELO

Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER  & CEELO


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