Keeping early learning at arm’s length

October 29, 2014

We are a nation intrigued by lists, and I am no exception. I scour lists from top to bottom on any number of topics, from best companies to work for to international rankings for educational performance. I also look for any underlying trends that may tell the story behind the list.

It should come as no surprise that I eagerly reviewed the recently released list of states applying for $250 million in federal Preschool Development Grants. These grants–ranging in size from $5-20 million per state to develop a preschool program to $10–35 million annually for 4 years to expand existing preschool services for low- and moderate-income children–present an opportunity for states to reach children who have fallen between the cracks when it comes to participating voluntarily in a high-quality preschool, an opportunity the majority of Americans are clamoring for. Fifteen states and Puerto Rico were eligible to receive development funds with the remaining 35 states and District of Columbia eligible to expand existing programs.

As the list was released, 8 states and Puerto Rico submitted development applications and 27 states sought funding for program expansion. Eighteen states applying for expansion funds currently receive Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge (ELC) grants, with only ELC recipients Michigan and Wisconsin choosing not to apply.

States That Submitted Applications for the FY 2014 Preschool Development Grants

Screen Shot 2014-10-28 at 9.12.53 PM

Image from the US Department of Education Office of Early Learning

There are many lenses one can use to look for underlying story lines; geographic and political leadership being two common sets. Looking at a map of applicants, a swath across the Midwest extending from Canada to Mexico appears desolate if not for Texas’ application, and there must be something in the water leaving a bad taste for 3 of 4 states touching Lake Michigan–or all 3 states surrounding Yellowstone’s Old Faithful–causing them to keep this opportunity at arm’s length.

Governors were required to submit the application for these funds and, as such, wield a great deal of power and influence. And, if one were looking to pit Democrats against Republicans, she’d be disappointed, sort of. Half of the states seeking development grants, and 11 of 27 states going for the expansion gold, are red states, to demonstrate that early education is a bipartisan, perhaps nonpartisan issue for most states. Yet the glass looks half-empty as one considers the list of states not submitting applications. All 7 states eligible for development grants and 7 of 8 states eligible for expansion have Republican governors. Indiana was poised to submit an application, but Governor Pence’s decision to withhold his signature at the last moment, for reasons explained as the state initiates a pre-K pilot, moved it to the other side of the ledger. The hidden story behind decisions by Florida, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia may stem not from political disinterest, but from recognition that policies and resources have already resulted in achieving near-universal access for 4-year-olds.

Opportunities like this do not come along often. I’d be naïve to think that politics play an inconsequential role in this day and age. Based on the actions of states to pursue Preschool Development Grant funds, one can reasonably conclude that support for pre-K is bipartisan; however, the opposition to pre-K still remains partisan. As a result, the opportunity gap is alive and well, when it could be addressed with political will and leadership, and, I fear, we are destined to admire the problem of straight-arming children who continue to fall through the cracks.

–Jim Squires, NIEER Senior Research Fellow


The research says high quality preschool does benefit kids

October 21, 2014

In a response for the Washington Post Answer Sheet, Steve Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research deconstructs a new Cato Institute policy brief by David J. Armor, professor emeritus of public policy at George Mason University, who also has a piece on washingtonpost.com arguing his position under the headline “We have no idea if universal preschool actually helps kids.” We do know. It does. Here are some excerpts from the post, which can be read in its entirety here, outlining what the research really says:

First, if one really believes that today’s preschool programs are much less effective than the Perry Preschool and Abecedarian programs because those programs were so much more costly and intensive, and started earlier, then the logical conclusion is that today’s programs should be better funded, more intensive, and start earlier. I would agree. Head Start needs to be put on steroids. New Jersey’s Abbott pre-K model (discussed later) starts at 3 and provides a guide as it has been found to have solid long-term effects on achievement and school success. Given the high rates of return estimated for the Perry and Abecedarian programs, it is economically foolish not to move ahead with stronger programs.

Blog set 3Second, Armor’s claims regarding flaws in the regression discontinuity (RD) studies of pre-K programs in New Jersey, Tulsa, Boston, and elsewhere are purely hypothetical and unsubstantiated. Every research study has limitations and potential weaknesses, including experiments. It is not enough to simply speculate about possible flaws; one must assess how likely they are to matter. (See the extended post for more details.)

Third, the evidence that Armor relies on to argue that Head Start and Tennessee pre-K have no long-term effects is not experimental. It’s akin to the evidence from the Chicago Longitudinal Study and other quasi-experimental studies that he disregards when they find persistent impacts. Bartik points to serious methodological concerns with this research. Even more disconcerting is Armor’s failure to recognize the import of all the evidence he cites from the Tennessee study. Tennessee has both a larger experimental study and a smaller quasi-experimental substudy. The larger experiment finds that pre-K reduces subsequent grade retention, from 8% to 4%. The smaller quasi-experimental substudy Armor cites as proof of fade-out finds a much smaller reduction from 6% to 4%. Armor fails to grasp that this indicates serious downward bias in the quasi-experimental substudy or that both approaches find a large subsequent impact on grade retention, contradicting his claim of fade-out.

Among the many additional errors in Armor’s review I address 3 that I find particularly egregious. First, he miscalculates cost. Second, he misses much of the most rigorous evidence. And, third he misrepresents the New Jersey Abbott pre-K programs and its impacts. (See the extended post for more details.)

When a reviewer calls for policy makers to hold off on a policy decision because more research is needed, one might assume that he had considered all the relevant research. However, Armor’s review omits much of the relevant research. (See the extended post for more details.)

Those who want an even more comprehensive assessment of the flaws in Armor’s review can turn to Tim Bartik’s blog post and a paper NIEER released last year, as little of Armor’s argument is new. For a more thorough review of the evidence regarding the benefits of preschool I recommend the NIEER papers and WSIPP papers already cited and a recent review by an array of distinguished researchers in child development policy.

If all the evidence is taken into account, I believe that policy makers from across the political spectrum will come to the conclusion that high-quality pre-K is indeed a sound public investment.

–Steve Barnett, NIEER Director


If Everyone Wants Preschool, Why Isn’t It Growing?

October 21, 2014

This entry is cross-posted to The National Journal’s Education Insiders blog in response to the prompt “If Everyone Wants Preschool, Why Isn’t It Growing” from Fawn Johnson:

What catalyst is needed to dramatically grow preschool enrollment? Why has it stalled? What can state and city governments do to increase enrollment? Does it matter what kind of preschool kids enroll in? Should preschool enrollment be required, as K-12 is? Should lower-income households get priority when preschool slots are limited?

As always, Fawn Johnson poses insightful, but difficult, questions. One reason that preschool policy has not advanced more successfully despite overwhelming popular support is that those who oppose it wield considerable clout. Opponents across political leanings often assert that no public money should be used to help the middle class, though research shows that children of all income levels can benefit. Special interests of all stripes prioritize their needs over those of young children generally, and researchers and advocates are forced to set the research record straight.

Also, politicians are adept at giving the appearance of more support than they actually deliver. Very few voters have direct experiences that would help them sort out truth from fiction in this regard.Children with potted plants

Increasing public awareness is the primary reason that NIEER publishes an annual state-by-state review of preschool policy. Even so we encounter considerable difficulty setting the record straight, as politicians seek to confuse the electorate with their own media strategies. They introduce bills supporting preschool that they have no intention of passing. They propose budgets and spending plans that never fully materialize. They authorize expenditures in excess of appropriations and cut budgets mid-year. Final tallies are rarely released with the fanfare that accompanies all of the initial proclamations of support. And, all too many politicians are not above simply misstating the facts.

Finally, the impact of the Great Recession should not be underestimated. More than anything else, it took the wind out of the preschool movement’s sails. The recovery has been slow, but as revenues rise at local, state, and federal levels we can expect to see the growing support for preschool programs manifest in expansions of both enrollment and quality.

– Steve Barnett, NIEER Director


Overcoming the Pitfalls of Early Childhood Assessment

October 3, 2014

In the age of accountability, data collection seems to be in vogue. Data are now routinely collected nationwide on children, classrooms, and teachers. The data help teachers and schools improve their programs to meet the needs of children attending. Most states are conducting child assessments in early childhood classrooms (including Kindergarten Entry Assessments). The relevant literature has classified two types of assessment for children, summative and formative. Summative assessment provides teachers with a snapshot of student’s understanding which is useful for summarizing student learning. Formative assessment occurs during instruction and provides teachers with a tool to improve student achievement by informing instruction with these data in an ongoing process.

Assessing children is often “unreliable” as young children’s performance is not necessarily consistent over even short periods of
time, and contextual influences and emotional states are especially relevant for this group. For these reasons, tests administered teacher teaching numbers at one point in time alone may not provide an accurate picture of the child’s concept knowledge, skills, or understanding. Teachers need an effective assessment to understand children’s development and to help guide their instruction. This instrument should allow them to collect evidence about what students know, determine their skills, and measure their strengths and weaknesses. Researchers at NIEER have developed the Early Learning Scale (ELS) for preschool children, and have recently completed developing and evaluating the Kindergarten Early Learning Scale (KELS) to do just this.

The ELS and KELS observation-based scales offer teachers:

  • The opportunity to assess learning in the children’s natural environment during typical instruction;
  • An assessment of children’s development and skills across several domains;
  • An assessment approach that focuses on strengths and interests of children;
  • Information on children’s progress, to share with parents, that is understandable and complete; and
  • Data to inform their teaching practices and report on student growth.

The ELS and KELS are used by teachers of young children as they become participant-observers and engage in an iterative process over time. They can implement a formative assessment process that includes:

  1. observing and investigating young children’s individual behaviors as a seamless part of instruction;
  2. documenting and reflecting on the evidence;
  3. analyzing and evaluating the data in relation to set goals or a trajectory of learning;
  4. hypothesizing and planning which considers what the children are demonstrating and the implications for instruction; and
  5. guiding and instructing where the data helps the teacher target the needs of the children and scaffold their learning to the next level.

The ELS and KELS fill a need for a succinct and manageable way to assess preschool and kindergarten children across domains. NIEER researchers developed these instruments to be responsive to teachers request for a multi-domain assessment that can be used to improve teaching and learning, without overburdening the teacher. The ELS and KELS provide this by spanning several domains (math, science, social and emotional, language and literacy, and physical development), but maintaining a manageable number of items to evaluate.

Items are included in the ELS and KELS for skills that:

  • are measurable/observable;
  • develop on a continuum; and
  • are critical to present and future learning, as defined by research.

A new report from NIEER confirms that the KELS is a reliable and valid measure. Teachers were able to achieve acceptable reliability with a mean of .70 on the instrument. This indicates that teachers are able to effectively score data consistently across programs. Further, results demonstrated acceptable levels of validity with moderate relationships with standardized measures in appropriate and meaningful ways. This means that the items on the KELS that align with the content of the standardized test relate well and those same items appropriately do not relate well to standardized tests that measure different constructs.

For more information about using the ELS or KELS contact me at sayers@nieer.org.

–Shannon Riley-Ayers is an Assistant Research professor for NIEER/CEELO.


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