Checking boxes leads to opening doors

May 27, 2015

I recall sitting at my desk in 2002 as the Early Childhood Programs Coordinator at the Vermont Department of Education, when I first received a survey from a relatively new organization called the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER). The survey included multiple questions asking about Vermont’s Early Education Initiative (EEI), a state-funded pre-K program for at-risk children. As much as survey requests would make me groan, I dutifully completed and returned the survey without a second thought. “Perhaps this one might actually amount to something,” was always in the back of my mind.

Percent of 4-year-olds served in state preKLittle did I realize that I would be sitting on the other end of this survey a decade later. Now a member of the research team responsible for the NIEER State of Preschool 2014 Yearbook, I have a new appreciation for the combined contributions of my colleagues at NIEER and especially the state education agency partners who provide the data. I’ll spare you the details involved in collecting, verifying, analyzing, and reporting the data; suffice it to say it’s a laborious process for all parties concerned. But the result is worth the effort–and the sighs of relief echo across the NIEER office once the annual report is released.

That’s not what I want to tell you, though.

Hindsight is a wonderful gift. When I look back to see how early education has evolved both in my former home state and across the nation since filling out the first survey, I am amazed. State-funded pre-K has expanded its reach from 580,000 4-year-olds in NIEER’s first report, to more than 1.3 million in 2013-2014. Not a single state met all 10 of NIEER’s quality standard benchmarks in 2002, now five states and one of Louisiana’s programs clear the bar, and others are close behind. Little Vermont grew beyond most people’s expectations, from a small program serving 1,001 at-risk children in 2002, to a program serving more than 7,200 children, regardless of their situation. Vermont now ranks first among the states for enrollment (behind only DC) serving more than 90 percent at age 4 and 25 percent of 3s. Vermont has placed quality improvement in its sights as well, with support from the federal Preschool Development Grant program. The Green Mountain State is not alone in showing other states what is possible, and momentum continues from New York City to Mississippi, North Dakota, and Hawaii. There will be even more information available in future NIEER Yearbooks.

What does momentum on the national front have to do with the NIEER Yearbook and other research reports? I am convinced pre-K would be a footnote rather than a headline without this research tracking our progress. Filling out those checkboxes has paid enormous dividends. Once relegated to discussions in state agency meeting rooms, pre-K is now on the lips of parents, politicians, scientists, economists, philanthropists, and leaders in military, law enforcement, and business, throughout the nation. The Yearbook has proven to be an indispensable resource for policymakers seeking to capture best practices and policies around the country. The biggest beneficiaries of the Yearbook and all the hard work involved, however, are the many children who can look forward to going to pre-K as a result of these national conversations. They just don’t know how to express it quite yet.

–Jim Squires, Senior Research Fellow


When Research and Emotions Collide

May 20, 2015

Certain practices evoke strong reactions among early educators. Kindergarten “red-shirting (Katz, 2000),” academic “hothousing” (Hills, 1987), and developmentally inappropriate practice raise ire, yet pale in comparison to the issue of retaining children early in their school careers. As an increasing number of states adopt policies supporting, even requiring retention, emotions run high among early educators, policymakers, and parents on the topic.

Retention has been common practice for many decades but is retention the right way to go? Everyone agrees that a student will be well served by possessing necessary skills to learn and apply new information, yet we recognize that not all children grasp new information and skills at the same level or at the same time. Thus, the debate over the merits and faults of retention persists.

So what does research have to say about retention? Among many in my generation, retention of young children was seen as bad practice and policy, shaped years ago by research conducted by Shepard and Smith (1987) and reinforced by Jimerson (2001) and others. But as a scientist I know research contributes to understanding, and I strive to let emerging research inform my opinion rather than the reverse. So I hit the journals to review the literature, learning the issue is more nuanced than one might imagine.

You can simply ask, “Does retention work?” but the answer may be hidden behind several doors, not all of which lead to the same conclusion. The answer you get depends on the questions you ask, such as:

  • Does the design of the research influence results?
  • What criteria are used by states and schools to base retention decisions on, and do different criteria yield different research findings?
  • What does research says about the short- and long-term academic and social/emotional/behavioral effects of retention?
  • Does the age or grade when retention occurs make a difference in students outcomes?
  • Is retention an effective educational strategy for young children below third grade?
  • Does retention affect certain groups of students differently?
  • Are there effective alternatives to retention?

These questions were among those examined by the Southeast Regional Comprehensive Center Early Childhood Community of Practice and CEELO, when early education leaders from several state departments of education were invited to explore retention as an effective education strategy for young children.

I’ll spare you the details of research shared in this “succinct” blog, but here are a couple of my research-informed takeaways about a practice which affects nearly 450,000 elementary school children annually, a quarter of whom are kindergartners and 60% boys. Both teacher- and test-based methods for determining retention are associated with short-term academic gains (typically restricted to literacy) that fade, even disappear, over several years. Research shows mixed results on the impact of retention on short-term social/emotional/behavioral development while there is evidence of adverse long-term effects, including school drop-out. Retained children are 20–30% more likely to drop out of school. The fairness of retention policy has been called into question, fueled by a recent report from the Office for Civil Rights, confirming that retention disproportionately affects children of color, those who are low-income, and those with diagnosed learning difficulties, with wide variation in rates across states. Additional research shared with the Community of Practice about retention’s complexities can be found here.

I came away further convinced that the decision to retain a young child, while well-intentioned, is an important, potentially life-changing event; one that should include consideration of multiple factors as to its advisability for a particular child. Inflexible policies based on a single point-in-time assessment, on a single topic or skill (e.g., literacy), may be politically popular, expedient, and, as some would argue, fair, but the research doesn’t convincingly support the practice to ensure intended short- and long-term outcomes for all students.

Further, costs associated with retention are typically absent from policy discussions. We know significant numbers of children are retained in the early years, including kindergarten (Table 1), and average K-12 student costs hover around $12,000 per year. The cost of retention and lack of comparison to less costly, effective alternatives such as remediation or peer tutoring should cause staunch proponents to rethink their position. Combined with long-term costs associated with drop-out, crime, and unemployment, retention makes little cents or sense when signs point to the supplemental interventions–not to sitting through another year in the same grade repeating every subject–as having great impact.

While some encouraging short-term results have been associated with retention, policymakers shouldn’t wave the checkered flag just yet. We would be wise to examine the full body of research evidence, considering both short- and long-term consequences and the critical importance of providing children, parents, and teachers with timely educational and emotional support throughout a student’s career. Layer in the evidence questioning retention as a cost-effective use of resources, and the caution flag should be brought out. When it comes to declaring victory through retention, too much contrary evidence exists and too many important questions remain to allow our emotions to set policy in stone.

 
All
American Indian/  Alaska 
Native
Asian
Native HI/ Other Pacific Islander
Black/ African American
Hispanic/ Latino of any race
Two or more races
White
US 4% 7% 2% 8% 5% 4% 5% 4%
AL 6% 8% 5% 14% 5% 9% 9% 5%
AK 4% 6% 4% 8% 2% 4% 3% 3%
AZ 3% 5% 2% 7% 4% 3% 3% 3%
AR 12% 11% 13% 14% 26% 13% 11% 8%
CA 3% 9% 2% 5% 5% 3% 4% 4%
CO 2% 5% 2% 4% 2% 2% 3% 2%
CT 5% 12% 3% 16% 8% 8% 8% 3%
DE 3% 5% 2% 0% 4% 4% 3% 2%
DC 3% 33% 2% 0% 4% 4% 3% 1%
FL 5% 9% 3% 4% 7% 5% 7% 4%
GA 6% 4% 3% 11% 5% 7% 8% 5%
HI 12% 21% 7% 13% 11% 14% 12% 13%
ID 2% 3% 3% 3% 1% 3% 1% 1%
IL 2% 2% 1% 2% 2% 1% 3% 2%
IN 5% 5% 3% 0% 6% 6% 6% 4%
IA 2% 11% 2% 3% 3% 4% 3% 2%
KS 2% 4% 2% 0% 2% 3% 2% 2%
KY 4% 8% 3% 5% 2% 5% 5% 4%
LA 4% 3% 2% 0% 5% 4% 4% 4%
ME 4% 5% 4% 14% 6% 5% 5% 4%
MD 2% 0% 2% 27% 3% 4% 2% 2%
MA 3% 5% 3% 8% 5% 5% 7% 2%
MI 7% 12% 5% 7% 6% 9% 11% 6%
MN 2% 7% 1% 11% 4% 3% 2% 2%
MS 8% 10% 7% 5% 8% 14% 1% 8%
MO 3% 5% 2% 6% 4% 4% 4% 3%
MT 4% 6% 0.0% 6% 4% 6% 4% 4%
NE 4% 9% 2% 19% 3% 4% 4% 3%
NC 5% 9% 3% 5% 6% 5% 6% 4%
ND 5% 8% 14% 27% 13% 10% 3% 4%
NV 2% 3% 1% 2% 4% 2% 1% 2%
NH 3% 0% 1% 0% 5% 5% 0% 3%
NJ 3% 6% 1% 3% 5% 4% 5% 2%
NM 4% 6% 2% 0% 5% 4% 3% 4%
NY 3% 4% 2% 4% 4% 3% 3% 2%
OH 4% 6% 5% 6% 7% 7% 7% 3%
OK 7% 9% 5% 8% 8% 8% 6% 7%
OR 2% 7% 1% 2% 2% 2% 2% 2%
PA 2% 0.0% 1% 0% 3% 2% 2% 2%
RI 2% 16% 1% 0% 4% 3% 5% 1%
SC 5% 6% 2% 3% 5% 5% 7% 4%
SD 4% 12% 4% 0% 6% 7% 5% 3%
TN 5% 3% 2% 15% 4% 5% 7% 5%
TX 4% 6% 3% 8% 3% 4% 7% 5%
UT 1% 1% 0.0% 1% 1% 1% 1% 1%
VT 3% 0% 2% 0% 6% 0% 1% 3%
VA 4% 4% 2% 4% 5% 5% 4% 3%
WA 2% 6% 1% 4% 2% 3% 2% 2%
WV 6% 0.0% 3% 0% 7% 7% 7% 6%
WI 2% 2% 2% 6% 3% 2% 2% 2%
WY 5% 10% 4% 33% 17% 7% 3% 4%

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, Civil Rights Data Collection, 2011–12.

–Jim Squires, Senior Research Fellow


The State of Preschool 2014

May 11, 2015

NIEER released the State of Preschool 2014 today. State pre-K programs may have turned a corner in 2013-2014, but progress remains slow. If pre-K is to be made available to even all children under 200 percent of the poverty level within the next 20 years, state investments will have to grow at a much faster pace. At the 2013-2014 growth rate it would take about 75 years for states to reach 50 percent enrollment at age 4 and 150 years to reach 70 percent enrollment. Even a return to the average rate of growth since 2001-2002 would leave the nation 25 years away from enrolling 50 percent of 4-year-olds in state funded pre-K.
Cover shotStates should set goals to increase enrollment much more rapidly than has been the case in the past, while raising quality standards and providing funding at the level needed to support those standards. Every state is capable of delivering high quality pre-K to all 4-year-olds within 10 years, if they set high standards and commit adequate resources. Many states could reach this goal in less than 10 years.

Many states need to raise their quality standards for pre-K and implement policies to ensure continuous improvement. Without sufficient quality, programs will not fulfill their promise with respect to children’s learning and development or long-term economic returns. NIEER’s 10 benchmarks for quality standards are a starting place for state policy.

Particularly worrying is the number of states with inadequate requirements for preschool teacher preparation. A new Institute of Medicine and National Research Council report calls for all teachers of young children to have a four-year college degree and specialized training. States should create a timeline to ensure that all teachers in state-funded preschool programs obtain these qualifications and that their compensation is comparable to that for K-12 teachers with similar qualifications.

The federal government should offer financial incentives for states to set and achieve ambitious goals for enrollment, quality standards, and adequate funding.

When states do not adequately support high-quality pre-K, communities should act on their own as cities across the nation from New York to Seattle have already done.


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