Bill Clinton Spotlights a 1980s Early Education Success Story in Arkansas: Will Politicians of Both Parties Follow this Lead to Support Early Learning Today?

July 28, 2016

Former President Bill Clinton praised Arkansas’ preschool programs during a speech this week at the Democratic National Convention, citing the HIPPY program by name, and recalling the pride of parents at preschool graduation ceremonies.

HIPPY is a well-researched program helping parents support their young child’s learning and development at home, which Hillary Clinton helped introduce to Arkansas. When President Clinton referred to preschool “graduations,” he was talking about the quality center-based preschools that along with HIPPY are part of the Arkansas’ Better Chance (ABC) program. Arkansas families participate in both HIPPY and preschools through ABC, and there is evidence that both have improved educational outcomes for Arkansas’ kids.  Of course, far fewer parents are at home full-time today, so the preschools have become a much larger part of ABC.

As a Scholar in Residence at the Clinton School of Public Service this spring, I had the opportunity to visit some of today’s ABC preschools, review the program’s history and discuss the program’s future with Arkansas’ policy makers.

Arkansas’ preschool programs received a big boost from recommendations of the 1983 Arkansas Education Standards Committee chaired by Hillary Clinton. Those policy changes were helped change Arkansas’ education system from one of the worst to one of the best nationally. The Committee’s reforms, approved in September 1983 in a special legislative session called by then-Governor Bill Clinton, expanded quality pre-K and made Arkansas a national leader in early education. With bipartisan support, Arkansas now ranks 3rd nationwide for access to early education beginning at age three.

NIEER has worked with the State of Arkansas to evaluate the educational effects of ABC preschools in both the short- and long-term. The Elementary School Journal recently published our study finding impacts at kindergarten entry of attending the program for one year at age four. In a separate follow-up study, we found persistent positive impacts on achievement and a trend toward reduced grade repetition through 3rd grade, as shown here.

Readers interested in my recommendations for how Arkansas can continue to advance in early education are invited to watch my Clinton School talk here

You see Arkansas is not only a story about how policy reforms can persist, but also how they can stall. The Great Recession and its aftermath hurt preschool funding in many states, including Arkansas.  With inflation-adjusted public funding in decline, the ability of ABC preschools to provide a high quality education has been hurt. Fortunately, Arkansas took advantage of a federal Preschool Expansion Grant that helps the state offer preschool to more children and raise quality by, for example, supporting parenting education for children. Unfortunately, this federal program   is not large enough to address all of Arkansas’ funding needs, and not every state receives a grant.  Future federal support to states for preschool quality enhancement and expansion is an important issue that every candidate for President should address.

Indeed, quality early education need not be a partisan political issue. In Arkansas — and across the nation–quality early education receives bipartisan support. Indiana Governor Mike Pence, now the Republican vice-presidential nominee, championed development of his state’s first state-funded, pre-kindergarten grant program in 2014. So as the Presidential Campaign unfolds and state and local races heat up as well, voters should press all candidates about how they plan to support early learning and development.  We look forward to robust debates across the country about whose ideas will best provide a solid foundation for learning and healthy development to all of our children in their early years.

Review of Kaufman, Kaufman, and Nelson’s Pre-K Home Companion

July 15, 2016

The Pre-K Home Companion is due to be released at the end of the month. The book is a nice addition to Kaufman, Kaufman, and Nelson’s Learning Together: The Law, Politics, Economics, Pedagogy, and Neuroscience of Early Childhood Education. The latter provides a strong argument for investing in early childhood programs, emphasizing the educational, social, and economic benefits for children and the US as a whole, while the Pre-K Home Companion is targeted specifically toward families who seek to answer the question, which Early Childhood program is best for my family?

The book suggests and describes in detail six major factors parents should attend to when choosing an early childhood program for their children. The main factors that are discussed in detail include cost, philosophy, special education services, diversity, dual-language learning, and discipline. Additional practical considerations are also mentioned less extensively.

The first section of the book is the most practical for parents as it points out and explains the best choices for early childhood programs in terms of the six factors mentioned above. Specifically, it supports with research that the best early childhood education programs are those that are affordable, follow a social constructivist approach (which develops children’s capacity to construct knowledge by building relationships), provide a fully inclusive and supportive environment for children with special needs, offer a diverse learning community, foster support for children for home English is an additional language, and adhere to developmentally appropriate discipline policies based on the model of restorative justice. The subsequent sections touch on how to build connections with a child’s school and community, and describe the overall state of early childhood including the current lack of public funding for quality programs as well as strategies to increase access for families.

Overall, there is a need for such as book as this one. Families are often in the dark about what to look for when choosing an early learning program for their children and this book provides a single resource that families can draw upon when it comes time to make that choice. A common misconception is that the most expensive program must be the best program, which the authors quickly put to rest. Indeed, the elements that are required for a high quality program are not necessarily more expensive than other options.

The level of detail that is covered regarding each factor that is discussed makes this book a very valuable resource. For instance, parents are urged to choose programs that provide a fully inclusive and supportive environment for special needs. Within the description of this particular factor, an overview of national policies and rationales for special education services is provided that helps to give parents a thorough contextual understanding of the history and value of inclusive settings.

Additionally, different measurements of program quality are broached, and the authors go so far as to detail what is involved in various accreditation processes, what is included in different state-level approaches to quality improvement efforts, and definitions of different benchmarks that serve as indicators of quality in a nationwide state pre-K report that is conducted annually by NIEER. Parents will gain much more than a surface-level understanding of what various acronyms actually mean, such as NAEYC or QRIS, which are a dominant part of today’s early childhood discourse.

A few limitations were evident, as well. For instance, several references were listed for each chapter but it was not clear which references correlated with which points. Footnotes would be useful for parents who may wish to expand their understanding through further readings in relation to particular points.

In addition, the Reggio Emilia curriculum was clearly the favored approach put forth in the book. While evidence was provided to support this preference, the difficulties of implementing this curriculum were not mentioned. The curriculum is a complex approach that began in Italy with clear cultural nuances that can make it difficult to implement in different settings in the United States. Adaptations to the curriculum from its original form are crucial for maximizing its use with different groups of children. As a result, Reggio Emilia is referred to as an “approach”, as opposed to a model, and any attempt to copy the curriculum in its original form diverts from the aim of the approach. It is meant to be developed over time with a careful reflection upon the population that is being served. Other curricula with some of the same features as Reggio (i.e. documentation, social interaction, etc.) that are much easier to implement have shown to be very effective with children in the US, though they were not discussed.

It is not realistic for families to define high quality programs as those that utilize the Reggio approach when there are several other effective research-based curricula that programs can choose to implement. Reggio Emilia is indeed a popular and highly effective approach, but it would be more valuable for programs to choose a curriculum that they can implement appropriately, rather than choosing a highly sought after approach and missing the point of it all together. For programs that wish to make change rather quickly, the Reggio Emilia approach is probably not the best option, at least in the short run.

Regardless of the limits that were mentioned, I would recommend this book to parents without hesitation. This includes parents ranging from those who just want a quick list of features to attend to in an early childhood program to those who want an evidence-based understanding of why different features are important and how to define a high quality program in light of those features. The Pre-K Home Companion includes imperative information to which every parent should have access.

-Jessica Francis, NIEER Research Fellow

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