Lost in Translation: State PreK Must Meet Needs of Dual Lanugage Learners

September 23, 2016

by GG Weisenfeld

As educators, we are continually striving to close the well-researched and identified achievement gaps, including those between children who speak a language other than English at home and children who speak only English. We know the earlier we start with high-quality education programs the better. So if we look at states’ pre-K policies, we hope to see efforts to support all of our preschoolers, including the estimated 23 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds in the US who are learning to speak two languages. For the first time, the National Institute for Early Education Research 2015 State of Preschool Yearbook provides an in-depth look at state pre-K policies related to these dual language learners (DLLs).

Addressing the particular needs of young DLLs requires the adoption of new policies and practices. Children cannot learn if they are scared, do not feel welcome, or cannot communicate with their teachers. A National Institute for Early Education Research study shows these children benefit most when instruction is provided in both English and their home language without sacrificing English language skill building .

When looking to see how states are adapting policies and practices for DLLs or English language learners (ELLs) one of the first things to check is whether preschools assess them in their home language–but only 6 states report that they are able to do this. Few states–eight to be exact–report having teachers specifically qualified for working with these children. Beyond this, just 10 states report allocating extra resources to serve DLL children. Indeed, across the country, state pre-K policies fail to align with what research has proven effective.

For those states attempting to address the needs of their DLL preschool population, only 14 even know what languages the children speak. In most cases, there are a plethora of languages and dialects spoken by preschoolers. Kentucky, for example, documented more than 39. Would such information be useful to states? Yes! How else can they target resources so teachers can better understand how to best work with these students? Meeting the needs of DLL children requires adapting and enhancing curricula and assessments, revisiting early learning standards to ensure states address all areas of development, and improving connections with families.

Of course we want children living in the US to learn English, but we also want to value their home language and culture.

Hawaii has taken on this challenge. The Hawaiian language almost became extinct but in 1978, a grassroots effort led Hawaii to become the only state with two official state languages. There have been challenges in aligning quality practices across the early childhood programs, for example in conducting classroom observations and child assessments since Hawaiian, like many indigenous languages are oral languages and not able to simply be “translated.” Hawaii is working out some of these issues with implementation of the federal Preschool Development Grant in charter schools that are only Hawaiian and Hawaiian-immersion, both English and Hawaiian.

As our preschools become more diverse, both linguistically and culturally, educators must find better ways to teach all our children. We can start with the 2015 State of Preschool Yearbook Appendix A to learn how other states are developing policies that support all learners, not just those that speak English.

GG Weisenfeld is an Assistant Research Professor at NIEER. Dr. Weisenfeld works on the State of Preschool Yearbook and as an education consultant researching and offering technical assistance on designing and implementing early childhood policies and programs.


Being There: Absenteeism Undermines Pre-K Benefits

September 20, 2016

by Melissa Dahlin

The early childhood field is committed to increasing access to high quality early learning experiences. But the work doesn’t stop at enrollment –we need to ensure children are consistently attending in order to reap the benefits.

Every day in high quality programs provides ongoing learning opportunities. Missing out on that can have both short- and long- term consequences for a child. September is Attendance Awareness Month, a national effort promoting  pre-K attendance as the first step in establishing positive attendance patterns as children set off on their educational journey.  For more information on promoting attendance, see this CEELO resource.

While national data on attendance in pre-K is lacking, we do have examples from cities that are cause for alarm and a call for further research. DC Public Schools (DCPS) and Baltimore Public Schools found more than 25 percent of pre-K students missed 10 percent of days in a school year. In Chicago Public Schools, more than a third of four-year-old pre-K children were chronically absent–and nearly 50 percent of 3-year-olds!

Findings in Baltimore and Chicago show that chronic absenteeism in pre-K is associated with continued chronic absenteeism in later grades, high rates of retention, and lower academic outcomes. This corresponds with what we know about the consequences of chronic absenteeism in the early elementary grades, for instance the negative correlation with reading skills.  Clearly, we have to be careful about causal attributions here.  For example, poor health or a highly stressful home situation can contribute to both attendance problems and poor school performance.  However, it is equally obvious that children miss out on important experiences when they are absent often.

Why do children miss school? Recent news stories highlight the expense of uniforms as an issue, which ties to a larger issue of the interlinked circumstances families in poverty or low-income face that make regular attendance difficult (e.g., unstable work hours, illness, and transportation barriers). While these barriers also exist across the grades, pre-k faces another significant hurdle – unlike grade one and above, attendance is NOT mandatory. This can feed misconceptions families often have that children aren’t really learning in pre-K and, therefore, attendance is less critical. Indeed, a study by the Urban Institute found that families in DC Public Schools were not aware of the extensive learning opportunities their child received in a pre-K classroom and, therefore, did not think missing days would negatively affect their child.

Such attitudes prove that more should be done to support attendance. A good first step is family engagement, which can both combat myths that pre-K attendance isn’t important, reveal  circumstances interfering with families getting their child to school and identify potential solutions. A study on attendance in DCPS pre-K found that schools with positive attendance patterns engaged in deep and continuous family engagement throughout the year via home visits and two-way communication. The California Department of Justice also recommends family engagement as a strategy.

Family engagement boils down to relationships. Once relationships are established, there are numerous ways to keep the engagement thriving. Smartphones provide an excellent opportunity for families and educators, with texting as a means to message families about the importance of attendance and raise awareness. Additionally, educators can use texts to communicate with families to show their commitment to the child and family as well as to keep two-way communication flowing. While research is yet to document how effective texting is in promoting attendance, we do have  evidence that text messaging is effective in supporting positive parenting practices. Apps are also useful for sending families photos to show them the rich learning experiences children are engaged in throughout the day and to prompt ongoing conversations at home about experiences in their pre-K program. Schools that had positive attendance patterns in DCPS found both texts and apps to be useful tools for partnering with families.

These approaches above are just a few examples of how schools can work with families to support consistent attendance patterns. The important thing is to take action to help families understand why pre-K attendance matters. When children attend quality pre-K programs consistently, they fully benefit from learning opportunities providing  a strong start for their educational journey.

Melissa Dahlin is a Research Associate with the Education Development Center and a partner with the Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes, one of 22 Comprehensive Centers funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Elementary and Secondary Education to strengthen the capacity of State Education Agencies (SEAs) to lead sustained improvements in early learning opportunities and outcomes.


Grading State Pre-K on the Curve: Is the Best Good Enough?

September 14, 2016

by Jim Squires

Each spring when NIEER releases The State of Preschool Yearbook there is a rush to compare one state to another. States ranking high in access, resources and quality are pleased while others are disappointed their preschool efforts fall short. This is especially true when states look at the number of benchmarks for minimum acceptable quality standards attained; only 7 programs achieved all 10 benchmarks in 2015. If this is as far as policymakers, administrators, and the public examine the annual preschool report, however, they are missing a bigger picture.

The annual report contains a wealth of information–and many hidden stories– particularly in the recently published Appendix A which offers state-by-state details on many important and interesting aspects of states’ preschool programs. New in this year’s report is a focus on supports for the preschool teacher workforce and Dual Language Learners. At a glance, this new resource reveals that across the 57 programs operating in 43 states and DC:

  • Access vs. participation: Twelve states offer pre-K in every county or district and another 12 have a presence in at least 90 percent of their jurisdictions. Yet few children (nationwide only 29% of 4-year-olds and 5% of 3-year-olds) are actually able to participate. Only 8 states serve more than half of their 4-year-olds and two states at least one quarter of 3-year-olds (DC and VT).
  • Dual Enrollment: Thirteen states were able to report the number of children dually enrolled in state pre-K and Head Start programs. And thirty states were able to report the number of children enrolled in state pre-K and receiving special education services.
  • Language: 32 states were unable to report the number of pre-K children served whose home language is other than English. Eleven states (CA, DC, IL, KY, ME, NM, OK, OR, WA, WV, WI) broke down the percent of children served by home languages, enabling more precise decisions for program improvement to be made.
  • Other Child Characteristics: For the first time, the Yearbook reported enrollment information by children’s race/ethnicity and eligibility for free and/or reduced price lunch, provide a more detailed picture about who attends state-funded pre-K. Twenty-three states were able to report the number of children enrolled by their race/ethnicity. Twenty-nine states were able to report the number of children enrolled by eligibility for free and/or reduced price lunch.
  • Duration: 13 states require that a minimum of 5 hours of pre-K be offered each day, roughly the equivalent of a full-day kindergarten. Twenty states require five days of pre-K to be provided each week with the majority of states allowing schedules to be determined on a local basis.
  • Quality: Every state has early learning standards for children in place, and 18 have revised them since they were first introduced. Five states were in the process of revising their standards in 2015.
  • Teacher qualifications: 28 states require a minimum BA for all lead teachers, regardless of the setting in which they teach. There are a multitude of early childhood education licenses and endorsements offered and accepted by states, with little uniformity across states for such.
  • Funding: Eleven states indicated that federal Title I funds were used for pre-K purposes, yet only KY, NE, NV, NC, SC, and WV were able to report actual amounts. Ten states operate multiple pre-K programs. Within many of these states, there are multiple disparities in policies, practices, and resources.

One surprising finding is that only 20 states look at impact and child outcomes for all state-funded pre-K programs and 19 states have no history of an objective, external evaluation ever being conducted. While I don’t doubt that many great, impactful things are happening for children, it’s imperative for our profession to have answers to the “So what?” question. So what if a state is best in the nation by current NIEER measures? Is it the best states are capable of doing for children without resorting to qualifiers such as “within our means,” “given how far we’ve progressed,” or “in comparison to other states?”

Every child walking through the pre-K door should benefit every day, and while steps for intentionally improving classroom practices and impact are occurring, each state should not have to look beyond its borders to prove its point. Yet, if we rely on grading the impact of our nation’s pre-K using other states as our benchmarks in lieu of what research demonstrates to be true characteristics of excellence, we risk lulling ourselves into complacency by grading ourselves “on the curve” where even the best may not be good enough.

Jim Squires is a Senior Research Fellow at the National Institute for Early Education Research. He conducts research on national and state early education policy and practices, focusing on prekindergarten through third grade, and provides technical assistance to state leaders through the Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes (#CEELOorg)


In Back-to-School Rush, Think of First-Time Students

September 7, 2016

by Valora Washington

It’s that time of year when parents are inundated with back-to-school reminders and instructions on everything from updating emergency contact lists to making sure they purchase binders with the correct width.

Much of the activity around preparing for the first day of school tends to focus on those children who are indeed going back to school. But in these early weeks of the school year, we should also think about children who are entering preschool or kindergarten for the first time.

Amid all the hustle that includes shopping for uniforms or scheduling last-minute vaccinations, parents should also take time to consider their young child’s thoughts, expectations and concerns about entering school—whether it’s the local elementary school or a new classroom in a center he or she already attends.

Will the child have a chance to visit the classroom before the first day and meet the teacher? Has the teacher or someone at the school reached out to learn more about the child? Are there opportunities to meet other children who will be in the class? These are the kinds of questions that parents should be asking about their child’s first school and first teacher—and are especially important for children who have not had classroom experience.

Transitions can be challenging for young children—but they tend to experience more of them during their typical school day than older children. A young child might have multiple care plans during the day because many schools still don’t have full-day kindergarten, and working parents sometimes have to shuttle their children between preschool and child care in the middle of the day. Having early childhood educators who understand how to smooth these transitions and make classrooms, centers and home-based programs warm and inviting is an aspect of quality that is sometimes overlooked, but that can make a difference in whether a child has a successful start in school.

Skilled teachers work with families to find solutions to transition challenges, and they talk with children to prepare them for new experiences and changes during the day so children can build confidence and competence. Early educators with the right training and experience can sense if a child is feeling stressed and will know how to foster relationships and find activities in the classroom that lead to learning and help the child overcome shyness or problems with separation.

A child entering preschool might also be starting a new after-school program or riding a school bus for the first time. So in the midst of choosing the right lunchbox or figuring out the carpool procedure, think about the new school year from a child’s perspective. Talk to school leaders about their plans for easing children and parents in the school community. Do their teachers communicate with the other caregivers that children have during the day? Do they collaborate to use some of the same routines, terms or learning materials that children will recognize?

Preschoolers are eager to gain some independence, but at the same time they find reassurance in experiences or classroom materials that feel familiar. Teachers who can provide this balance will provide both children and their parents with peace of mind.

Valora Washington is CEO, Council for Professional Recognition. The Council for Professional Recognition promotes improved performance and recognition of professionals in the early childhood education of children aged birth to 5 years old.

 


Why the Source of Preschool Funding Matters

September 2, 2016

by Richard Kasmin

While research demonstrates the educational, economic, and social benefits of quality preschool, a portion of the public continues to see early learning as a social welfare program — babysitting for the poor — rather than education. From that perspective it makes little sense to provide the same universal access to preschool programs as to K-12 education.

The view of preschool as welfare influences the way preschool education is financed and helps explain why the US doesn’t offer every child a quality preschool education. Preschool funding is much more heavily dependent on a patchwork of federal programs — a tradition more reflective of social insurance programs than public education, which is primarily a state and local responsibility. As a result in most states preschool programs including Head Start and subsidized child care target only the most vulnerable young children — a noble goal for sure, but even these programs fail to reach most of the intended beneficiaries and funding levels are far from adequate for a quality early education.

If the US public was more convinced of the educational value of pre-K, would we see more state and local financial resources being invested? It seems likely. Most states do provide some funding for preschool and child care, but local funding is much less common. By contrast, 45% of public K-12 education comes from local taxes, the large majority from property tax receipts. State resources account for another 47% of spending. The rest — just 8% — is filled by federal funds. If the local share for early childhood programs were equal to that for K-12, funding for state pre-K programs would just about double.

Taking a broader view including Head Start and state funded pre-K, just over half of the dollars come from federal government financing (51%), with states providing 39% and just 9% deriving from local sources. With a few notable exceptions, such as Maine, Oklahoma, and West Virgina, most states have virtually no local tax support for public early education programs. See chart

Another noteworthy feature that relates to the welfare perspective on preschool is the lack of any entitlement. Rather than viewed as a necessary expenditure, charity is viewed as depending on the fiscal climate. Most state and local support for pre-K is generated from annual/biennial general budgetary appropriations (81.5%). The rest of state-generated funds come from dedicated sources — money tied specifically for use in pre-K such as state lotteries and so-called sin taxes (e.g.: beer tax) that vary with economic circumstances. In the few states that do tap significant local funding for pre-K, most of that is done via property taxes. The table in the presentation titled “Sources of State Pre-K Funding” shows these nationwide averages and examples of funding breakdowns for a handful of states that illustrate some of the state-to-state variability in funding (AZ, CO, NJ, OK, and TN).

The other aspect of state and local preschool finance that relates to public perception is distribution of funds. Approximately 64% of preschool funding is allocated via capped grants, which are, in essence, products not of what funding is needed but rather of what is available. Grants have no underlying system of growth in terms of inflation or links to adequacy of services and the numbers of children needing preschool. Rather, grants are based on what is available in government coffers and what lawmakers decide they are willing to allocate in the current year. Grant systems are no way to run a stable, effective education system. In contrast, school funding formulas used for K-12 education may be far from perfect, but they assume a base level of financing and reflect district and pupil needs based on changing populations.

However, use of school funding formulas for pre-K does not guarantee such programs will be adequately funding. Some states limit formula funding to a targeted portion of their population. Some cap the amounts provided. Others use the formula to make pre-K universally available but offer few hours of preschool per week. Issues that arise when using a funding formula for preschool will be more fully discussed in a future blog.

At a time when families across the US are struggling to pay for quality preschool, it’s time we focused on developing a sustainable and equitable funding structure for early care and education. We long ago decided an educated public was an outcome worth the shared expense of providing public schools. Today, research points to preschool as a key public investment for the future. We should embrace early education as an integral entry point for a lifetime of learning and make sure that we put in place all of the elements required to get the best return on our investment — including a stable and effective financing system.

Richard Kasmin is a research project coordinator at the National Institute for Early Childhood Education (NIEER). His primary research responsibility is analysis of early childhood education finance.


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