Empty windows of opportunity?

October 26, 2015

John T. Bruer, Brookings Nonresident Senior Fellow, Economic StudiesCenter on Children and Families, recently wrote about the seductive appeal of brain science in assuring optimal brain development and life-long wellbeing. He noted that “The advocacy literature tends to tell only half of the story about the effects of experience on synapse formation. The full story raises doubts as to how much specific guidance neuroscience can provide policy makers about what should go into those windows of opportunity.”

We often hear that brain science has established the importance of early windows of opportunity during brain development that can be exploited to assure optimal, life-long development. Although neuroscience has established the existence of a few such windows, it is largely silent about what we should put in them. The relevant brain research does not provide much specific guidance to policy makers and educators.

Policymakers should be aware that (i) brain science might tell us that windows of opportunity exist, but it cannot now tell us what to put in them and (ii) windows of opportunity are at best only half of the developmental story.

The neuroscience is summarized in the figure below. Between birth and adolescence, depending on the brain area, the number of synapses grow in excess of adult levels, then are eliminated, until synaptic densities settle at mature levels. Critical or sensitive periods tend to occur during these periods of synaptic excess. These are the windows of opportunity nature provides.

 

Screen Shot 2015-10-26 at 5.07.23 PM

 

Some presentations of the science (e.g., The National Research Council–Institute of Medicine’s From Neurons to Neighborhoods) provide a highly qualified discussion: the human data are limited; most data derives from studying animal sensory systems; the finding may not be generalizable to all brain development; sensitive periods are largely unexplored in humans.

These presentations also address the phenomenon of life-long, experience-dependent synaptic change (shown at the top of the figure) that allows us to learn throughout life. The policy literature tends to drop the qualifications and to ignore the implications of life-long neural change.

In contrast, scholarly treatments caution that we are largely ignorant of which specific experiences–and when–matter during development, and that we should not focus on sensitive periods at the expense of life-long learning. Thus, policymakers should be aware that (i) brain science might tell us that windows of opportunity exist, but it cannot now tell us what to put in them and (ii) windows of opportunity are at best only half of the developmental story.

To see the full paper, Windows of opportunity: Their seductive appeal, visit the Brookings website here.


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


We are all teachers and learners

April 17, 2015

This response on literacy standards, conversation, and the Common Core State Standards is from Sharon Ritchie, Ed.D., Senior Scientist, FPG Child Development Institute-UNC CH.

I am a strong supporter of the Common Core. From the outset let me qualify that by saying that it is by no means perfect, and that people have perfectly good reasons to question the Standards and to look for revision and improvement. There is no single thing that should not bear up under scrutiny and inquiry.

Photo credit: Casey R. Brown

Photo credit: Casey R. Brown

The following quote from the Common Core: “Children are deep thinkers and it is the role of the teacher to capably guide and support them,” succinctly summarizes why I support and advocate for the Common Core Standards. The quote demonstrates real respect for both children and teachers, something that has been sadly lacking in an environment that has, for more than a decade, focused on isolated skill building, right answers, and prescribed curriculum. That environment has been even more strongly enforced for children of color and those who come from less advantaged homes, and put vulnerable children at an even greater disadvantage by depriving them of the use of their voice and their minds. Children need to know that what they care about, what they have to say, and how they feel is important. They need to move beyond basic knowledge to the application of their knowledge to problem solving, analysis, and creative development. They need to have multiple opportunities starting at a very young age to not only talk, but to listen, to participate in a community where everyone’s ideas are important and valued.

Two decades of data examining the minute-by-minute experiences of children indicate that on average there is about 28 minutes of meaningful conversation per day between the teacher and all the children in the classroom. There is about 24 minutes of meaningful collaboration between students. That is not enough. If children are getting less than an hour to express themselves, then teachers are using up more than their share of the space. If we are not hearing from children, how do we know what they understand, what confuses them, what they think? Part of children’s success depends upon their ability to engage in collaborative work. Regular opportunities to collaborate help children develop executive functions that support their ability to solve problems in multiple ways and to work with others to plan and organize. Children who are simply sitting and getting are not having adequate opportunities to develop executive functions.

In its best form, the Common Core advocates for classroom environments  where children feel safe to take risks and experiment with their thinking and have opportunities to communicate their ideas frequently and regularly. Specifically, the English Language Arts Standard requires that students have ample opportunities to take part in a variety of rich, structured conversations—as part of a whole class, in small groups, and with a partner and the Standard for Math across K-3rd grade similarly  stipulates that children should be able to make sense of problems and persevere in solving them and construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.

A talented kindergarten teacher describes her practice of letting her students know right from the beginning of the year that:

  • There are lots of different points of view and they are all important
  • Right answers are not as important to her as the students being able to figure out how to solve a problem
  • Everyone makes mistakes–they are natural and we can learn from them
  • Doing your best is the most important thing
  • We are all teachers and learners.

The Common Core supports that teacher. Don’t you wish all children had teachers like that? I do.


The second “I” in QRIS

November 24, 2014

NAEYC03_SquiresAs quality rating and improvement systems (QRIS, QRS, and Tiered QRIS) take hold across states with support from federal agencies via the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge’s high-quality, accountable programs and Preschool Development Grant opportunities, the “system of systems” still remains under quiet scrutiny and undergoes continuous improvement itself. This is particularly true to better serve children with special needs and their families.

The intention of QRIS is to encourage a combination of inputs assumed to yield improved results for children, and provide the basis for distributing quality- or effort-based financial incentives to cash-strapped providers. A QRIS is often seen as an alternative to a more expensive, all-or-nothing quality designation through accreditation by the National Association for the Education of Young Children or similar organizations. It also seeks to develop internal commitment by programs to continuous quality improvement, rather than building an externally forced scheme with underfunded mandates–a carrot rather than a stick approach. Most important, QRIS was predicated on the premise that as quality of services improved, children and families would be the primary beneficiaries.

Yet QRIS systems are not without questions or concerns. In “Assessing QRIS as a Change Agent (forthcoming special issue of Early Childhood Research Quarterly),” Stacie Goffin and W. Steven Barnett cite the paucity of empirical evidence to substantiate QRIS as an effective tool for improving program quality and child outcomes, and the field is playing “catch-up” with policy and practice to demonstrate QRIS’ validity and efficacy. Uneven buy-in to QRIS results from inconsistent standar
ds criteria and scoring rubrics across state systems; an emphasis on compliance-oriented inputs; insufficient attention to child outcome data; and uneven participation of stakeholders in QRIS design, including parents and public schools. The closing commentary in the special issue by Kim Boller and Kelly Maxwell raises several issues based on the research reviewed, including the lack of a national QRIS picture and implications for future research to address current gaps in understanding.

One of the most compelling arguments for establishing a QRIS is to provide parents seeking early childhood services with an easy, trustworthy method for identifying a quality program; a “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” of sorts. Finding a space in a high quality program is tough enough for most families; quality often competes with other factors influencing parental choice, such as location, program schedule, and cost. This difficulty is exacerbated for hundreds of thousands of children with disabilities. There is a golden opportunity for QRIS to assist all parents in making informed decisions about where and with whom their young children should spend their days away from home, particularly children with special needs.

As reported in a new CEELO FastFact reviewing 42 state QRIS systems, 20 states make some provisions for children with special needs. Many provisions reflect open enrollment policies and collaborative relationships with outside professionals to deliver or reinforce specialized services. Seldom do QRIS criteria reflect specialized staff knowledge, qualifications, or skills to address inclusion deeply, and often opportunities to incorporate elements of DEC/CEC’s Recommended Practices such as instruction, environment, interaction, and family are missed.

Several states are making headway in this area. In Georgia’s Bright from the Start: Department of Early Care and Learning, the Quality Rated system eventually plans programs to attach a designation of “I” (for inclusion) indicating it meets additional criteria for effectively serving children with disabilities. One such requirement is successfully completing the Inclusive Classroom Profile (ICP), a rating scale developed at Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute specifically measuring inclusion, with results verified during an unannounced visit by a regional inclusion coordinator. As the first state to offer universal pre-K, Georgia is again demonstrating leadership in early education.

ExceleRate Illinois also stands out for its plans to establish an Award of Excellence (AOE) dedicated to Inclusion of Children with Special Needs. Comprehensive indicators in the accompanying Illinois Inclusion Guidelines Checklist enable programs to conduct a self-assessment to prepare for peer review and on-site verification. This designation will allow parents to identify programs taking inclusion to a higher standard of quality. Parents will be able to contact their Resource and Referral agency to easily locate a program well-suited to their child’s abilities and needs.

Other states are also considering inclusion in their QRIS designs, utilizing the leadership and resources of the National Early Childhood Inclusion Institute, Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center, Early Learning Challenge Technical Assistance Center, BUILD Initiative, QRIS National Learning Network, and CEELO. The recently launched online QRIS Compendium, developed by BUILD and Child Trends, provides an excellent searchable database for strengthening QRIS.

QRIS designs are evolving quickly in the spirit of continuous improvement, and in response to emerging research. Inclusion is an important component of a quality early education program, and should be recognized in a meaningful, visible way for parents and providers. Adding a second “I” to QRIS represents an opportunity to demonstrate that high quality programs serving “all children” really means all children- no exceptions, no excuses.

–Jim Squires, NIEER/CEELO 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


Children and Poverty: the Role of Preschool

April 3, 2014

This guest post was written by NIEER Senior Research Fellow Cynthia Lamy. Dr. Lamy is a developmental and educational psychologist whose research and writing focuses primarily on children at risk of school failure, due to the many influences of poverty. She is currently working for the Robin Hood Foundation.

High quality preschool generates measurable, long-term impacts on children.  Many of us have known this for a long time, and have heard it or have said it ourselves many times. This is vital, valuable information for policymakers and for families. And for early childhood professionals, on days when boisterous 3-year olds are testing their teacher’s patience, and stressed parents are showing up late for pick-up, and policy advocates are explaining the graph to Congress one more time, it means that our career choice to focus on young children and their families, and our daily struggle to produce our best work, is truly worth every effort. kids in line

But in recent opportunities to speak about children and poverty to groups of people who could be loosely defined as potential child advocates–not researchers or policymakers, but knowledgeable or interested professional laypeople–when I asked how many people in the audience knew of preschool’s long-term effects or had heard of the longitudinal studies of preschool effects on children’s later adult outcomes, I was shocked to find the number of raised hands in the single digits.

Perry, Abecedarian, Chicago–they had never heard of any of them. An audience of educated, interested people was once again astonished to learn about the long-term impacts, as I told them about the longitudinal studies, including New Jersey’s Abbott district findings.

Once again I found myself describing, in lay terms, the wonder of it all. It may seem astonishing, I say, but high quality preschool is a powerful weapon against poverty. Rigorous research has found that children lucky enough to attend a wonderful preschool program–with warm and knowledgeable teachers who are specially certified to teach young children as they play or are busy with activities, incorporating new vocabulary into dramatic play, heading off behavior problems with a timely tete-a-tete about sharing, scaffolding math skills during snack time–these children go on to be retained in grade or placed in Special Education at nearly half the rate of their less fortunate peers; to graduate high school at much higher rates; to engage in less crime; and to earn more money as adults, becoming contributors to society and depending less on the national safety net.

Having made the conceptual journey from early childhood education to adult outcomes, the remarkable idea that high quality preschool is actually poverty-fighting is a short leap.

The benefits of high quality preschool exceed the costs of the programs, which is great for the children, their families, taxpayers, and for everyone, but this means much more than benefits to individuals, or even to school districts, or criminal justice systems.  This positive social return on investment also signals to us the possibility of an effective and efficient fight against poverty on a societal scale.

How different would American poverty be if every child had equal access to high quality educational experiences from as early as possible in their development, before the impact of poverty diminishes their potential? What if every child received warm, playful, informed, individualized early education no matter who their parents are or where they live? Excellent preschool, carefully implemented to maintain high quality, on a scale wide enough to provide access to everyone in need, is an essential policy lever to protect the developmental potential of vulnerable children. That broad protection will lessen the chronic, inter-generational nature of American poverty. It sounds like a grand statement, but it’s just the natural consequence of strong early support for human development.

There are a few mechanisms by which preschool can powerfully contribute to the fight against poverty, as reported by Barnett and others, Heckman and others, and here. One mechanism is the effect, direct or indirectly through the family, on children’s educational success.  It is obvious that children must succeed in school to grow up and out of poverty. The direct path of the effect of preschool is through a positive impact on some combination of children’s cognition, skills, and expectations for themselves. The indirect path is through improved parenting and increased parental awareness, engagement in, and support of their children’s educational experiences and school success, due to the preschool. These are the goals of every good early childhood program.

Another mechanism is an impact on increased parental earnings. With their children happy and safe in good early childhood programs, parents work more hours.

Then there is the potential for improving the quality of public educational systems, especially in high-poverty school districts, as best practices in preschool ‘trickle up’ to elementary schools.  This is not easy to accomplish, but pre-K-3rd grade models are an example of this effort, as are transition programs that bring preschool and early elementary staff members together to share their best practices. Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS), with their cross-auspice implementation and focus on information sharing, program standards, and quality supports, may also help spread the best of early childhood widely, including to early elementary schools, alerting parents to the importance of high quality programs all along the continuum of their children’s development.

Taking the concept out one more contextual level: when schools improve, neighborhoods can begin to turn around in a virtuous cycle, further attracting education-oriented families. Without school improvement, there is little chance of that.

But there is another way that excellent early childhood programs can contribute to the fight against poverty, adding a timely and direct push against poverty just when many families are motivated to make a change–when their kids are very young. It is a tradition within the early childhood field that goes back all the way to the original objective of Head Start, to support the whole child and to respect the family. It arises from the capacity of early childhood professionals to perceive and understand the influence of problems in the family system on children’s development, and to be sensitive and supportive family partners. Early childhood programs are perfectly positioned to more effectively link families to the supportive opportunities they need, tailored specifically for them and their set of challenges.

Poverty is a complicated tangle of problems. Not all, but many, families in poverty need serious help. Parents need jobs that pay a living wage, or the adult education and training to move toward better employment. Families need stable, affordable, healthy homes. Often, families fighting poverty need a good pro bono lawyer. Everyone needs timely, affordable access to doctors and dentists. Families may be eligible for programs such as SNAP or WIC, but may be unaware. Family members with addictions or mental health issues; people living in fear of violence; older youth who need a safe, supportive haven after school; family members struggling with incarceration or reintegration into society–all need access to the assistance that would help them solve their problems, and help their young children grow to be healthier, happier, and more successful in school. Early childhood programs are in a unique position to tune in to families’ needs and to partner with families as they strive to do better for their children on a daily basis.

This is not a call to expand services. Asking early childhood program staff to extend their job description to the direct support of families at risk is asking too much, stretching resources thin, and creating distraction from the main educational mission. We have learned this lesson. Moreover, the support of families in need often requires specific knowledge and deep, often clinical, expertise, not typically housed in early childhood programs. Early childhood professionals should do for children and families what they do best. This is not a call for early childhood programs to take on even more responsibility, in addition to all that they already do.

But, this is a call for early childhood professionals to more explicitly recognize, understand, and value their natural position in the fight against poverty. It is a call to develop stronger working relationships between early childhood programs and other helping organizations. It is a call for early childhood professionals to be even smarter about the risks the families of their young students face, knowing where to send them for the support they need. And when there is little or no local capacity for the needed services, this is a call for early childhood professionals to be a voice for the expansion of those services–high quality services only, of course. If there is one thing we appreciate in the field of early childhood, it is the value of best practices.

It turns out that other programs, when they are of high quality, also produce measurable and cost-effective improvements for families, doing their part to push back against poverty. And across many poverty-related fields there is a growing recognition of the value of strong collaboration to create a true safety net–or, really, an opportunity net–for vulnerable families.  Early childhood programs, in fact all schools, should be part of that, taking a stronger stance in support of the families they serve.   No one program can solve all the complex problems of poverty. But, on a policy level, early childhood programs could take up what is actually a very natural, and potentially a particularly cost-effective, role, becoming powerful and persuasive proponents of young families in need, catalyzing and encouraging the development of best practice supports for families in their communities, and solving many more problems that are detrimental to children’s development, while children are still young.

We know that high quality preschool is a critical component in a set of policies and programs that have measurable impacts and that protect the development of children from the destructive effects of poverty. Preschool could be even more than that. It could fight poverty in real time.

 

References

Barnett, W. S., Young, J., & Schweinhart, L. (1998).  How preschool education influences long-term cognitive development and school success.  In W. S. Barnett & S. S. Boocock (Eds.), Early care and education for children in poverty: Promises, programs, and long-term results.  Albany, NY:  State University of New York Press.

Barnett, W.S., Jung, K., Youn, M. & Frede, E.C. (2013).  The Abbott preschool program longitudinal effects study: 5th grade follow-up.  New Brunswick, NJ: NIEER.

Bayer, P., Ferreira, F. & McMillan, R. (2007).  A unified framework for measuring preferences for schools and neighborhoods.  The Journal of Political Economy, 115(4), 588-638.,

Camilli, G., Vargas, S., Ryan, S., & Barnett, W. S. (2008).Meta-Analysis of the effects of early education interventions on cognitive and social development. Teachers College Record, 112 (3). Retrieved March 31, 2014, from  http://spot.colorado.edu/~camillig/Papers/38_15440.pdf

Cellini, S., Ferreira, F. & Rothstein, J. (2008).  The value of school facilities: Evidence from the dynamic regression-discontinuity design.  Working paper # 14516.  Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Forry, N. & Hofferth, S. (2011).  Maintaining work: The influence of child care subsidies on child care-related work disruptions.  Journal of Family Issues, 32(3), 346-368.

Heckman, J., Malofeeva, E., Pinto, R. & Savelyev, P. (2010).  Understanding the mechanisms through which an influential early childhood program boosted adult outcomes.  Presentation at the Measuring Education Outcomes: Moving from Enrollment to Learning Conference at the Center for Universal Education at Brookings, June 2, 2010, Brookings Institution, Washington, DC.

Lamy, C. E. (2012).  Poverty is a Knot and Preschool is an Untangler. In R. C. Pianta, W. S. Barnett, L. M Justice and S. M. Sheridan (Eds.) Handbook of Early Childhood Education.  NY: Guilford Press.

Matthews, M. (2006).  Child care assistance helps families work: A review of the effect of subsidy receipt on employment.  Washington, DC: CLASP.


The Benefits of Investments in Early Development Around the Globe

November 13, 2009

Worldwide, a huge source of human potential is lost as children grow up without the benefit of effective investments in their early development. More than 200 million children under 5 years of age are not reaching their full mental, physical, and social developmental potential, says a recent report from The Open University based in the United Kingdom.

Many people associate early interventions to support child development with preschool education. That is only a part of the story in countries where problems like growth stunting, hunger, disease and extreme poverty necessitate early investments that focus on directly improving nutrition and health as well as care and education. With wide variations in the approaches to investments in early development and in children’s environments in the international arena, policy makers around the globe are asking, “How effective are the various programs in improving the development of children and does this vary across countries with very different economic conditions?”

To help answer that, NIEER recently conducted a meta-analysis of studies that looked at 30 interventions with varying approaches in 23 countries in Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America. What NIEER found is encouraging: Regardless of the type of program, all had moderate positive effects in all domains of child development. The size of the long-term effects is similar to that found in a comprehensive meta-analysis of the U.S. studies. On average, they were about one-quarter to one-third of a standard deviation, with cognitive effects at the higher end, which translates to a gain of about 5 points on an IQ test. Studies that evaluated effects at older ages showed positive effects being sustained through adulthood.

Policymakers want answers to questions like what types of programs are most cost-effective, whether single-focus or combined-focus programs are best, and what treatment dosage is likely to yield the greatest gain in a given set of circumstances. While many of those answers will require further research, our findings shed some light. Interventions providing direct child care and education were more effective than other types of programs, particularly in terms of cognition. Interventions that combined education and care with attention to nutrition or health were more effective than cash transfer programs that gave money to parents in order to achieve a goal such as making sure kids get medical attention or programs that were solely nutritional in nature. Read the rest of this entry »


%d bloggers like this: