How much can high-quality Universal Pre-K reduce achievement gaps?

March 31, 2016

In a report published by the Center for American Progress, NIEER researchers find that providing high-quality prekindergarten to all children nationally would dramatically reduce inequality in academic preparedness at kindergarten entry. Here we provide highlights from that report.

Many ethnic/racial minority children and children from low-income families enter kindergarten without all the skills they need to succeed in school. Compared to their white and higher-income peers, these children begin kindergarten months behind in reading (its precursors) and math. (See Figure 1.) The larger problem is that these measures of children’s academic abilities at kindergarten entry are strong predictors of later school success—these “achievement” gaps begin early and are only modestly closed after kindergarten entry. They remain large as children progress through school, and are difficult to close.

AchievementGaps-figures-1(1)

Early childhood education (ECE) programs show promise in reducing achievement gaps, particularly at kindergarten entry. Research suggests that attending high-quality ECE can enhance children’s development, reduce achievement gaps, and have longer-term benefits for children’s development. This research includes meta-analyses of ECE programs; evaluations of landmark ECE programs including the High/Scope Perry Preschool Project, the Abecedarian Project, and the Chicago Child-Parent Centers; and evaluations of larger scale publicly funded programs including Head Start (a federal program for at-risk children) and universally available preschool programs in Boston, New Jersey’s Abbott school districts, and Oklahoma.

Despite the known benefits of high-quality ECE, access to such programs remains remarkably low and highly unequal. Although rates of preschool attendance have increased in the last several decades, access varies widely by children’s backgrounds, with African American, Hispanic, and low-income children having lower rates of attendance. We estimated that rates of enrollment in high-quality ECE ranged from under 15 percent of black children to almost 30 percent of non-low-income children. (See Figure 2). And, importantly, the quality of the vast majority of ECE programs is low, particularly for low-income children and children of color. Yet research suggests that high-quality ECE produces the largest positive effects on children’s development. Further benefits may result when children have access to high quality ECE for a full-day, five days per week. Yet access to full-day, high-quality ECE is even more limited.

AchievementGaps-figures-2

Despite a general consensus that high-quality ECE can improve children’s learning and reduce kindergarten entry gaps, policy makers and researchers have disagreed about the relative advantages and disadvantages of targeted and universal ECE programs. On one hand, a means-tested targeted program would (in theory) benefit only those children who are at-risk to begin kindergarten without the necessary school readiness skills, thereby narrowing the gap. On the other hand, a universal program would benefit all children and would improve the school readiness of all children, without actually narrowing the gap. However, there is evidence that universal programs do not affect all children similarly, but have larger effects on ethnic/racial minority children and children from low-income families, compared to white and more affluent children. Therefore, a universal program that increased enrollment of children from low-income and ethnic/racial minority families could have powerful effects in reducing the kindergarten entry achievement gaps.

As we describe below, we simulated the effects of nationally scaled universal publicly funded high-quality prekindergarten (UPK) on math and reading achievement gaps at kindergarten entry. Our results suggest that the achievement gaps could be reduced between 27% and 106%, or between 3 and 12 months of learning. We found that a high-quality UPK program could completely close the Black-White and Hispanic-White kindergarten entry gaps in reading. Other gaps prove to be more difficult to close completely. The Black-White gap in math could be reduced by 45% and the Hispanic-White gap in math by 78%. The income-related achievement gaps may be the most challenging to erase. Our results suggest that a high-quality UPK program could reduce the income-related achievement gap in reading by 41% and math by 27%. (See Figure 3.)

AchievementGaps-figures-3(f)

In order to estimate the extent to which high-quality UPK could reduce achievement gaps at kindergarten entry if every child attended a high quality program we used multiple sources of data. (See the CAP report for more information on our methods.) For measures of the impact we relied on the results from evaluations of Oklahoma’s Four-Year-Old Program in Tulsa and Boston Public Schools’ Public Prekindergarten Programs. We used the results of these two evaluations in our simulation for several reasons.

  • Both programs are considered high quality and universal.
  • The evaluations used rigorous methods.
  • Impacts were estimated for subgroups by income and ethnicity.
  • They span broad differences in populations and contexts across the country.

In conclusion, although challenging, implementing a high-quality UPK program has the potential to substantially reduce racial/ethnic and income based achievement gaps at kindergarten entry. A national policy to provide high-quality UPK could dramatically reduce ethnic/racial disparities in academic readiness at kindergarten entry. These gaps might even become negligible in both reading and math. Reductions in the gaps between children in low-income families and their more economically advantaged peers would be somewhat smaller but still meaningful. In implementing a national UPK program, it will be important to ensure that all children have access to truly high quality programs.

–Allison Friedman-Krauss, NIEER Assistant Research Professor


Universal Pre-K: What does it mean and who provides it?

January 6, 2016

Inquiring minds often want to know which states offer “universal pre-K.” As states vary in what they define as universal pre-K (UPK) and in how far they have progressed toward fully implementing a universal program as intended, the answer is somewhat complicated.

Preschool classroomRegarding definition, the term UPK can mean simply that the sole eligibility criterion is age, in contrast to “targeted” programs in which eligibility is limited by child or family characteristics, most commonly income. This need not mean that the program is available to all applicants, as there may be caps on spending or enrollment that limit the number of children who can be served. The other common definition–and what universal means in most other developed countries–is that every child can (and very nearly all do) enroll, just as children in the US do in first grade.

A further complication is that when states launch UPK, they often cannot simply enroll all children who might want to attend immediately. It takes some time to create capacity, and states vary in how quickly they increase enrollment. Perhaps more importantly, states that express the intent to enroll all children all too often lose the political will to do so before they reach that goal, and fail to increase funding to keep enrollment expanding until it serves all who wish to enroll. An added wrinkle is that states often provide funding that incentivizes school districts to offer UPK (directly or through private providers), but they do not require school districts to do so (though districts must accept all who wish to enroll if they do offer UPK). In such a situation, not every location in the state may make pre-K available.

State examples help clarify the variations in definition and intent to implement. At present, only in Vermont; Washington, DC; and Florida can pre-K be considered fully universal, in the sense that every child can enroll and virtually all do, though in Florida, Head Start offers such a superior service that many families choose that over the state’s pre-K program. Oklahoma offers UPK in all but a few districts. West Virginia has been in the process of expansion, but may have reached ‘universal’ in 2015. Enrollment in these states varies from 99 percent, to as low as 70 percent in West Virginia which is still expanding (Barnett, Carolan, Squires, Clarke Brown, & Horowitz, 2015).

Five states–Georgia, Illinois (Preschool for All), Iowa, New York, and Wisconsin have policies that they and others call UPK for 4-year-olds, but which fall short of allowing all children to be served. Wisconsin is the only state with a specific constitutional provision for 4K, and will fund school districts to serve all children but does not require all districts to participate. Although the policy is quite similar to that in Oklahoma, fewer districts participate and enrollment remains considerably lower at 66 percent. In Georgia, enrollment is limited by the amount of funding available year to year, and enrollment has plateaued at about 60 percent. Iowa similarly serves about 60 percent at age 4, but it is less clear why it does not continue to expand. In New York, limited funding restricted enrollment and continues to do so, though New York City’s push to enroll all children led to implementing long-delayed increases in state funding to allow for expansion. Enrollment in New York is expected to reach 50% percent in 2015. Illinois is the most egregious example of the gap between intent or ambition and implementation. Designed to serve all 3- and 4-year-olds, the program has never enrolled even a third of age-eligible children. Illinois prioritizes low-income families for services, and currently serves just 27 percent at age four and 19 percent at age three (Barnett et al., 2014)

Finally, two states have unique policies that could be considered UPK of a sort. In California, Transitional K (TK) serves children who turn five between September 2 and December 2 of the school year. As these children then attend kindergarten the following year, TK is effectively pre-K. TK is available to all children who meet the age cutoff. In New Jersey, a state Supreme Court order mandated universal pre-K in 31 high poverty districts serving about one-quarter of the state’s children. Within these districts the only eligibility criteria are residency and age–enrollment varies by district but ranges from 80 percent to 100 percent.

Considerations regarding access, enrollment, and quality

When evaluating policies, it is also important to understand that UPK programs vary in quality as well as actual enrollment. Schedules, standards, funding, and teaching practices vary widely across the “universal” programs described above. Some require as little as 10 hours per week. Others offer a full school day with before- and after-school care, potentially reaching 10 hours per day. Some leave virtually all policy choices and guidance up to the local school district or program. Florida requires little more than a high school diploma of teachers in school-year programs. Others, like New Jersey, set high standards that every classroom must meet, and provide extensive support and guidance. State funding ranges from $2,200 per child to $15,000 per child. Observations of teaching practices in statewide evaluations indicate that some programs are overwhelming good to excellent, while others are mostly poor to mediocre. States differ in their choices regarding how much to invest in quality versus quantity, though it is clear that there need not be a trade-off if states can muster sufficient political will (Minervino, 2014). Indeed, some have argued that programs that do not reach most of the population may have difficulty obtaining support for adequate quality (Barnett, 2011).

–Steve Barnett and Rebecca Gomez, NIEER

 Barnett, W. S. (2011). Four reasons the United States should offer every child a preschool education.  In E. Zigler, W. Gilliam, & W. S. Barnett (Eds.), The pre-k debates: Current controversies and issues (pp. 34-39). Baltimore: Brookes Publishing.


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


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


Readiness and Opportunity Gaps in Early Education, 60 Years After Brown v. Board of Ed

May 19, 2014

Saturday marked the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, declaring that separate educational facilities are inherently unequal, and marking a major step forward in the Civil Rights movement. Yet 60 years later, equal access to high quality education remains a significant issue, and nowhere more so than in the preschool years.

A new report posted at the Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes (CEELO) describes readiness and opportunity gaps in access to high quality early education, reporting that access to quality “is highly unequal, despite the extent to which public policy at federal and state levels targets disadvantaged children. In part, this is because targeted programs too often are not high quality. Also, targeting is not as effective in reaching disadvantaged populations as policymakers naively assume.”kids learning 3

“Inequality of opportunity for good early education is a particular concern for African American, Hispanic, and non-English-speaking children,” conclude the authors, Milagros Nores and Steve Barnett (NIEER and CEELO). The brief includes a description of readiness gaps at kindergarten, opportunity gaps in early education that may contribute to the kindergarten readiness gap, access to care arrangements for young children, and the impact of state pre-K policy on child outcomes.

NIEER has covered promoting access to quality preschool for Black children in our blog, and in a paper on Equity and Excellence for African American children, and the National Journal recently featured an article on discrimination starting as early as preschool.

In discussing this anniversary, President Obama has no
ted
that “Brown v. Board of Education shifted the legal and moral compass of our Nation,” yet  “the hope and promise of Brown remains unfulfilled” in education. Preschool, especially high quality preschool supported by states, could provide a strong opportunity to begin fulfilling that promise before children even start kindergarten.


2013 State Preschool Yearbook Finds Need for Renewed Investment

May 13, 2014

Today NIEER released its 2013 State Preschool Yearbookat CentroNía/DC Bilingual Public Charter School in D.C. This newest installment of the Yearbook series covers policies, enrollment, and funding for state-funded pre-K programs in the 2012-2013 school year. Joining NIEER Director Steve Barnett at the event were Myrna Peralta, President/CEO of CentroNía; Roberto Rodriguez of the White House Domestic Policy Council; and Rob Dugger of ReadyNation/America’s Edge

Yearbook 2013

Click for the full report.

This year’s report found states still struggling to recover from the economic downturn that did so much damage to preschool programs in the previous year. As Barnett noted, “Our nation has emerged from the recession, but preschool-age children are being left to suffer its effects. A year ago, our data showed a half-billion-dollar cut in funding for state pre-K and stalled enrollment. For 2012-2013, we find that enrollment is down and funding per child, while up slightly, remains stalled at near-historic lows.”

Particularly of concern, the report found that:

  • In 2012-2013, enrollment decreased by about 9,000 4-year-olds from the prior year across the 40 states plus D.C.[1] that offer pre-K. This is the first enrollment decrease nationally NIEER has observed.
  • Slightly more than 1.3 million children attended state-funded pre-K, 1.1 million of them at age 4, accounting for four percent of 3-year-olds and 28 percent of 4-year-olds.
  • On the plus side, 20 states increased enrollment while 11 states reduced enrollment.
  • One program improved against NIEER’s Quality Standards Benchmarks, while two fell back.
  • Also good news, for the first time, every state-funded pre-K program had comprehensive early learning standards. This is first of the quality standards benchmarks to be met by all.
  • Four states, plus one of Louisiana’s three programs, met all 10 benchmarks for state pre-K quality standards, the same as in the previous year. This remains down from the peak of five states in 2010-11. Weak program standards persist in too many states, including lax standards for teacher qualifications in 23 programs and no limits on class size and/or teacher child ratio in a few large states–California, Florida and Texas.
  • Total state funding for pre-K programs increased by $30 million in real dollars, about a 1 percent increase.
  • State pre-K funding per child increased by $36 (inflation-adjusted) from the previous year, to $4,026.
  • Only 15 states could be verified as providing enough per-child funding to meet all 10 benchmarks for quality standards. As only 19 percent of the children enrolled in state-funded pre-K attend those programs, it seems likely that most children served by state pre-K attend programs where funding per child is inadequate to provide a quality education.

Dugger, whose organization supports the business case for early childhood education, put the report’s findings in context to America’s economic future. “The most important product the American economy produces are ready-for-life 18-year-olds,” he said. “The US cannot retain organic growth….unless it invests in its children in the early years.”

NIEER Director Steve Barnett & Roberto Rodriguez of the White House Domestic Policy Council read to children at CentroNía/DC Bilingual Public Charter School .

NIEER Director Steve Barnett & Roberto Rodriguez of the White House Domestic Policy Council read to children at CentroNía/DC Bilingual Public Charter School .

Rodriguez, of the Domestic Policy Council, highlighted federal/state partnership efforts underway, including $250 million for preschool development grants as well as $500 million to build Early Head Start/Child Care partnerships. He called increased investment in early childhood education “one of the most important things we can do as a country,” and called on governors, mayors, philanthropists, and policymakers to work together to prioritize this investment.

The report covers the most recently completed school year, 2012-2013. Trends may be looking up since then. Many states have recently made pre-K a priority in the time since that school year ended, with new initiatives passing in Connecticut, Maine, and Vermont, just this month and a doubling of state pre-K investment in Alabama over the last two years. New York provides a particular model for state-local collaboration, as leaders at all levels of government came together to prioritize early learning. These stories are a cause for optimism, and action: “If ever there were a time for leaders at the local, state, and national levels to unite in their efforts to provide high-quality preschool education to our next generation, this is it,” Barnett said.

Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education, called for just such participation on a media call discussing the Yearbook. “We just need Congress to catch up and pay attention to what is happening in the real world,” he said. Duncan added:

“Today, nationally, as the NIEER Yearbook shows, fewer than 30 percent of 4-year-olds are enrolled in state-funded preschool programs, and 10 states still do not offer it at all. Sadly, we’re 25th among industrialized countries in enrollment of 4-year-olds in early learning. If we’re going to lead in the global economy, we must do better – in countries like Germany and Japan, more than 95 percent of 4-year olds are enrolled in early childhood education. Quality early education can be a game-changer for the kids who need the most support.  It’s good for them and their families, and for our country’s long-term economic success.  Ultimately, it’s an investment in our collective future.”

The full Yearbook report can be found at here, along with state-specific information pages. Join the conversation on Twitter by tweeting @PreschoolToday and using the hashtag #YB2013.

 

[1] For the sake of comparison, the District of Columbia will be referred to as a “state” throughout this report. Hence, a total of 41 states provide state-funded pre-K.


The Empire State Leads the Way

March 18, 2014

Two of New York’s most distinguished leaders who shared a family name (Roosevelt) were strong advocates for the 99 percent, long before that term was common with their campaigns for the “Square Deal” and the “New Deal.” Today’s leaders are poised to echo their efforts with what might be called the “Real Deal.” A key element of the real deal is to give every child access to a world class 21st Century education, beginning with high quality pre-K for all.  New York State has been promising universal preschool to its children for 20 years. With leadership from the NYC Mayor, the Governor, and Legislators in the Senate and Assembly they are finally moving to fulfill that promise–a victory for New York’s young learners and the middle class. Last week, the State Senate proposed supporting free full-day prekindergarten and after-school programs in New York City with $540 million per year in state funds over 5 years.  The Assembly has already endorsed Mayor de Blasio’s plan for expansion with a pre-K and after-school tax on NYC’s wealthiest.

The next step is for leaders to come together behind a single plan to move forward, with a firm commitment to financing and a timeline for delivering on this promise. Recent statements indicate that New York’s leaders are prepared to put partisanship and personal ambition aside to do right by the state’s children.  The Assembly and Mayor have indicated they can accept the Senate plan. The Governor has repeatedly said he supports fully funding pre-K and should join them and make this plan a reality. If he does so, he will have propelled the preschool-for-all movement to a major turning point, not just in New York, but in the nation.  New York is the third most populous state.  If it were an independent country it would have the world’s 16th largest economy. With high-quality public education beginning at age four for all, New York will become a model for other states and even countries beyond our borders.

As we reported in our 2012 State of Preschool Yearbook, New York State has some way to go to achieve this goal of national and international leadership in early education.  It currently serves about 44 percent of its 4-year-olds, ranking ninth in the nation for enrollment, but funding per child has not kept pace with program expansion, jeopardizing quality.
NY state enrollment
NY state spending

Providing adequate funding and a timeline for implementation is a major step toward the real deal in pre-K, but political leaders must also support the hard work needed to successfully implement this plan and deliver the promise.  This will require a relentless focus on quality, and a shift from campaigning to governing that will provide pre-K programs with the support and accountability required to achieve and maintain excellence in every pre-K classroom.  At this stage it is important to ensure that state and local agencies have the resources to guide this continuous improvement process, as in other states where pre-K has produced the promised results (Michigan, North Carolina, and New Jersey, to name a few).

When well implemented, pre-K is a valuable and important long-term investment.  At NIEER we estimate that by offering all children quality pre-K, New York will actually realize a net reduction of more than $1 billion in its education budget by 2030. This figure includes cost-savings as a result of reducing special education placement and grade retention.  It does not include other long-term benefits from improving the education of New York’s children–increased productivity and economic growth and better health outcomes, among them.

New York isn’t alone in the pre-K push. Even states that have not historically supported pre-K are getting in on the investment, including: a small program in Hawaii; a pilot program in Indiana; and a new program legislated in Mississippi.  Yet, New York’s UPK initiative, if done well, could become the nation’s leading example of good early education policy because of its proposed quality and scale.  It’s time for every New Yorker to get behind this initiative and work with the Governor, Mayor, and legislative leaders of both parties, to carry through on New York’s 20-year-old promise.

– Steve Barnett, Director

Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator

Kirsty Clarke Brown, Policy and Communications Advisor


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