Transforming the Early Childhood Education Workforce

May 24, 2016

The 2015 Institute of Medicine and National Research Council’s (IOM & NRC) Transforming the Workforce report highlights the state’s role in creating a pathway for early care and education (ECE) teachers to acquire education and professional development to meet the demands of their important role. Research shows that ECE teachers’ skills and competencies are predictive of child outcomes, and that education with specialization in early childhood development is correlated with positive child outcomes. The IOM & NRC recommend that policymakers craft a coherent blueprint for improving ECE teachers’ education and wages, thereby improving ECE quality.

Northeastern Children's Center-79State policy makers are considering choices in light of their important role in designing and implementing policies that can address the recommendation articulated by the IOM & NRC. Yet, questions exist about what options are available, including what approaches states are currently employing and what the research has found about the efficacy of different policy options.

To address this need, the Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes (CEELO) recently released a report that reviews published research on ECE teachers’ education and credentials, on the current status of ECE wages, recruitment and retention challenges, and on promising practices. It summarizes trends in state requirements regarding bachelor-degreed ECE teachers and specialized certification, licensure, or endorsements of ECE teachers and concludes with eight recommendations for state ECE policymakers.

  1. Create a coherent set of policies and actions designed to ensure a stable and educated ECE workforce rather than viewing policy options as trade-offs. State policymakers should carefully consider the ramifications of viewing policies in isolation rather than through a coherent policy lens. A policy that focuses simply on increasing the number of degreed teachers that does not take into account the pertinence and quality of the higher education coursework, the compensation of teachers, and the overall quality and conditions within the ECE setting, could lead to public dollars supporting coursework that does not lead to a more knowledgeable, competent and skilled ECE workforce.
  2. Take into account the existing levels of education of early childhood educators working with children of different ages and in different settings. Policies requiring ECE teachers to increase their education should take into account the current status of education across settings, set realistic goals, and fund coursework and supports at an appropriate level.
  3. Ensure funding is available for both coursework and adequate compensation. States should explore all possible funding streams to finance coursework (and background work to create articulation agreements and courses that meet ECE teachers’ needs), as well as compensation for ECE teachers who have upgraded their qualifications.
  4. Craft state policy that enables and supports cost sharing among ECE funding streams and at the same time supports full enrollment. Only a few states are currently supporting shared services agreements, partnership among providers, cost sharing, or other strategies to maximize funding at the provider level. These are important actions to maximize funding at the provider-level. Yet, in isolation, such actions will not provide the funding that is needed to retain an educated ECE workforce and therefore this step should be taken in conjunction with the other recommendations.
  5. Take steps to secure sustainable public funding for ECE teachers. Interviews with national experts and state stakeholders, as well as reviews of existing research, reveal that the state funding formula can be a stable funding source. Some recommended that legislation supporting the use of school funding formula dollars for ECE include language that requires all existing funding sources—including child care subsidies, Head Start funding, and local tax dollars—be used first and ECE dollars be used to augment quality and teacher wages.
  6. Review existing legislation, regulations, administrative rules, and policies to guide the development of new policies. By reviewing promising practices from states that have achieved the goal of increasing the education levels of ECE teachers and retaining educated ECE teachers, state policymakers can learn from one another.
  7. Support greater collaboration among institutions of higher education to make a coherent pathway toward a bachelor’s degree easier for ECE teachers. To ensure that coursework is accessible to existing ECE teachers, it is important that higher education institutions develop articulation agreements and consider developing stackable certificates. State stakeholders who have developed the agreements and certificates report that these efforts pay off when it comes to increasing access to bachelor’s level coursework for ECE teachers.
  8. Consider the overall quality and improved conditions that can attract ECE teachers. To retain educated ECE teachers, it is important that the overall quality of ECE is high, and policymakers should consider regulations regarding ratios, group sizes, and overall working conditions as well as ECE licensing.

Strategies and promising policies adopted by ECE and K–12 policymakers alike point to possible solutions to enhance the recruitment and retention of educated and credentialed ECE teachers. The recently released CEELO report summarizes key strategies employed by selected states and provides policymakers with research links to guide their decision-making process.
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–Diane Schilder, Senior Research Scientist, EDC


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


Building the capacity of state early childhood administrators: CEELO FY2015

February 10, 2016

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At CEELO we believe all organizations benefit from a continuous improvement process based on evaluation. That’s why we’re not only engaged in providing Technical Assistance (TA) to states across the country, but we also evaluate our own work and act upon feedback to enhance our services and outreach.

The Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes (CEELO) is one of 22 comprehensive centers funded by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Elementary and Secondary Programs. CEELO is designed to increase the capacity of State Education Agencies (SEAs) to implement comprehensive and aligned early learning systems to increase the number of children from birth through third grade that are prepared to succeed in school. The Annual Report, a requirement of our funding annually, outlines the impact of the technical assistance provided in the third year of the 5 years of the project. Between October 1, 2014 and September 30, 2015 CEELO provided three types of technical assistance: (1) Responsive TA; (2) Strategic TA; and (3) Information Resources and Technology Supported TA.

I. Responsive Technical Assistance to States: CEELO provides targeted support and consultation to states to address policy issues impacting children birth through third grade.

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The Range of TA Provided by CEELO in Year Three

General: CEELO co-developed a national webinar on NAESP P-3 standards and the role of state education agencies in supporting principal leadership to implement a Birth to Third Grade framework. It was designed as a follow-up to a summer 2014 introduction by NAESP that was requested by NAECS-SDE members. Follow- up evaluations were favorable: one individual reported that it was outstanding in every way! Your experience and expertise in the field comes through loud and clear in the content and delivery of these webinars. Thank you! Another reported that the webinar provided deep and detailed information.”

Targeted. In May and July 2015, CEELO held meetings of early childhood specialists from Northeast state departments of education for two separate in-person meetings in Waltham, MA. The first meeting focused on PDG start-up activities and provided participants with an opportunity to network and learn from one another about promising practices and challenges in early implementation. The second meeting, held in collaboration with the Regional Education Lab- Northeast and Islands (RELNEI), focused on Kindergarten Entry Assessment design and implementation. Participants had opportunities to hear from researchers’ key findings from selected states and engage in conversations about how to address common design and implementation challenges. Participants requested ongoing follow up conversations with one another. As a result, CEELO has facilitated monthly peer exchange calls among state specialists in the Northeast. The meetings were favorably evaluated. One respondent reported, person-to-person consultation has been helpful to a very large degree.” Another stated, I loved meeting all the folks from the New England states.”

Intensive: CEELO supported the development of Nevada’s Office of Early Learning strategic plan. Beginning in Year 2 and continuing in Year 3, through a series of intensive meetings, the CEELO co-director convened key stakeholders who articulated the vision for the new office, developed a strategic plan, and crafted an operational plan that has guided ongoing operations for the new office. Direct results include improved internal and external communications, and staffing plans and professional development plans for new office staff. One key informant noted that the CEELO TA provider was fabulous in helping prepare, organize and facilitate our strategic planning meeting for our new Office of Early Learning and Development in the Nevada Department of Education. It was very helpful to have someone with outside expertise and such great experience working with other states help us think through the planning and organizing of our new office to hopefully help shape and provide guidance to our agency leadership, restructuring and organizing of our office.”

II. Strategic TA: CEELO engages in multiple efforts supporting all 50 states and territories in sustained initiatives addressing CEELO’s five focus areas. All activities are designed to build capacity and promote SEA policy and leadership development.

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Selected Examples of Strategic TA

Building Leadership Skills of Early Childhood Administrators: During Year 3, the first cohort of the Leadership Academy was implemented. The Fellows met 4 times, engaged with their coaches, and completed their Job Embedded Projects.

During the final months of Year 3, CEELO prepared for the second cohort, offering applications and selecting Fellows who will engage in the Leadership Academy during Year 4. For in-depth information on the design and structure, as well as participant feedback, see State Early Education Leadership Academy: Report on Year 1, 2014-2015 as well as the online Leadership Academy Page.

CEELO, in collaboration with the BUILD initiative, conducted the first cohort of the Learning Table in CEELO Year 3. A report documenting state policies to promote effective teaching and learning was produced.

CEELO will continue to support the Think Tank with a second cohort in CEELO Year 4.

Building Capacity of States to Access Research and Best Practice: The 2015 National Roundtable was successfully held, focused on the theme of “Leading for Excellence”. Of the 150 attendees, 41 state agencies were represented by 88 attendees with 25 states bringing a team.

Building Capacity to Access Research and Information to Inform Policy: CEELO sponsored or co-sponsored 13 webinars CEELO TA staff also presented at 18 national and regional meetings sponsored by other organizations on topics of relevance to SEAs and CEELO priorities.

Building Capacity of Preschool Development Grantees-Expansion States to implement a high quality preschool program. CEELO provided TA on 23 requests for support on PDG-related topics. These are described in the responsive technical assistance portion of the full report, with links to relevant resources. CEELO also convened PDG staff from multiple states in 3 peer exchanges in 2015.

III. Information Resources: CEELO produces numerous publications aimed at encouraging best practices and enhancing child outcomes.Northeastern Children's Center-14

CEELO responded to 100% of the 50 information requests made across the range of CEELO priority topics. Requesters were interested in both research around the topic and information on how other states were addressing critical questions related to our core objectives, including assessment, workforce, systems, data, and birth to third grade. CEELO develops different types of resources including Policy Briefs, Fast Facts, Annotated Bibliographies, and Tools. Selected examples are outlined below, along with links to resources developed from those queries:

  • Bachelor’s degree requirements for pre-K lead teachers
  • Funding (e.g., funding formulas for per-student expenditures, funding formulas for pre-K)
  • Child assessment
  • Research on high quality pre-K and child outcomes
  • Retention
  • Teacher evaluation and student growth objectives
  • Quality Rating and Improvement Systems

 

IV. Data on Impact of CEELO TA: Building capacity in SEAs is a primary and important aim of the TA CEELO provides. CEELO surveyed SEA staff and asked about the ways in which the TA has affected SEA capacity. Survey results reveal that respondents were most likely to report using the TA to share ideas and lessons learned with colleagues, provide authoritative support to advance their SEA work, increase an understanding of a topic, and develop relationships. Many used the TA provided in multiple ways.

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CEELO TA to a State in Transition

What CEELO Did: Coordinating closely with the liaison from the Northeast Comprehensive Center, CEELO provided technical assistance to support the development of a strategic plan to implement a system of professional development for early childhood educators in one state. CEELO facilitated a full-day meeting comprising stakeholders from state agencies, regional offices within the state, and professional development providers.

Shortly after the meeting, the newly elected governor placed restrictions on state spending, offered early retirement options for state employees, and changed strategic direction for early education in the state. To respond to these changes, the state education agency asked CEELO to meet with a team of state staff to translate the strategic plan into an operational plan that could provide a useful guide for state work for the upcoming year.

How the Assistance Impacted the State: Independent evaluations reveal that stakeholders reported the assistance helped with longer-term planning and provided state employees with needed support during a time of staffing challenges. One individual who participated in the longer-term strategic planning process, as well as the process of developing an operational plan, reported that CEELO, “Facilitated discussion of relevant issues and resulted in concrete action.” Another comment was, “I really appreciated the paper on research of best practices — this is something I have been wanting since we cannot use our grant funds to travel out of state to conferences. The session seemed responsive to the needs we verbalized at our meetings.”

What Challenges and Issues Exist for the State: As the state seeks to implement the strategic plan to support the creation of a system of tiered professional development supports for early education teachers, the state education agency will continue to work with CEELO to implement the existing plan. The state education agency has asked CEELO to provide TA in Year 4 to ensure courses offered are aligned with the state’s broader education goals. Specifically, the state is seeking to support the effective implementation of formative and summative assessments and is in the process of implementing a B-3rd Grade framework of supports. The SEA is eager to align the professional development strategic plan with ongoing work on assessment and the state’s B-3rd Grade framework so that educators can easily see how these activities are aligned, rather than viewing each separately.

Conclusion and Recommendations

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As designed, the annual evaluation has identified a few areas for improvement and continued focus of TA delivery and relationship building between CEELO TA liaisons, State administrators, and Comprehensive Center staff in Year 4. These are:

  • Expand opportunities for states to learn from one another and tailor experiences to meet participants’ needs.
  • Provide information in formats that can be directly used to inform policy and procedure.
  • Engage state personnel in designing strategic technical assistance.
  • Proactively lead state education agencies in advancing an early learning agenda.

Please see the Annual Report section of our website for the full report from Year 3 and previous years and explore the CEELO website and for more information on our ongoing technical assistance and resources.


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.


Year in Review

December 18, 2015

Looking back over 2015, it’s been a year packed with action around early childhood education at NIEER, in the states, and across the country.

young childUS News wrote here about their 5 biggest stories in early education, including the expansion of NYC UPK (we addressed that early, here); the release of Vanderbilt’s study of TN pre-K (which we also mentioned and discussed); an overhaul of Head Start performance standards; calls for transforming the early childhood workforce; and an increased national awareness of the need for parental leave.

In January, child care was highlighted in the State of the Union address, in February we reviewed that and the federal budget implications for pre-K. The Common Core State Standards were in the news often this year; NIEER provided clarity with expert help in a comprehensive blog forum.

Also this year, Head Start turned 50, and DHHS proposed revisions to standards for Head Start.

In May, we released the State of Preschool Yearbook 2014: “State pre-K programs may have turned a corner in 2013-2014, but progress remains slow. . . . At the 2013-2014 growth rate it would take about 75 years for states to reach 50 percent enrollment at age 4 and 150 years to reach 70 percent enrollment. Even a return to the average rate of growth since 2001-2002 would leave the nation 25 years away from enrolling 50 percent of 4-year-olds in state funded pre-K.”

This summer, experts wrote for us about leadership in early education. As Presidential campaigns revved up, early childhood issues were front and center in the mix of topics important to candidates and the public, for a while.

Throughout the year, people have been paying increased attention to the importance of the early childhood workforce; see our 2015 favorites blog post list below for some more highlights on that.

In November, Congress reauthorized CCDBG; CLASP covers that here. Even more recently, we’ve seen the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) passed (see some useful links on that courtesy of NAECS-SDE in this week’s newsletter), and increased funding for some early childhood programs proposed this week.

ICYMI, we are currently counting down our most-viewed blog posts of 2015 on Twitter (@PreschoolToday). Here’s a summary of greatest hits. Note that some of our most-viewed are not from 2015, but cover issues of enduring interest: Children, poverty, and preschool; The highly qualified workforce early education needs and deserves; and Children and technology.

From 2015, the following were popular:

We look forward to sharing much more coverage of important early childhood issues in 2016.

 


Lessons learned from Vanderbilt’s study of Tennessee Pre-K

October 2, 2015

Newly released findings from Vanderbilt’s rigorous study of Tennessee’s state-funded pre-K program are a needed tonic for overly optimistic views. No study stands alone, but in the context of the larger literature the Tennessee study is a clear warning against complacency, wishful thinking, and easy promises. Much hard work is required if high quality preschool programs are to be the norm rather than the exception, and substantive long-term gains will not be produced if programs are not overwhelmingly good to excellent. However, the Vanderbilt study also leaves researchers with a number of puzzles and a similar warning that researchers must not become complacent and have some hard work ahead.

Let’s review the study’s findings regarding child outcomes. Moderate advantages in literacy and math achievement were found for the pre-K group at the end of the pre-K year and on teacher ratings of behavior at the beginning of kindergarten. However, by the end of kindergarten these were no longer evident and on one measure the no-pre-K group had already surpassed those who had attended pre-K. The pre-K children were less likely to have been retained in kindergarten (4% v. 6%) but were much more likely to receive special education services in kindergarten than the no-pre-K group (12% v. 6%). The pre-K group’s advantage in grade repetition did not continue, but it did continue to have a higher rate of special education services (14% v. 9%) in first grade.

By the end of second grade, the no-pre-K group was significantly ahead of the pre-K group in literacy and math achievement. The most recent report shows essentially the same results, though fewer are statistically significant. Teacher ratings of behavior essentially show no differences between groups in grades 2 and 3. Oddly, special education is not even mentioned in the third grade report. This is puzzling since prior reports emphasized that it would be important to determine whether the higher rate of special education services for the pre-K group persisted. It is also odd that no results are reported for grade retention.

If we are to really understand the Tennessee results, we need to know more than simply what the outcomes were. We need information on the quality of the pre-K program, subsequent educational experiences, and the study itself. It has been widely noted that Tennessee’s program met 9 of 10 benchmarks for quality standards in our annual State of Preschool report, but this should not be taken as evidence that Tennessee had a high quality program. Anyone who has read the State of Preschool knows better. It (p.10) specifies that the benchmarks “are not, in themselves, guarantees of quality. Arguably some of them are quite low (e.g., hours of professional development), even though many states do not meet them. Moreover, they are primarily indicators of the resources available to programs, not whether these resources are used well. In addition to high standards, effective pre-K programs require adequate funding and the continuous improvement of strong practices.

The State of Preschool reported that Tennessee’s state funding was nearly $2300 per child short of the per child amount needed to implement the benchmarks. More importantly, the Vanderbilt researchers found that only 15% of the classrooms rated good or better on the ECERS-R. They also found that only 9% of time was spent in small groups; the vast majority was spent in transitions, meals, and whole group. This contrasts sharply with the high quality and focus on intentional teaching in small groups and one-on-one for programs found to have long-term gains (Camilli et al and Barnett 2011). The Tennessee program was evaluated just after a major expansion, and it is possible that quality was lowered as a result.

Less seems to be known about subsequent educational experiences. Tennessee is among the lowest ranking states for K-12 expenditures (cite Quality Counts), which is suggestive but far from definitive regarding experiences in K-3. We can speculate that kindergarten and first grade catch up those who don’t go to pre-K, perhaps at the expense of those who did, and to fail to build on early advantages. However, these are hypotheses that need rigorous investigation. Vanderbilt did find that the pre-K group was more likely to receive special education. Perhaps this lowered expectations for achievement and the level of the instruction for enough of the pre-K group to tilt results in favor of the no-pre-K group. Such an iatrogenic effect of pre-K would be unprecedented, but it is not impossible. There are, however, other potential explanations.

Much has been made of this study being a randomized trial, but that point is not as important as might be thought. One reason is that across the whole literature, randomized trials do not yield findings that are particularly different from strong quasi-experimental studies. The Head Start National Impact Study and rigorous evaluations of Head Start nationally using ECLS-K yield nearly identical estimates of impacts in the first years of school. Another reason is that the new Vanderbilt study has more in common with rigorous quasi-experimental studies than “gold standard” randomized trials. Two waves were randomly assigned. In the first wave, just 46% of families assigned to pre-K and 32% assigned to the control group agreed to be in the study. In the second wave, the researchers were able to increase these figures to 74% and 68%, respectively. These low rates of participation that differ between pre-K and no-pre-K groups raise the same selection bias threat faced by quasi-experimental studies. And, uncorrected selection bias is the simplest explanation for both the higher special education rate for the pre-K group and the very small later achievement advantage of the no-pre-K group. I don’t think the bias could be nearly strong enough to have overturned large persistent gains for the pre-K group.

Even a “perfect” randomized trial has weaknesses. Compensatory rivalry has long been recognized as a threat to the validity of randomized trials. In Tennessee one group got pre-K; the other sought it but was refused. It appears that some went away angry. Families who agreed to stay in the study could have worked very hard to help their children catch up and eventually surpass their peers who had the advantage of pre-K. Alternatively, families who received the advantage of pre-K could have relaxed their efforts to support their children’s learning. Similar behavior has been suggested by other studies, including a preschool randomized trial I conducted years ago for children with language delays. Such behaviors also could occur even without a randomized trial, but it seems less likely.

Randomized trials of individual children also create artificial situations for subsequent schooling. If only some eligible children receive the program, do kindergarten teachers spend more time to help those who did not attend catch and “neglect” those who had preschool? Would kindergarten teachers change their practices to build on pre-K if the vast majority of their children had attended pre-K and not just some; perhaps they would only change with support and professional development?

Clearly, the Vanderbilt study has given the early childhood field much to think about. I am reminded of Don Campbell’s admonition not to evaluate a program until it is proud. However, programs may also be in the habit of becoming proud a bit too easily. We have a great deal of hard work in front of us to produce more programs that might be expected to produce long-term results and are therefore worth evaluating. Researchers also would do well to design studies that would illuminate the features of subsequent education that best build upon gains from preschool.

What we should not do is despair of progress. The media tend to focus on just the latest study, especially if it seems to give bad news. They present a distorted view of the world. Early childhood has a large evidence base that is on balance more positive than negative. There is a consensus that programs can be effective and that high quality is a key to success. Research does help us move forward. Head Start responded to the National Impact study with reforms that produced major improvements. Some states and cities have developed even stronger programs. Tennessee can learn much from those that could turn its program around. If it integrates change with evaluation in a continuous improvement system, Tennessee’s program could in turn become a model for others over the next 5 to 10 years.

–Steve Barnett, Director, NIEER


Part II: Functions and Capacities of P-3 Governance

September 23, 2015

(Part II of II. For Part I click here.)

Governance change has been a catalyst for broader system development in the states that have chosen to focus on this subsystem (Dichter, 2015; Gomez, 2014), though much more empirical work needs to occur in order to understand how governance affects state system development and, subsequently, services to children and families. More than a simple reorganization of the deck chairs within state government, revamped approaches to P-3 governance have led to states experiencing different outcomes for P-3 system development. Indeed, in her study of governance and RTTT-ELC States, Dichter notes that state leaders who have invested in integrated approaches to P-3 governance believe that it “improves services for children through greater focus, consistency, and inclusion of all developmental domains” (2015, p.2). Leveraging the three types of approaches discussed in the first part of this series, I provide examples of the ways in which consolidated and regionalized approaches to governance have influenced P-3 system development in some states.

14476018886_082318a3f5_oConsolidated approaches to governance create conditions that render a high degree of consistency in implementing programs and services. This is, in part, because policymaking for P-3 is centralized (Gomez, 2014). For instance, PA’s OCDEL, in carrying out its function as a standard-setter for the state, has created sets of standards for children, standards for ECE programs, and standards for teacher qualifications. Using these standards as a baseline for programs, OCDEL has now begun to collect data on each of these three groups (children, programs, and teachers) via its statewide data collection system, PELICAN. The state uses the data collected to hold programs accountable and to divert funding where it is needed (e.g., additional investment in workforce supports to help teachers meet the minimum qualifications). Additional benefits: a centralized locus of authority can be seen with regard to the state-funded preschool programs in MD and PA. In PA, many policy decisions about pre-K are centralized. There is, for example, a 180-day minimum for service provision within the PA Pre-K Counts programs, to align those programs with academic year requirements. Furthermore, PA Pre-K Counts programs are required to adhere to many of the same quality standards set forth for programs participating in other OCDEL programs, like maintaining a STAR 3 or 4 status within the QRIS and adhering to the PA Early Learning Standards. In MD, we see signs of the same centralization with regard to policies governing pre-K programs (Barnett, Carolan, Squires, Clarke Brown, & Horowitz, 2015).

A study (Gomez, Kagan, & Khanna, 2012) of regional approaches to governance in NC, AZ, and IA, revealed that there is a little distance between the governance apparatus and those it purports to serve. This low level of distance or, “proximity,” was important because it enabled the governance functions to be carried out with a great deal of responsiveness and efficiency. Rather than having to navigate a large bureaucratic structure, or determine how to carry out functions for an entire state, the regional approach enables the councils/boards/partnerships to execute governance functions with a great deal of flexibility, responsiveness, and efficiency. Moreover, the regional approach empowers local control and decision-making in terms of fiscal and programmatic management, while freeing up the state-level entities to work on things that do not require a great deal of “proximity,” like monitoring or evaluative activities. Looking specifically at state-funded pre-K, we can see that policy decisions are more decentralized. For example, in Arizona, scholarship decisions for the publicly funded pre-K program are made at the regional council level (Barnett, et al., 2015).

An important facet of any approach to governance is its capacity to adapt to changes in the P-3 field and to make meaningful adjustments in its governance strategies based on these changes to effectively manage the P-3 system. States with consolidated and regionalized approaches to governance have developed formalized authority structures through which they can explore and exploit (Duit & Galaz, 2008) new and existing resources to improve the functionality of the P-3 system.

Exploration is the capacity of a governance approach to be creative, to innovate, and to experiment. In essence, exploration is the ability to be flexible and to explore a variety of strategies for governing complex systems. Exploitation is the capacity of a governance approach to leverage new and existing resources and integrate them into the system with efficiency (Duit & Galaz, 2008). Governance reform in Maryland, for instance altered the way that the state agency used funding, “applying it more strategically to meet specific agency goals” (Graffwallner, 2015, p. 125). The centerpiece of these “specific agency goals” in Maryland has been improving the infrastructure for, access to, and quality of early learning services – including publicly-funded pre-K. .

This notion of adaptive capacity, along with other contemporary governance issues is explored with greater depth in Early childhood governance: Choices and consequences. In it, we explore the status of governance systems for young children in the U.S., retrospectively and prospectively. This volume presents a series of analyses, discussions, and debates about what governance is, why it is important to the early childhood field, and how we could use governance as a lever to advance P-3 system development–ultimately improving services to young children and their families.

Further reading about governance in practice:

Dichter, H. (2015). “State systems-building through governance.” In H. Dichter and S. Hibbard (Eds.) Rising to the challenge: Building effective state systems for young children and families. (pp. 2-14). Boulder, CO: Build Initiative.


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