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

September 7, 2016

by Valora Washington

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Why the Source of Preschool Funding Matters

September 2, 2016

by Richard Kasmin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the Education Olympics Politicians Promise Much but Fail the First Hurdle

August 24, 2016

By W. Steven Barnett Ph.D.

As we celebrate Team USA’s success setting world records and earning medals at the 2016 summer Olympics, we cannot escape the fact America has fallen off a world class pace in education.

The United States used to be a world leader in college graduation.  As recently as 1995 we were number one, but we have made relatively little progress since then while the rest of the world has picked up its pace. By 2014, we were 19th out of 28 developed countries–clearly not a medal contender.  At the other end of the education spectrum–preschool–which is my specialty, the United States has made little to no progress in the past decade and seems to be going nowhere fast while other countries have moved far ahead.  Most developed nations now offer universal preschool. Even China has committed to pre-K for every 4-year-old and most 3-year-olds by 2020.  At this pace, the US is losing the education race, and whining about how unfair the competition is will not get our children, or our workforce, back on a world class pace.

What seems remarkable is that our elected leaders have done so little to put American education, beginning with high quality preschool, back on track to be world class. Politicians as far apart in ideology as NYC Mayor Bill De Blasio and Alabama Governor Robert Bentley have worked hard to increase access to quality preschool education, yet they are the exceptions.  Across the nation, even though most states claim to support preschool, actual enrollment of 4-year-olds has flat lined.

In New Jersey, Gov. Christie vetoed the mere $22 million in state funding to expand pre-K access that the Legislature had advanced this year—and the Legislature did not try to override that veto. This lack of action is particularly notable because New Jersey’s preschool program launched in the Abbott school districts decades ago has proved to be both excellent and effective.  After proving to the world that quality preschool done right was a good investment, New Jersey lawmakers have lost their nerve.

Legislation has been filed. Speeches have been made. Statements have been shared. But none of that has helped three- and four-year-olds living in 560 school districts across New Jersey without universal quality preschool. Yet children can’t wait. While policymakers dither, students miss out on the rich early learning experiences that children in other countries enjoy, from vocabulary to the curiosity that underlies scientific discovery, from a sense of personal responsibility, to practice using words, not fists, when angry. Research shows many of our children never will catch up or catch on; some will fall so far behind; they will give up. Our children deserve a better start and a chance to compete.

Obviously, grown-ups need to work harder. And no one should be working harder at it than the President, so what has been proposed?

On the Democrats’ side, Hillary Clinton is a longtime advocate for early education. Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, her running mate, is an advocate of universal Pre-K for four-year-olds who introduced federal legislation to expand and improve early education for low-income families. The Democrats advocate universal Pre-K, increased tax credits and subsidies for child care, and an expanded “home visiting” program for low-income children.

Republican candidate Donald Trump has offered a tax deduction to help middle- and upper-income families recoup some costs of child care and preschool. He also has encouraged employers to offer onsite childcare. Indiana Governor Mike Pence, now the Republican vice-presidential nominee, oversaw development of his state’s first state-funded, pre-k program in 2014 serving targeted counties but rejected federal grants to expand Indiana’s pilot program.

So as the Presidential Campaign unfolds and state and local races heat up as well, voters should press all candidates about how they plan to support early education.  Let’s have a robust debate across the country and in New Jersey about whose ideas will best provide our young children with a world class early education, building a foundation that prepares them compete for first place in education and the world economy. And then we must hold those we elect accountable for action, not just words. USA! USA!

W. Steven Barnett Ph.D. is director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. NIEER conducts and communicates research to support high-quality, effective early childhood education for all young children.

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

July 28, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 15, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Jessica Francis, NIEER Research Fellow

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.

–Diane Schilder, Senior Research Scientist, EDC

Slow and (Un)Steady Does Not Win the Race: What Other States Should Learn from New York

May 12, 2016

The economist John Maynard Keynes famously wrote: “The long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead.” Typically, this phrase is cited to support government intervention over waiting for the eventually self-correcting private sector. As this year’s State of Preschool marks 14 years of tracking state government support for preschool education, I find myself citing Keynes in exasperation with the slow pace of government intervention. At the current rate, it will be another 50 years before states can reach all low-income children at age four, and it will take 150 years to reach 75 percent of all four-year-olds. I haven’t bothered to count the centuries until they might reach all children at age three. Looking at this year’s numbers it’s hard not to conclude that many states’ efforts are just a fig leaf to hide their unwillingness to invest in truly high-quality early education. For too many of them, two steps forward are often followed by one step back. However, a few states are moving far ahead of the rest demonstrating that high-quality pre-K for all does not have to be a 22nd century goal.

The most recent example is New York, where lawmakers took decisive action to ensure that every child has the opportunity to enroll in a high-quality preschool program. New York has opened new classrooms across the state and dramatically expanded access to full-day services in New York City. New York City’s Pre-K for All now serves 68,647 children, or 70% of the city’s four-year-olds, in full-day prekindergarten, an increase of more than 250% in just two years, while improving program quality. In early education, quality is job number one, and the city has shown a remarkable commitment to use data to continuously improve quality.

It’s time for other states to follow New York’s lead. In 2014-2015, state spending on pre-K programs nationally rose by 10 percent, but New York alone accounted for two-thirds of this increase. Meanwhile, states with the largest populations of young children were falling behind. California, Florida, and Texas are home to nearly 40 percent of all children served by pre-K, but the report finds these three states were also among the lowest in terms of quality standards. Texas and Florida also reduced enrollment and spending, though California showed signs of improvement.

There are pockets of hope throughout the country beyond New York. Six states—Alabama, Alaska, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Mississippi, and West Virginia—and one program in Louisiana met all 10 of NIEER’s benchmarks for minimum quality standards, up from four states in the previous school year. The push for quality pre-K has been led by a truly bipartisan group of governors, from Alabama to New Mexico, with Republican governors also leading 6 of the 10 top states for enrollment.

Our nation pays a high price for our failure to invest in young children. Most of the achievement gap is set before our children walk through the kindergarten door. A recent report from NIEER and the Center for American Progress estimates that high-quality full-day pre-K for all would significantly reduce the achievement gaps at kindergarten entry. For African American and Latino kindergarteners, access to high-quality pre-K could close the achievement gap in reading entirely and lessen the gap in math by large percentages. Union City, New Jersey has implemented high-quality pre-K for all for over a decade and illustrates the long-term potential: though 90 percent of students are economically disadvantaged, the district scores one-third of a grade level above the national average in reading and math (looking at scores from grades 3 to 8).

Cities and states across the country should take note. In a global economy, the race is not to be won by the slow and unsteady, but by those who move ahead at a New York pace and stay at it year after year.
W. Steven Barnett is a Board of Governors Professor and Director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.

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