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.


The State of Preschool 2015: Please join the conversation

June 17, 2015

This year at the CEELO Roundtable in New Orleans, Steve Barnett talked about the findings reported in The State of Preschool 2014. He noted that we might be considered to be “on the sunny side of the street,” at the moment: quality is up in some states, Mississippi has a program, more children are enrolled. However: many states don’t have enough money to provide preschool at high standards, and the highest percentage of children are enrolled in states with lowest quality.

Screen Shot 2014-03-28 at 4.28.06 PMThere is still tremendous variation across the states in pre-K—and we don’t see that variation in any other education area. Preschool has shown, however, what states can do in a short period of time. The biggest gain in the decade occurred in Vermont, which was not predicted—and added 82% of children to programs, going from 9% to 91%. Florida went to UPK, from no program. States that are very different can make really tremendous progress over a period of time.

As a national average we’re moving pretty slowly—we need a greater sense of urgency about early education. It would take 75 years to serve 50% of all 4-year-olds. To get to 70%, a figure some use to represent universal access, would take 150 years.

Quality standards are still a big issue, particularly teacher qualifications and pay. We use the examples of Perry and Abecedarian, but we invest on a lower-league scale, which won’t have the same results. Funding differences by state are really extreme; they would not be tolerated in K-12.

Expansion and development grants give us opportunities to build success, measure success. If we put evaluations into place we can have a body of evidence available to build support more quickly for the kind of success we’d like to see.

The State of Preschool is one useful tool to measure progress and improvement. As NIEER gears up to develop the next version and begin gathering data, we are asking for your input. Keep in mind the fact that we gather data from state administrators, who gather it from different sources within states themselves.

  • What kind of changes would you like to see in the Yearbook?
  • Any benchmarks to add? Drop?
  • What additional information would be useful to you?
  • Any variations on what we have?
  • Is there anything about the design and delivery of the Yearbook you would like to change?
  • If we could release the Yearbook any time of year, what would be optimal in terms of informing your state policy or budget processes?
  • We would like to add some special topics from year to year, and report out on findings: any suggestions for what topics would be most helpful to you?

Here are some topics that came up in the Roundtable Presentation discussion. Feel free to build on those or add your own and weigh in using Comments below. (Please note that comments are manually approved, so there may be a delay before your comments show on the site.)

  • More defined enrollment data; reducing duplication; including race, ethnicity, free lunch status, gender, home language
  • Some indicators of actual quality and outcomes
  • More clearly defined hours per day of service
  • Policies related to dual language learners
  • Information about teacher salaries and benefits; comparable to K-12?
  • Teacher retention
  • Evaluation results
    • Do you have an evaluation?
    • Does it show substantial impact?
    • What kind of evaluation? Required legislatively?
  • Child outcome measures and their use
  • QRIS information
  • Context and outcomes, linking to quality benchmarks.
  • Process quality measures (CLASS)
  • OSEP 619; report now, would like to approach that for all students.
  • Engagement of family in pre-K world and K
  • Clarifying funding streams: local schools, counties, Title 1, Head Start.
  • Leadership: Principals, coaching in classrooms
  • Public school pre-K facility licensing/approval
  • Kindergarten assessment
  • Teacher evaluation
  • Early learning standards alignment with K-2

Questions raised. Do you have any to add?

Can we pick one benchmark we should all embrace as states to emphasize or work on to move forward to move things faster?

Can you set a rubric on evaluation? Is the state looking at its results? Is it being used to make changes? How often to visit classrooms? What process measures to use? Which classrooms to visit?

Funding adequacy—is there enough money here to provide a program of sufficient quality and intensity to achieve the goals we want for kids?

Is there a rubric for a continuous improvement process in place: how to structure for reliable scoring for states?

Follow up with early learning challenge grants: measure of how much progress is being made in these grants.

A rubric to assess state agency capacity; organizational model for P-3rd grade?

–Kirsty Clarke Brown


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


Early Education Has Its Day

December 11, 2014

Yesterday, the White House hosted its first Summit on Early Childhood Education. The Summit brought together a wide variety of stakeholders, including local government officials; private philanthropy; researchers; federal government officials; and business leaders. The President’s remarks can be seen here. The event also launched the InvestInUs campaign, administered by the First Five Years Fund to encourage private-public investment in a range of early childhood activities. The campaign released a profile of major private commitments, as well as highlighting notable “early learning communities” that may serve as models for other communities. The White House Council of Economic Advisers released a new report, The Economics of Early Childhood Investments, which examined the benefits of a wide range of early childhood education programs, from home visiting to kindergarten. A recap of the ongoing Twitter conversation can be seen here.

The Departments of Education and Health and Human Services also made major announcements aligned with the Summit. Eighteen states were announced as winners of competitive federal Preschool Development and Expansion Grants. Grant winners are displayed in Figure 1, with amounts in Figure 2.

Image Source: Department and Health and Human Services & Department of Education. (2014). What are preschool development grants? http://www2.ed.gov/programs/preschooldevelopmentgrants/pdgfactsheet.pdf

Image Source: Department and Health and Human Services & Department of Education. (2014). What are preschool development grants? http://www2.ed.gov/programs/preschooldevelopmentgrants/pdgfactsheet.pdf

Development grants are for states with no or small state-funded pre-K programs, while expansion grants are for those states with established programs to improve quality and increase access. More information on the current preschool offerings of these states is available here. The Departments estimate that this $226 million investment will expand services to more than 33,000 additional children in the first year alone and ensure that children are experiencing preschool of high quality. The Department has released score sheets and applications for winners and for those who did not receive funding.

The Department of Health and Human Services also announced preliminary grantees for their Early Head Start-Child Care partnerships. The program, which works with existing child care settings to expand access for infants and toddlers to high-quality care, will provide $435 million in funding to 234 grantees. The Department noted that it is still in negotiation with the agencies they’ve announced, and that the award amounts may be subject to change. The full allocation of $500 million will be awarded by the end of March 2015.

All told, this week’s announcements are adding new federal funds for early childhood education to 49 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Mariana Islands, and will serve an estimated 63,000 additional children. While state education departments and others who have worked hard on these applications are surely enjoying well-deserved celebrations, the greatest challenge may be on the horizon: implementing the plans and working toward the goal of expanding quality early education.

– Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER/CEELO


Keeping early learning at arm’s length

October 29, 2014

We are a nation intrigued by lists, and I am no exception. I scour lists from top to bottom on any number of topics, from best companies to work for to international rankings for educational performance. I also look for any underlying trends that may tell the story behind the list.

It should come as no surprise that I eagerly reviewed the recently released list of states applying for $250 million in federal Preschool Development Grants. These grants–ranging in size from $5-20 million per state to develop a preschool program to $10–35 million annually for 4 years to expand existing preschool services for low- and moderate-income children–present an opportunity for states to reach children who have fallen between the cracks when it comes to participating voluntarily in a high-quality preschool, an opportunity the majority of Americans are clamoring for. Fifteen states and Puerto Rico were eligible to receive development funds with the remaining 35 states and District of Columbia eligible to expand existing programs.

As the list was released, 8 states and Puerto Rico submitted development applications and 27 states sought funding for program expansion. Eighteen states applying for expansion funds currently receive Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge (ELC) grants, with only ELC recipients Michigan and Wisconsin choosing not to apply.

States That Submitted Applications for the FY 2014 Preschool Development Grants

Screen Shot 2014-10-28 at 9.12.53 PM

Image from the US Department of Education Office of Early Learning

There are many lenses one can use to look for underlying story lines; geographic and political leadership being two common sets. Looking at a map of applicants, a swath across the Midwest extending from Canada to Mexico appears desolate if not for Texas’ application, and there must be something in the water leaving a bad taste for 3 of 4 states touching Lake Michigan–or all 3 states surrounding Yellowstone’s Old Faithful–causing them to keep this opportunity at arm’s length.

Governors were required to submit the application for these funds and, as such, wield a great deal of power and influence. And, if one were looking to pit Democrats against Republicans, she’d be disappointed, sort of. Half of the states seeking development grants, and 11 of 27 states going for the expansion gold, are red states, to demonstrate that early education is a bipartisan, perhaps nonpartisan issue for most states. Yet the glass looks half-empty as one considers the list of states not submitting applications. All 7 states eligible for development grants and 7 of 8 states eligible for expansion have Republican governors. Indiana was poised to submit an application, but Governor Pence’s decision to withhold his signature at the last moment, for reasons explained as the state initiates a pre-K pilot, moved it to the other side of the ledger. The hidden story behind decisions by Florida, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia may stem not from political disinterest, but from recognition that policies and resources have already resulted in achieving near-universal access for 4-year-olds.

Opportunities like this do not come along often. I’d be naïve to think that politics play an inconsequential role in this day and age. Based on the actions of states to pursue Preschool Development Grant funds, one can reasonably conclude that support for pre-K is bipartisan; however, the opposition to pre-K still remains partisan. As a result, the opportunity gap is alive and well, when it could be addressed with political will and leadership, and, I fear, we are destined to admire the problem of straight-arming children who continue to fall through the cracks.

–Jim Squires, NIEER 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


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