Category Archives: Early Childhood Education

Three Lessons for Reforming State Early Childhood Systems “In Crisis”

preschool teacherLast week, Massachusetts’ House Speaker Robert DeLeo declared his state’s early childhood workforce “in crisis.” How did he come to this conclusion? A year ago, DeLeo asked local business leaders to examine the state’s early childhood education system, and last week they released a report showing unacceptably low salaries and high turnover among early childhood educators in the state.

But Massachusetts is no anomaly. If we applied the criteria used by the Massachusetts Advisory Group to any state in the country, that state’s early childhood workforce would also be deemed “in crisis.”

So what can state legislators serious about reforming their early childhood workforce do? Past efforts to improve public pre-k programs and federal efforts to professionalize the Head Start workforce offer several lessons. Continue reading

Choice is Coming – But for Pre-K, It’s Already Here

Betsy DeVos is top-of-mind right now, particularly after her tense confirmation hearing on Tuesday night. Front and center in most of these conversations is DeVos’ strong support for school choice. What’s getting little attention, however, is what DeVos could accomplish on early childhood issues.3969866244_b02e13b9fb_o

We don’t know much about DeVos’ views on early education, but I’m personally hopeful that she takes a lesson from her home state: Michigan has a strong state-funded pre-k program that utilizes “diverse delivery.” “Diverse delivery” is another way of saying “school choice for early childhood.” In this system, parents of young children pick from a range of early childhood providers — including for-profit centers, churches, nonprofit community-based organizations, and school districts — based on whatever factors they deem most important. And in Michigan, unlike many other states, charter schools are included in the pre-k program. That model is something DeVos should bring to the national stage.

Michigan’s state-funded preschool program, the Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP), is a good example of diverse delivery in action. Funding for the program goes to intermediate school districts (ISDs); ISDs then contract with a variety of providers, all of which must meet a state-determined standard of quality, to actually serve preschool children. GSRP is targeted to families that make less than 250% of the federal poverty level, so if children are eligible to participate, their parents can send them to any GSRP center that has space for them.

And research suggests that Michigan’s program is effective. A 2005 study of five states, including Michigan, showed that children who participated in state-funded preschool had better vocabulary, early math skills, and understanding of print concepts than children who did not attend. GSRP is also growing. Between 2013 and 2015, Gov. Rick Snyder upped the investment in GSRP by $130 million. The program currently serves 32 percent of four-year-olds in the state, more than 35 other states.

And many of those children are served in charter school pre-k programs. Michigan is one of the more hospitable states for charter schools to serve preschoolers. In fact, Michigan has 76 charter schools that serve preschoolers, which is the fourth highest in the country behind California, Florida, and Texas.

This type of charter school/pre-k synergy is rare even though most states already have pre-k systems that incorporate a range of public providers. Diverse delivery may be old news in the early childhood world, but that’s not necessarily the case when it comes to certain providers — specifically charter schools. States that have offered pre-k choice for decades struggle with how to best incorporate charter schools as an early childhood option for parents.

Even so, early childhood is already more supportive of choice in ways that are controversial in K-12 — as evidenced by Tuesday’s hearing . In a column for U.S. News earlier this month, Andy Rotherham astutely noted that with Betsy DeVos at the helm of the country’s education agenda, “More choice is coming to education — it’s a question of when and how rather than if.” DeVos should take a cue from Michigan and start by expanding choice in early childhood.

To read our other coverage of Betsy DeVos, click here.

A Very American Story: Access Determined by Zip Code

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We’ve accepted in American political discourse and rhetoric that “a zip code should not determine a child’s future.” But our public policies have a long way to go, especially in the domain of early childhood education, one of the most effective policy strategies for ensuring low-income children are prepared for academic and lifelong success. In fact, a report published last month by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) reveals that an eligible child’s access to Head Start — the only federal pre-k program — is constrained by where he/she resides.

Head Start was first instituted in 1965 as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’’s War on Poverty. The program served low-income children long before most states adopted state-funded pre-k programs and specifically aimed to ameliorate the effects of growing up in poverty through comprehensive child development programs. Started as a niche summer program that served 560,000 children, today Head Start serves nearly one million children across the country year round.

NIEER’s State(s) of Head Start is the first report in Head Start’s 50-year history to examine Head Start enrollment, funding, quality, and duration across the states. It reveals that only 18% of low-income three-year-olds and 21 percent of low-income four-year-olds receive Head Start services. Additionally, it shows that access to Head Start varies greatly by state. For example, among three- and four-year-olds living in poverty, 100% of eligible children in North Dakota attended Head Start programs in 2014-2015, whereas just 16% of eligible children in Nevada were enrolled in Head Start programs. In other words a poor three- or four-year-old in Nevada has less than a one in five chance of attending Head Start, while a poor child in North Dakota has a 100% chance of attending Head Start.

Even less three-year-olds living in poverty across the country have access to Head Start. The number of enrolled three-year-olds as a percent of children in poverty ranges from 2.7% in Nevada to 13% in the District of Columbia. The picture for low-income children in Nevada is concerning. There is a large population of children living in poverty, but the state has the lowest percentage of children living in poverty enrolled in Head Start of any state. In certain states the lack of Head Start spots would be less concerning because they have robust state pre-k programs that serve a high percentage of low-income children. This is not the case in Nevada.  Nevada’s public pre-k program is not serving these vulnerable children. Overall, only 6.72% of four-year-olds in the state are enrolled in Head Start or state funded pre-k.

Further complicating access inequities is the fact that states with large Hispanic populations are receiving less money per child enrolled in Head Start. Colorado, Florida, New Mexico, and Texas — all states with large Latinx populations — receive less funding per Head Start child than the national average.

In the report, authors Barnett and Friedman-Krauss write: “We can think of no reason that poor children in one state are less deserving of a strong early childhood program than those in another.”

So what actually explains these inequities? Continue reading

PaidLeave4DC is Good for Children and Families but Hardly “Generous”

Earlier this week, the DC Council passed “one of the nation’s most generous” paid family leave policies. As I’ve written previously, these policies improve a child’s cognitive, social, and emotional development, which in turn improves a child’s lifelong academic achievement. Paid leave also increases infant health since it increases the likelihood of early childhood checkups and immunizations.

But DC’s policy can hardly be viewed as an adequate amount of time to best foster child development. While DC’s policy marks important progress for the District’s children, the policy can only be deemed one of the country’s most generous because American policies are anachronistic and backwards.

We are the only industrialized nation with no federal law mandating parental leave — other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries offer an average of thirty six weeks. It’s easy for any new policy passed by a US municipality or state to be deemed “generous,” “cutting edge,” or “revolutionary.” At this rate, a state mandating a week of paid family leave could be deemed generous — even though such a policy would have minimal impact on young children and their families.

The original DC proposal would have offered sixteen weeks paid parental leave and was therefore viewed as groundbreaking. The Council ultimately passed a bill providing only eight weeks of leave, but despite this, news coverage nonetheless focuses on the generosity of the plan. Sure, the eight weeks provided by the DC bill is more than the six weeks passed by the San Francisco board of supervisors in April (which was also deemed at the time the “most generous family leave law”) or the four weeks provided in Rhode Island. And the 90% of pay provided under the DC plan (capped at $1,000 a week) is more generous than New York State’s plan to provide 67% of an employee’s pay.

Others view DC’s plan as generous because it offers leave to parents of both genders, as opposed to, for example, the six weeks offered to pregnant mothers in PEOTUS Donald Trump’s proposed child care plan. But all of these offerings are less than the amount of time recommended by doctors — at least twelve weeks, but preferably twenty four weeks. And they pale in comparison to international norms. Parents in Korea are offered 52 weeks of paid leave. Parents in at least 16 countries receive such generous leave policies they can be measured in a larger metric: a year.

How did the US come to be so backwards when it comes to leave policies?  By World War II, almost all developed countries offered working women some form of paid maternity leave. The US remained an outlier. For decades, Democrats sought to pass a paid parental leave bill. In 1993, they settled for the Family and Medical Leave (FMLA), which provides up to 12 weeks unpaid family leave for employees to care for seriously ill family members or the arrival of a child. This federal law only applies to employees who work at companies with 50 employees, and on top of that, many workers are unable to take advantage of the law because they cannot afford to do so. Family leave advocates viewed the FMLA as a starting point but have been unable to expand the law in the intervening fifteen years. As a result, paid family leave has come to be viewed as a political pipe dream.

But in the last few years, at the local and state level, things have begun to change. One reason for this — besides the lack of a workable federal approach — is an Obama Administration Department of Labor program which provided federal grants to help cities design paid family leave proposals.

We should continue to celebrate any and all state and local efforts to guarantee paid family leave. But conversations about our country’s progress must consistently acknowledge the truly antiquated nature of our current approach to parental leave. Only 12% of workers in the U.S. have paid family leave, and less than half of US companies offer paid leave. Access is largely determined by income.

You know who actually provides the most “generous,” “cutting edge,” and “revolutionary” family leave policies? Tech companies such as Adobe, Amazon, Google, Etsy, Microsoft, Netflix, Spotify, and Twitter; the credit card company AmEx; and the Swedish-based company Ikea. Netflix offers up to a year of leave. In March, Etsy announced a plan offering twenty six weeks of paid leave to parents of either gender. A week ago, AmEx announced that it will offer twenty weeks of paid leave to parents of either gender. Earlier this month, Ikea announced that it will offer sixteen weeks paid parental leave to American employees of either gender. Ikea’s policy is notable because it provides the same benefits to salaried and hourly workers, whereas most corporate policies only apply to high-skilled employees. This inequality is exactly why we need government laws to mandate paid family leave.

If the policy goes into effect (Congress can override it), DC will be one of the few “states” to offer both paid leave for employees and universal pre-k to all three and four year olds — demonstrating a true commitment to serving young children and their families. Together these two critical early childhood policies could improve the academic achievement and life outcomes of an entire generation of children.

Starting Earlier than Pre-K Provides More Benefits For Disadvantaged Kids

Earlier this week there were a flurry of news articles covering Nobel-prize winning economist James Heckman’s latest report“The Lifecycle Benefits of an Influential Early Childhood Program.” The report presents compelling evidence that offering high-quality intensive early childhood education experiences to children living in poverty dramatically improves their long-term health, education and earnings.

Some in the education community were surprised by the amount of press coverage the report received and interpreted the study as simply reinforcing the existing body of pre-k research. While the study does build on Heckman’s previous analysis of the health benefits of the same two programs, what many people don’t understand is that Heckman is examining intensive early childhood programs which served children from eight weeks old through age five, not one or two years of pre-k programs. This misunderstanding reinforces Heckman’s argument that public discussion has ossified around the idea that public pre-k for four year olds is the best solution to ameliorate the effects of childhood poverty. In fact, that is not true. Heckman’s reseach shows more intensive early childhood programs produce even more dramatic impacts which persist into adulthood.

Heckman’s latest study analyzes the lifetime impact of two early childhood programs from the 1970s: the Carolina Abecedarian Study (ABC) and Carolina Approach to Responsive Education (CARE), which served disadvantaged children from 8 weeks to age five. Heckman and his co-authors examined the long-term impacts of the programs across multiple dimensions, including education level, personal earnings, parental earnings, crime, and health effects. The study finds that the program produced a 13% rate of return (or $6.30 for every $1 spent). This return includes reduced crime, better health effects (lower rates of diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, etc.) higher education levels and higher incomes for the participants and their parents. Previously, Heckman found that the Perry Preschool program (which served disadvantaged three- and four-year-olds) produced a 7-10% return. Along with a higher return on investment, the new ABC and CARE analysis finds graduates had higher IQs at age 21 than control group counterparts. In comparison, the participants in the Perry pre-k program did not display lasting IQ effects in adulthood. No pre-k studies have shown lasting IQ effects without fadeout. Therefore, this new research reveals that early childhood programs that start early have a greater impact than pre-k programs. 

This is not a particularly surprising finding. More intensive interventions are more likely to positively impact a child. This explains why children who spend two years in pre-k make greater gains than those who attend for only one year and why children in full-day programs make greater gains than those in half-day programs. Additionally, we know life cycle skill formation is dynamic in nature and that skill begets skill.

Heckman’s previous research on the Perry Preschool program played an important role in convincing policymakers across the spectrum that public pre-k pays for itself long term. As a result, we’ve seen growing political support for universal pre-k and the adoption of new state and local pre-k programs. Even with this growing support, only 29% of four year olds across the country are enrolled in public pre-k. The number of three year olds is even smaller, at 5%.

While it’s unlikely that any local communities will suddenly decide to start public school for infants, as some misleading headlines have tried to suggest, Heckman’s research should encourage policymakers to consider a more comprehensive approach to early childhood education which includes coordinated interventions from birth to age five. Currently, few states or local communities allocate enough resources to provide universal pre-k, so its hard to imagine them suddenly adopting comprehensive programs that start at birth, especially since programs like ABC and CARE are more expensive – at least $18,514 per year. Heckman is adamant that policymakers should make calculations based on benefits instead of costs. Looking through the benefits lens, more comprehensive approaches to early childhood education that start at infancy would produce huge dividends for society.

In a world where minimal funding is allocated to early childhood education, one might ask: does Heckman’s research mean states and municipalities should move away from expanding pre-k programs and instead adopt programs for infants and toddlers? As my colleague Sara Mead has argued, this is a false choice. A robust early childhood system should include universal pre-k, high-quality programs for infants and toddlers, and targeted interventions for disadvantaged children. But communities with truly limited funding that are serious about curbing childhood poverty should allocate funding to children with the greatest need. For that money to truly provide the greatest return, it should fund a more comprehensive program that starts in infancy.