Category Archives: Research

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.

As Homeschooling Continues to Grow, Here Are 4 Things You Should Know

With ESSA largely pushing accountability back to the states, the continued growth of the charter sector, increasing backlash against standardized testing, and the recent announcement that school voucher advocate Betsy DeVos is President-Elect Trump’s choice for Secretary of Education, it is clear that education policy is trending towards local control and school choice. One overlooked aspect of this shift is the growth of homeschooling.

Earlier this month, the American Institutes for Research (AIR) and the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) released a report analyzing homeschooling trends in the United States from 1999 to 2012. The practice has become much more popular over the past decade, as the homeschooling rate doubled from 1.7 percent in 1999 to 3.4 percent in 2012. That means there are now roughly 1.8 million students being schooled at home. By comparison, charter schools — which receive much of the education sector’s attention — enroll just under three million students.

So, as the homeschooling sector continues to grow, here are four things you should know: Continue reading

The Charter Model Goes to Preschool

Richmond College Prep emphasizes a student-centered atmosphere.

Photo courtesy of Richmond College Prep

Over the past 20 years, both charter schools and prekindergarten have taken on increasingly prominent roles in the schooling of America’s children. Charter schools in 43 states now serve more than 2.6 million students — roughly six percent of all students attending public schools. And more than two-thirds of four-year-olds attend some form of public or privately funded preschool, with 1.4 million of them enrolled in state-funded pre-k programs.

As separate reforms, charter schools and pre-k produce strong, positive results for high-need children. But what happens if we marry high-performing charter schools with high-quality pre-k? Could the combination of these two reforms produce a result better than the sum of its parts?

Continue reading

Let’s Take a Closer Look at “Child Care Deserts”

A new report from the Center for American Progress (CAP) looks at “Child Care Deserts,” which CAP defines as communities with no licensed child care centers, or where the number of children under age five dramatically exceeds licensed child care center capacity. Looking acrossChildCareDeserts the eight states for which CAP was able to acquire data, the analysis finds that nearly half of children in these states live in child care deserts. Quality child care settings are even more scarce.

The analysis also illustrates significant geographic variation in how child care is distributed. Rural children are particularly likely to live in child care deserts: nearly 55 percent of rural children live in such communities, as opposed to about one-third of both urban and suburban kids. The percentage of children living in child care deserts varies across states: from less than one-third in Maryland, to roughly two-thirds of all children under five in Ohio, Minnesota, and Illinois. Communities with high or low rates of poverty tend to have more childcare access, while those in the middle are more likely to be child care deserts. This suggests that public subsidies and publicly funded programs have been successful in improving access to childcare in communities with more poor families. Urban and higher-poverty communities also tended to have higher quality child care options.

It’s an interesting and important analysis, and CAP deserves credit for casting light on issues of child care supply, in addition to cost, and bringing an empirical light to these conversations. A few caveats are worth noting, however:

  • Demand for child care is a complicated thing. CAP’s analysis uses the number of children in a community under age 5 as a proxy for demand for child care, but it’s an imperfect proxy. Research from the census bureau indicates that more than half of families with children under age 5 do not pay for child care, including some families in which the mother works full time. In some communities, there may limited demand for child care because many families prefer to stay home with their children, use informal and family care arrangements, or because there are few attractive work opportunities for parents. Obviously, there’s a bit of a chicken and egg question here: Child care supply may be low in some communities because demand is also limited, but it’s also possible that more parents would work and demand childcare if more options were available. To really solve this problem at a local level, much better analysis on demand is required.
  • Growing capacity requires targeted investments in supply. CAP highlights their proposal for a High-Quality Child Care Tax Credit as a strategy to increase supply of quality child care, by providing parents with more resources to pay for care. But building the supply of quality care in communities with few existing options will likely require more direct supply-side strategies to incentivize new providers to open or existing quality operators to expand to these communities (as I wrote about in the first chapter of our recent release), and to help cover start-up costs. The investments that I’ve proposed to build the supply of quality schools could also help to grow the supply of quality child care in underserved communities.
  • Child care “swamps” are also a problem. CAP’s analysis focuses on communities with a lack of child care supply. This is clearly an issue in some rural communities. And if you live in a high-cost urban area like Washington, D.C., where families often face long wait lists for child care slots, it can be easy to think child care shortages are a national problem. But oversupply of child care in some communities is equally problematic. Many states’ regulatory policies create few barriers to entry into the market. This can lead to more seats than children who need them, resulting in under-enrollment that makes it hard for providers to be economically viable or to have the resources they need to invest in quality. This is exacerbated when operators open child care centers without fully assessing market need or developing strong business models. Improving access to quality child care in these communities may actually require increasing barriers to entry, reducing the number of child care slots, and developing concerted strategies to direct or match families with higher quality options.

Go Forth and Improve, Teacher Preparation Programs. But Don’t Ask How.

2018663891_2209bb4ffe_o

Image by Kevin Dooley via Flickr

A few weeks ago, former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wrote an open letter calling out education schools. In it, he made several blunt remarks about the quality of teacher preparation programs, including that current teacher training “lacks rigor, is out of step with the times, and […] leaves teachers unprepared and their future students at risk.”

What the former Secretary’s letter didn’t include, however, were specifics on how preparation programs should improve. He talked a lot about grades, and about holding teachers to high standards, but that’s it.

At this point, you may be thinking: “You can’t expect him to get into the nitty gritty! The letter was more an op-ed than a policy brief.”

Sure. But then last week, the Department of Education released the final version of its long-awaited teacher preparation regulations. The regulations are an effort to hold teacher preparation programs accountable for the performance of the teachers they train after those teachers enter the classroom. Using teacher performance data, the regulations require states to create a system that rates programs as effective, at-risk, or low-performing.

Like the open letter, these regulations are devoid of specifics for how programs should improve. They say that states need to provide technical assistance for low-performing programs, for example, but don’t hint at what that support should look like. When the regulations were out for public comment, which were due in February 2015, several commenters suggested that the regulations should include specific prescriptions for what states need to do to support programs — but the Department declined, saying instead that states have “the discretion to implement technical assistance in a variety of ways.”

Why do both of these documents — representing the past and future of the highest education office — say practically nothing about how preparation programs can get better?

The answer is depressing: As a field, we don’t know how to build a better teacher preparation program.

That’s what Melissa Steel King and I found in our latest paper, A New Agenda: Research to Build a Better Teacher Preparation Program. There’s half a century of research on what makes a good teacher, but that research provides only the barest outlines of what an effective preparation program should look like. So much of teacher prep research asks “Does it work?” when really we need to be asking, “How well does it work, for whom, and under what circumstances?” Continue reading