Author Archives: Ashley LiBetti

Are You a Presidential Candidate With a Child Care Proposal? Pay Attention.

As candidates put forward their visions for 2020, potential Democratic frontrunner Elizabeth Warren has chosen to make childcare a centerpiece of her campaign to rebuild the middle class. Warren’s announcement builds on recent arguments that child care is a vehicle to increase women’s workforce participation and, therefore, economic growth. Warren’s proposal has since stimulated a good deal of coverage and debate about both the merits of her plan and the value of early childhood education more generally.

One overlooked factor in this debate is the debt that Warren’s plan owes to Head Start, which Warren acknowledges in the unveiling of the plan. Head Start, the country’s largest pre-K program, is a federally funded child development program that supports local early childhood programs to provide early learning, family engagement, and comprehensive supports for nearly one million preschoolers in poverty and their families every year.

Warren is smart to seize on Head Start as a model. Research shows that Head Start students overall make meaningful gains in school readiness during their time in Head Start, and that the quality of Head Start programs is better than many other early childhood settings. But other research shows that the quality of Head Start programs varies widely, with some programs producing much bigger school readiness gains than others.

My Bellwether colleague Sara Mead and I have spent the last three years studying five of the highest performing Head Start programs in the country, programs that have produced significant learning gains for the children they serve. We examined every aspect of these programs in an effort to understand what practices led to their effectiveness and how, as a field, we can leverage their successes to improve the quality of all early childhood programs — Head Start and otherwise.

After closely analyzing these programs’ practices, we produced a series of publications called “Leading by Exemplar,” released today. This research is the first of its kind to do such an in-depth study of program practices. It offers lessons for other Head Start programs and for policymakers — including Warren — who want to expand access to quality learning in the early childhood world.

So what is the “secret sauce” that contributes to these programs’ successes? Three practices stand out: Continue reading

Little Kids, Big Progress: New York Times’ Head Start Coverage

It’s not often that early childhood stories make the front page of the New York Times. But this week, the paper featured an article by Jason DeParle about Head Start, a federal early childhood program that serves nearly 900,000 low-income children, and how the quality of the program has improved over the past several years.

DeParle’s article is a great example of journalism that moves past the common (and relatively useless) question of “does Head Start work?” and goes deeper into exploring how the program has improved  its practices, including changes related to coaching, teacher preparation and quality, use of data, and the Designation Renewal System (all of which Bellwether has studied and written about previously). This type of reporting contributes to a more productive conversation about how to create high-quality early learning opportunities for all children that can inform changes to early childhood programs beyond Head Start.

Courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.

As DeParle points out and the data clearly show, while there is wide variation between individual programs, overall the quality of teaching in Head Start is improving. But while this trend is undoubtedly positive, it raises some questions: What effect will these changes ultimately have on children’s academic and life outcomes? And what can Head Start programs do to their program content and design to even better serve children?

Next month, Bellwether will release a suite of publications that tries to answer those questions. We identified five Head Start programs that have evidence of better-than-average impact on student learning outcomes and thoroughly examined these programs’ practices to understand how they contributed to their strong performance. I visited each program, conducted in-depth interviews with program leadership and staff, reviewed program documents and data, hosted focus groups with teachers and coaches, and observed classroom quality using the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, CLASS (the measure of teaching quality on which DeParle notes Head Start classrooms nationally have shown large quality improvements). By better understanding the factors that drive quality among grantees and identifying effective practices, we hope to help other programs replicate these exemplars’ results and advance an equity agenda.

As the New York Times front page recently declared, Head Start’s progress offers a ray of hope in a dysfunctional federal political landscape. But there is still room for progress. Looking at what high-performing programs do well can help extend the reach and impact of recent changes to produce even stronger outcomes for young children and their families.

Three Questions About the Bezos Day One Fund

When Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced the new Bezos Day One Fund, a $2 billion investment in children and families, people noticed. Love it or hate it, everyone has strong feelings about Amazon, and Bezos is now turning his online sales-fueled largesse toward schools.

Jeff Bezos on May 5, 2016

Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon

Plenty of details remain to be worked out, but part of the investment will “launch and operate a network of high-quality, full-scholarship, Montessori-inspired preschools in underserved communities.” That’s good news. Research shows that high-quality preschool can lead to increases in children’s learning, particularly for historically underserved groups of children. If even 1 percent of the $2 billion investment goes to preschool, that’s more than Nevada, Missouri, Delaware, Alaska, and Hawaii combined spend on preschool.

Still, the impact of the Day One preschools will come down to complicated and specific program design decisions. So before we really celebrate, here are three questions early education advocates should be asking:

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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.

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?

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