Category Archives: Early Childhood Education

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:

Continue reading

Moving Away from Magical Thinking: Understanding the Current State of Pre-K Research

Depending on what newspaper or website you’ve read most recently, you may think it’s time for your local municipality or state to fully fund pre-K or that the increasing focus on expanding pre-K is completely overblown. Either early childhood education is the panacea for all our problems and achievement gaps, or it’s not a worthwhile investment. The truth lies somewhere in between.

Universal pre-K by itself is not going to inculcate children from future bad educational experiences or magically rectify all of the problems inherent in the U.S. education system. But high-quality pre-K is still an important public investment that can dramatically improve young children’s early educational experiences and long-term outcomes.

Still pre-K advocates need to reckon with emerging research which conflicts with the accepted wisdom that early childhood education has significant long-term effects and make sure their arguments are nuanced so that the benefits of pre-K are not oversold. Even though increasing access to government-funded pre-K is embraced by politicians from both parties, advocates must not adopt rhetoric that overpromises.

Writing for the Brookings Institute earlier this month, Grover “Russ” Whitehurst asserts that it is time for pre-K advocates to “confront the evidence” and accept that expanding access to state pre-K for four year olds is unlikely to enhance student achievement. In his analysis, Whitehurst looks at the relationship between a state’s prekindergarten enrollment and fourth grade scores of students on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP). He finds that states with large pre-K enrollments have students who perform slightly better — but that the effects are small. Whitehurst also references the latest evaluation of Tennessee’s state pre-K program, which ultimately found that while the program had short-term effects on child achievement at the end of pre-K, these effects disappeared as children entered elementary school and turned somewhat negative by third grade. In other words, by third grade, the control group — children who did not attend state pre-K — scored significantly higher in math and science than the pre-K group.

It is certainly important for pre-K advocates to acknowledge this research, but Whitehurst makes the wrong conclusions. He insists that pre-K advocates need to temper our “enthusiasm for more of the same” and consider other policy proposals to address poverty. But when reading Tennessee’s results, there are a number of variables worth considering:

  • Is the Tennessee program truly high-quality?
  • Is there something about the Tennessee program that makes it different than other state pre-K programs?
  • Are Tennessee’s children receiving sub-par K-3rd grade education?
  • Are pre-K students repeating content they already mastered in kindergarten and therefore tuning out from classwork?
  • Are pre-K students receiving less attention from their early elementary school teachers?
  • Are the positive impacts of pre-K more likely to be captured in an analysis of children’s social-emotional development?

When children flounder after a year of PK-12 education, concerned individuals shouldn’t just throw the baby out with the bathwater. As my colleague Sara Mead has written: “Asking whether ‘pre-K works’ is as pointless a question as asking whether fourth grade works.” Continue reading

What Japan’s Rental Family Industry Can Teach Us About Child Care in the United States

When I started reading Elif Batuman’s recent New Yorker piece on Japan’s rental family business, I expected it to be fascinating. What I didn’t expect was that it would offer striking insights on the current debate over credentials and compensation for early childhood workers in the United States. You should really read Batuman’s whole piece, but the key paragraph is here:

In a sense, the idea of a rental partner, parent, or child is perhaps less strange than the idea that childcare and housework should be seen as the manifestations of an unpurchasable romantic love. Patriarchal capitalism has arguably had a vested interest in promoting the latter idea as a human universal: as the Marxist psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich pointed out, with women providing free housework and caregiving, capitalists could pay men less. There were other iniquities, too. As [19th Century Utopian feminist Charlotte Perkins] Gilman observed, when caregiving becomes the exclusive, unpaid purview of wives and mothers, then people without families don’t have access to it: “only married people and their immediate relatives have any right to live in comfort and health.” Her solution was that the unpaid work incumbent on every individual housewife—nursery education, household-work management, food preparation, and so on—should be distributed among paid specialists, of both genders. What often happens instead is that these tasks, rather than becoming respected, well-paid professions, are foisted piecemeal onto socioeconomically disadvantaged women, freeing their more privileged peers to pursue careers.

Ultimately, this is the core of what the debate over early childhood teacher compensation and credentials is about: As I’ve written in the past, too often these debates still reflect a kind of assumption that childcare is a manifestation of “unpurchasable” love (and that because of that, people who care for children don’t deserve to be well-paid).

Due to that assumption and an unwillingness to confront the real costs of caring for children (and really, for one another), our society is unwilling to accord people who care for and educate young children the professional status or economic value they deserve. The resulting system works well for no one, but it means the costs of professional opportunity for the educated and affluent are born disproportionately by low-income, less-educated, often racial and ethnic minority women. The resulting high rates of early educator turnover in many settings are harmful for children’s development.

Changing this system is crucial to children’s development, gender equity, and social justice for early care and education workers. But in order to do so, we must confront both the underlying history and attitudes that continue to affect thinking about the value of caring for young children, and the economic/financing challenge of how to pay fairly for work society has historically expected to get free or at a great discount by oppressing women.

Until we can honestly engage both, we cannot expect anything meaningful to change.

Early Childhood Educator Profession and Competencies: Our Take on What “Power to the Profession” Gets Right and Wrong

Bellwether’s early childhood team regularly publishes research and analysis on the early childhood workforce and advises foundations and other clients seeking to improve early childhood teaching, strengthen the early childhood workforce, and support early childhood educators. In our work we routinely confront the deep disconnect between what research demonstrates about the importance of and skills required for high-quality early childhood teaching and the inconsistent standards, low compensation, and lack of professional prestige accorded to early educators.

two teachers read to preschool students

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

In light of this, we’ve been avidly following the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) Power to the Profession process, which seeks to advance the early childhood field by defining a unifying framework for career pathways; knowledge; and competencies, qualifications, standards, and compensation.

This work is being carried out in iterative cycles by a Task Force representing 15 professional associations and organizations related to the early childhood field. In February, the Task Force released draft recommendations for Decision Cycles 3-5, which deal with qualifications requirements for early childhood educators and sources and pathways for acquiring competencies and credentials. The recommendations have sparked lively debate in the field. My overall take, shared with my colleagues Ashley LiBetti and Marnie Kaplan, is that the recommendations would represent progress in setting a baseline of training for early childhood educators in many roles and settings, but could also represent a step backwards in standards for teachers leading publicly funded pre-K classrooms serving 3- and 4-year-olds.

We also believe it’s crucial that any conversation about qualifications for early childhood educators engage seriously with the need to improve quality of early childhood educator preparation programs — as well as the tensions and gaps in knowledge about how best to do so. These conversations also need to provide space for innovative thinking about new models for delivering preparation and training that meet the needs of current and prospective early educators with diverse life and professional experiences and prior education backgrounds.

Marnie, Ashley, and I published our full comments* on these recommendations here:screenshot of first page of Power to the Profession comments

You can learn what others are saying here or comment yourself by visiting NAEYC’s survey here.

Want to know more from Bellwether? Check out our recent research and reports on the Head Start workforce, what we know about coaching as a strategy to improve early childhood teaching quality, the role of community colleges in early childhood preparation, and what it would take to make equitable access to quality higher education a reality for all pre-K teachers.

*Note: The statements contained in this comment reflect the personal views of the authors, and should not be attributed to Bellwether Education Partners or any others within the organization. Bellwether does not take organizational positions except on issues that affect nonprofit organizations as a class.