It’s a big day in the early childhood world: The funding for a Race to the Top competition in early childhood programs was announced yesterday. Here’s an excerpt from the release:
The Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge will reward states that create comprehensive plans to transform early learning systems with better coordination, clearer learning standards, and meaningful workforce development. Secretary Duncan and Secretary Sebelius also challenged the broader innovation community – leading researchers, high-tech entrepreneurs, foundations, non-profits and others – to engage with the early learning community and to close the school readiness gap.
States applying for challenge grants will be encouraged to increase access to quality early learning programs for low income and disadvantaged children, design integrated and transparent systems that align their early care and education programs, bolster training and support for the early learning workforce, create robust evaluation systems to document and share effective practices and successful programs, and help parents make informed decisions about care for their children.
And quotes from the secretaries:
“To win the future, our children need a strong start,” said Secretary Duncan. “The Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge encourages states to develop bold and comprehensive plans for raising the quality of early learning programs across America.”
“This Challenge represents the Obama Administration’s commitment to helping vulnerable children and families reach their full potential,” said Secretary Sebelius. “Our collective health and financial security as a nation will depend on high quality investments during the critical early years of a child’s life.”
Recently, a new branch of Kumon, the tutoring company that is increasingly targeting young children, according to yesterday’s New York Times article, opened in my neighborhood, replacing an African American-owned clothing boutique. The neighborhood, Prospect Heights in Brooklyn, is one of the fastest changing neighborhoods in New York according to recent census numbers. The neighborhood is now 45 percent white, compared to 28 percent white in 2000. Pass by the local playground on a sunny spring day, and it’s obvious these demographic changes are primarily the result of young, middle-class families moving in.
So Kumon, which drills children as young as 2 on their letters and numbers, has probably made a very astute business decision. The question the New York Times article raises is whether the parents who are flocking to Kumon are as wise. The article suggests that the Kumon phenomenon is a result of the Tiger Mother hysteria, which was building even before Amy Chua published her book. (Wesley Yang’s recent cover article in New York Magazine has a few interesting points on whether imitating the Tiger Mother-style of parenting is a good thing, at least from a male perspective.)
Based on the research, the reality is that the parents who are fretting about whether their children will be able to read chapter books and multiply by first grade are the ones whose children will probably be just fine, whether or not they spend their afternoons running around a playground or practicing their vowels and consonants. In fact, the experts have argued that the playground is probably the better option for parents interested in raising the sort of well-adjusted, creative, intelligent young people who will do well in college and the job market 20 years from now.
Instead, perhaps middle class parents should be more concerned about the learning opportunities for low-income minority children who are not always so fortunate, and who will be the majority in the coming years. Ensuring that these kids get a good start will increasingly become just as imperative for the country’s prospects, and thus the prospects for their own kids.
During a recent BAM! Radio podcast, I discussed the topic of a blog post I wrote about the evidence disconnect in education with host Rae Pica, who asked why, when there’s so much good research, no one seems to be paying attention to it.
My fellow guests responded:
Virginia Casper, Dean of Bank Street College, pointed to two problems: “Not enough early childhood educators…are familiar with research,” she said. And, she added, “There are people who are familiar with it who still aren’t able to put it into classroom practice.”
Susan Ochshorn, founder of ECE Policy Works, suggested there is hope that education evidence might become more relevant: “More and more policymakers are aware of the research,” she said.
For the rest of the discussion, follow this link.
The recession hit early education hard last year, according to a survey of state spending released today by the National Institute for Early Education Research. For the first time since NIEER started keeping track in 2002, total spending by states on early childhood education declined.
There were a few bright spots – Alaska and Rhode Island began offering public preschool – but “the bad news tends to more than offset the good news,” said Steven Barnett, co-director of NIEER.
Barnett predicted that the situation will get worse. The impact of large state cuts was softened by increased federal spending on early education via the economic stimulus. Now, that stimulus money is gone.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan said he’s worried about the cuts. “The general trends are frankly not encouraging,” he said yesterday in a conference call with Barnett and reporters. “We have to get out of the catch-up game in education,” he added.
Barnett was especially frustrated about developments in Ohio, where the state government made large cuts to early childhood education, including cutting its full-day prekindergarten program entirely. “Just when parents have the least ability to provide” for their children, Barnett said, “the state pulls the rug out.”
Here’s what NIEER says are the key findings of its annual report:
- Five states (Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri and Ohio) now enroll fewer children in state preschool programs than they did 10 years ago.
- Enrollment nationally increased by 26,996 children. Nearly 1.3 million children attended state-funded preschools, more than 1 million at age 4 alone.
- Fourteen states increased the percent of 3- and 4-year-olds enrolled in state pre-K programs by at least one percentage point, while seven states saw decreases of at least one percentage point in the 2009-10 school year.
- Enrollment of 3-year-olds decreased across the country, with nine states cutting enrollment by 10 percent or more. Those states are Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, Ohio, South Carolina and Washington.
- The 2009-10 school year was the first tracked by NIEER in which total state funding for pre-K fell from the prior year.
- State pre-K spending per child decreased by $114 to $4,028 (adjusted for inflation), even with funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. This year, NIEER has added a second estimate of per-child spending, $4,212, which reflects a redefinition of California’s preschool program.
- State spending per child was almost $700 below its 2001-2002 level.
- After adjusting for inflation, state funding per child declined in 19 of the 40 states with programs. While only three states (Connecticut, Maine and Vermont) increased per-child spending by more than 10 percent, nine states (Alabama, Arizona, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Nebraska, Ohio and South Carolina) cut per-child spending by more than 10 percent.
- Twenty-three of the 40 states with programs failed to fully meet NIEER benchmarks for teacher qualifications, and 26 failed to meet the benchmark for assistant teacher qualifications.
- Five state programs met all 10 quality standards. They were Alabama, Alaska, one of the three Louisiana programs, North Carolina and Rhode Island.
- Four states (Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri and West Virginia) improved on NIEER’s Quality Standards Checklist, but two states (Ohio and Nebraska) lost ground.
There may be a lot of talk about education reform in Indiana right now, but it’s become increasingly clear that Tony Bennett, the new superintendent of instruction, won’t be emphasizing early childhood. And he’s citing the usual issue: lack of money.
Indiana has long trailed other states when it comes to public support of pre-kindergarten; it’s one of just eight in the U.S. that don’t fund it at all, according to NIEER. In addition, the Indianapolis Star reported recently, Indiana’s state laws don’t even require children to begin school until the fall when they turn seven.
While there’s new legislation introduced that would lower the age, financial issues could interfere.
“I would always say I support early childhood education, and when the economic climate affords itself, we must afford ourselves the opportunity to finish the job,” Bennett said in a recent interview with the Courier Press.
Kathleen McCartney, dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, is expressing concerns about the potential cuts to the national school readiness program Head Start, considered, in her words, “one of the lasting legacies of President Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty.”
In an essay for CNN.com, McCartney notes that “early childhood education is the single best investment we can make for our children,” and points out that potential U.S. House cuts of up to $22.4 percent in Head Start and Early Head Start funding would be “penny wise and pound foolish.”
President Obama has defended Head Start and said he’ll fight cuts, but he’s up against some serious Republican opposition, along with those who argue that the program is ineffective.
There has been a movement in recent years to beef up the credentials of early childhood teachers. New Jersey has been at the forefront, requiring bachelor’s degrees for preschool teachers who work in its poorest districts, and the federal Head Start administration is currently increasing its higher education requirements for teachers.
But do a teacher’s college credits really matter when it comes to outcomes for children? I discussed this question in a recent discussion led by Rae Pica with Valora Washington, president of Community Advocates for Young Learners, and Marcy Whitebrook, director at the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, on Bam! Radio.
“It’s not the right question,” said Whitebrook. “That education needs to be really early childhood specific to make a difference.”
So what does that mean for policy? To hear the whole discussion, click here.
The Obama administration budget has offered some hope to preschool advocates once again with the inclusion of the Early Learning Challenge Fund, an idea similar to the Race to the Top contest at the K-12 level. The bill failed last year in a Democrat-controlled contest, however, so it would be a surprise if it has a chance in the Republican-controlled House this year, where cutting spending across the board is the focus. Still, some folks are hopeful.
Here’s what Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a call with reporters yesterday:
“States are under huge financial pressure and we understand that but when
you’re under huge pressure you have to really think about what your
states priorities are. I don’t think, frankly, we need another study to
demonstrate the long term benefits of high quality early childhood
“If we’re serious about closing the achievement gap we have to
do so much more to get our children, particularly disadvantaged
children, ready for kindergarten, ready to learn, with their literacy
and socialization skills intact and half day programs that are often…
two and a half or three hours. That’s not enough time for children and I
don’t know how a working family or a mom working two or three jobs
trying to make ends meet, I don’t see how families sort of negotiate
that or figure that out.
“I more than recognize how tough the fiscal
times are, but scaling back on early childhood programs is just
something I think is just not in the best interest of communities and
Money for early childhood education may have stayed relatively stable last year, despite the fiscal crisis hitting many states, but there are concerns that this year the bottom could fall out as states grapple with growing deficits and the end of federal support via the stimulus. In Washington state, however, it looks like there are still several initiatives moving forward, according to the Birth to Thrive blog.
“The goals most likely to become realities this year are: expanding home visiting among at-risk families; developing the longitudinal data system for preschool to age 20; and revising and updating early learning and development benchmarks.”
A Florida bill that would require teachers to grade parent performance on their children’s report cards is causing an outcry this week. Does it make sense to judge parents on how well they’re doing given the importance of parental involvement, or is it counter-productive?
The bill is meant to “set standards for parental accountability,” and seems like a logical step in the abstract given the importance of family background on a child’s success in school. But teachers and administrators are complaining about the amount of work it will create for teachers along with a potentially “hostile” relationship between parents and teachers.
Although the bill outlines broad responsibilities for parents up until the 12th grade, the report cards would only go out to parents from preK to third grade. Here are the categories that parents would be graded on:
” (a) Parental response to requests for conferences or communication.
(b) The student’s completion of homework and preparation for tests.
(c) The student’s physical preparation for school that has an effect on mental preparation.
(d) The frequency of the student’s absence and tardiness.”
The bill doesn’t say why the report cards would only apply from preK to third grade. It is true that many educators consider this is a crucial time period when children are learning to read, and when parent modeling and reading at home can be a key factor in helping kids read on time and with fluency. It’s unclear, however, that the report cards will instruct parents on the steps they need to take to live up to the requirements, or to do the work of helping their children get ready to read, and it’s hard to grade someone on something they haven’t been taught.