EarlyStories examined some suggested new rules for Head Start recently, and now a leading expert on early childhood is lauding the Obama administration in a Washington Post op-ed for proposing a new system he says could force much-needed improvements to the $8 billion program for 3- and 4-year-olds. The op-ed makes it clear that what happens before children set foot in a public-school classroom is an integral part of the national debate on education.
“A substantial number of Head Start programs are so ineffective that they do little or nothing to boost child development and learning,” said W. Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Ron Haskins, co-director of the Brookings Institution’s Center on Children and Families, co-authored the op-ed with Barnett.
Center leaders have not entirely welcomed the proposals. Some are worried that competition would be costly, and could create more uncertainty and possibly chaos. Large centers have expressed concerns that they’ll be singled out simply because their size could lead to more problems.
The Post piece comes as a new, must-read collection of papers assessing federal policies for early childhood education and child care was released by NIEER, entitled “Investing in Young Children: New Directions in Federal Preschool and Early Childhood Policy.”
The recession is taking its toll and jeopardizing expansion of early childhood in some states, so it was interesting to read this week about effort to ramp up the quality of current programs.
The issue of quality is a huge one for child care and early education programs. Professor Sharon Lynn Kagan of Teachers College consults with early childhood programs around the world, and when she speaks about the U.S. she often points out how few programs are of high quality — meaning well-funded, with trained staffs and teachers, a well thought out curriculum and clear standards.
In California, there are some new efforts to create a child-care rating system based on the education of staff, the way adults interact with children and parental involvement in a program, according to a recent story.
And Massachusetts this week moved a step closer to creating a system to evaluate the quality of programs and provide incentives for them to approve, according to a story in the “eye on early education,” blog, which notes that 21 states are piloting a program that defines standards for four levels of quality. Creating such a system is important for Massachusetts, where 92 percent of all children under the age of 7 are regularly cared for by someone who is not a family member, according a recent brief.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently released the Child Care Quality Rating System (QRS) Assessment: Compendium of Quality Rating Systems and Evaluations, a helpful document for journalists or anyone who is looking at the critical issue of child care services and programs.
An interesting report today from the recession battered state of Michigan: It found that pre-school attendance saves taxpayers money and can be a sound investment by giving youngsters a foundation they need to become productive members of society.
The report comes at a time when Michigan, struggling with reduced tax revenues and high unemployment, has cut many of its publicly supported early childhood programs back drastically.
The report, entitled “Cost Savings, Analysis of School Readiness in Michigan,” found that investments the state has made in fully preparing young children for school has saved an estimated $1.15 billion over 25 years because the boost children got in pre-school programs decreased their need to repeat grades. The solid foundation also saved the state money by identifying disabilities in children early and cutting down on juvenile delinquency.
Wilder Research completed the study, commissioned by the state’s Early Childhood Investment Corporation., a state-wide initiative aimed at fostering school readiness.
A story on the report in the Grand Rapids Press noted that the state-funded programs that began in Michigan some 25 years ago are geared largely for poor children who don’t come to kindergarten with the same level of vocabulary and school experiences of their peers.
“Based on past participation and success rates of early education programs in Michigan, an estimated 80,000 adults, age 18 to 29, in the Michigan labor force today are high school graduates who likely would have dropped out of school if not for Michigan’s past investment in their school readiness,” the report found.
Michigan was among 10 states that lowered funding for pre-kindergarten for 2010, despite early promises from Gov. Jennifer Granholm.
It's interesting to see the evolution taking place in North Dakota, a state that has notoriously resisted publicly funded pre-kindergarten. According to an article in the Fargo Forum, federal aid in the form of some $30 million in stimulus funds has spiked enrollment in early childhood education programs, including pre-kindergarten.
And teachers are starting to notice the difference, according to the Forum article — they can tell which students have had some pre-school education as soon as they walk in the door.
The pre-school issue is particularly fascinating in North Dakota because of the state’s consistent resistance to the concept of funding it. For the last three years, just seven school districts in the state had pre-kindergarten programs, this year, there are 40.
Those programs will be watched closely now, as federal aid lasts only two years. If there are any studies or ways to quantify the results, it will be important information, as opponents of pre-kindergarten have fought loudly against pre-kindergarten and called it little more than subsidized babysitting.
That’s why it will be important to track what is happening in the programs this year and next — and why journalists should visit them and help give the public a sense of how they get children ready for kindergarten and what comes next.
Tiny Rhode Island is a struggling state economically. The unemployment rate of some 13 percent in September is among the highest in the U.S. The state’s economic woes are outsized. That is one reason EarlyStories found it so refreshing to see the excellent story the Providence Journal ran this week describing life inside the state’s first publicly funded pre-kindergarten program. Education perhaps cannot save the economy immediately, but it’s important to continue reporting on education developments in the toughest of times.
The story did everything a well reported piece on pre-kindergarten education should do. The reporter spent time in the classroom, observing children and talking with teachers. The story included the perspective of researchers and state officials. It described how students were admitted and included interviews with parents on the difference pre-kindergarten is making in the lives of their children.
Readers came away with a much better understanding of how and why such programs matter, a story even a state in the grips of an an economic crisis can embrace.
“In Providence, research suggests that as recently as three years ago, almost a third of children arrived in kindergarten ill-prepared to learn their letters,” Gina Marcris wrote. She added later on that the program “is designed to build bridges between home and school by regularly reporting progress and educating parents about the purpose of their children’s play.”
It hasn’t been easy to get such a program off the ground in the tiny state, which was previously one of only 12 in the U.S. without a public program. Previous stories have noted the difficult fight the state had to get the pilot program started.
(As photo shows, there are lots of recreation opportunities for little ones in scenic Idaho, but no publicly funded pre-school options)
The Times News of Idaho performed an important public service in an editorial this week, noting that economic changes in the remote and beautiful state have created a dire need for early childhood education.
EarlyStories noticed the piece because Idaho is one of the twelve states that does not publicly fund any pre-kindergarten programs.
“Two-thirds of all Idaho parents are now working outside the home, making early childhood education a more urgent priority,” the editorial noted. “The Legislature should lift the ban on state funding for teaching 4-year-olds and permit school districts that want to offer preschool programs do so.”
Idaho parents have to rely on a patchwork system that includes private nursery schools, but at a time when the state’s residents are hurting economically it is more difficult for families. And as the editorial pointed out, the state is going through some tough times: “There are more two-income families, fewer of us own homes and the number of grandparents who are raising their grandchildren has increased more than 60 percent.”
In tough times like these, the need for free, publicly funded early childhood education is greater than ever, the editorial noted.
EarlyStories is keeping a close eye on efforts to bolster early childhood education in North Dakota, one of only 12 in the U.S. that does not offer any state-funded programs. The state has long resisted the idea, so any conversation around the concept brings out advocacy groups in force.
That is what happened last week at a summit organized in Bismarck by the Head Start State Collaboration Office, according to an article in The Bismarck Tribune.. The story pointed that out only about 8,725 children out of some 40,000 children in this rural state are enrolled in either a nursery school or a special program such as Head Start.
Those are very small numbers, so it will be interesting to see what could change as a result of these early conversations. Will North Dakota continue to resist funding programs at a time of unprecedented federal interest and involvement in an early childhood agenda? Will it embrace President Barack Obama’s belief that what happens in the early years pays big dividends for education later on?
It’s particularly interesting to watch what is happening in North Dakota, a state where kindergarten teachers backed a proposal to require youngsters to be a bit older when they enter first grade. If they get better preparation beforehand, will the age matter as much?
The state of Georgia spent more than $216 million on a program to help low-income children get ready for kindergarten, and yet state auditors cannot find any proof that the program is working, according to a story in the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
The program in question is aimed at “at-risk” children — a number that applies to about 40,000 of the 78,000 children enrolled in the state’s pre-k program and whose families qualify for welfare or other similar programs.
That story raises questions about the audit and its methods in Georgia, which in 1995 became the first state in the country to provide pre-k to all four year olds in the state who want to participate.The story notes that state auditors could not evaluate how effective the program is because it did not track how well the children served in the program performed in kindergarten.
The study follows yet another inconclusive study by Georgia State University researchers in 2005-06, although other studies have described many benefits and Georgia is still considered a leader in early childhood education.
What is happening in these programs? Along with auditors, journalists need to ask questions about the quality of programs in the state. Why aren’t children being tracked more efficiently to yield answers and what kind of research is needed to make sure answers are forthcoming? According to Pre-K Now,
Georgia served some 74,000 four-year-olds during the 2008-09 school year. What difference will it make to children now that the state is requiring all teachers to have a child developement associate certificate>? How will programs that serve poor and needy children be evaluated in the future so lawmakers, taxpayers and the general public understand more about how they are working?
As EarlyStories anticipated, it didn’t take long for opposition to Chester Finn’s opinions on universal pre-kindergarten to emerge. Finn’s op-ed, “Slow the Preschool Bandwagon,” appeared on May 15 in the Washington Post, introducing some of the arguments against universal pre-k that appear in his new book, “Reroute the Preschool Juggernaut.’‘
Finn, a former assistant secretary of education who is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation,has already generated two letters of objection, and Sara Mead of Early Ed Watch questioned some of his assertions this week as “just plain wrong.”
Finn responded here.
Finn’s views are not expected to be popular at a time when politicians and President Barack Obama are pushing government to fund pre-school, but they must be considered by journalists who are exploring pre-k issues and need to understand the arguments against expansion.
Susan Urahn, managing director of the Pew Center on the States, said Finn had “inaccurately assessed the effort to secure high-quality, voluntary pre-kindergarten education,” noting that it would be wrong to focus such programs only on low-income students.
And W. Steven Barnett of the National Institute for Early Education Research weighed in, noting that Finn’s approach is not one the U.S. can afford at a time when 1 in 10 children are dropping out of high school. “….good state pre-K programs improve the readiness of all students,” Barnett wrote.
EarlyStories was hoping Florida journalists might pick up on this week’s NIEER 2007 report card, which found that Florida’s voluntary pre-k program is among the poorest quality in the U.S. The state earned high marks for access, as it is open to every 4-year-old, regardless of income. News about the program is hugely important in Florida’s tough economy, where more and more parents are taking advantage of it; some 61 percent of the state’s four-year-olds enrolled last year.
The Tampa Tribune noted in a piece this week that Florida educators are worried that the findings did change much over the course of a year. EarlyStories would now like to see journalists spend some time examining Florida’s pre-k programs and explaining to the public how to tell the difference between a high and low quality program.
It’s not enough to tell us that a program is of poor quality. What are the kids — and teachers — doing, or not doing? Are they being prepared for kindergarten? Are they learning letters, numbers and sounds or just playing on a playground? How is quality measured — what do the standards look like — and how can parents steer clear of poor programs? What — if any — efforts are under way to improve Florida’s pre-k’s?
The NIEER report should be a starting point for journalists. What are the stories that come next?