“Beyond the Classroom” at Young Child Expo

I had the privilege this week to present at the Young Child Expo in NYC on “Beyond the Classroom: Using Community-Based Interventions to Improve Early Literacy and Math.” This is one of my favorite presentations to give! I started this presentation based on learnings from a project with Reach Out and Read Carolinas based on seeing the real, measurable impacts of a light-touch intervention to empower families.

The presentation has evolved each time, thanks to great audience participation, and I’veyoung child expo icon expanded from just talking about literacy to also highlighting math and STEM programs. I myself have changed with the presentation – when I first presented at Smart Start 2016, I wasn’t even pregnant; now, with a 15 month old, I have my own lived experiences on how to reach parents “where they are.”

You can access my slides via the Institute for Child Success. Here’s the conference write-up:

Parents are children’s first teachers, but often our efforts to improve academic and social-emotional outcome are focused solely on classrooms. Parents, extended family, and adults in the community can play a critical role in fostering early math and literacy in young learners if they have access to resources and knowledge that fit their daily lives. This workshop will introduce research on building early math and pre-literacy skills, including long-term outcomes, and highlight promising, innovative literacy and math programs outside of the classroom, including two-generation and light-touch approaches which use existing structures of everyday family life.

Where are programs in your community meeting families where they are? Can this resource help work in your community? How can we further empower all adults in a community as partners for learning? Drop me a line and let me know!

Head Start a lifeline for families in rural communities

Head Start has fascinated me for some time, starting with my time working as a literacy volunteer in a Head Start classroom in Connecticut as part of my Work-Study job during undergrad. It was, by and large, the perfect position for me – for a few hours a week, I got to leave campus, read to kids, and play around with them.

As I stumbled into the field of early childhood in graduate school – again thanks to a Work-Study position, this time with the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers – Head Start came up again and again. During my years at NIEER, we saw updates to the Head Start Impact study which were used by some who oppose the program as evidence that it does not work. The truth seems much stickier – Head Start has some academic impacts, which may fade over time; it develops social-emotional skills which resurface throughout a child’s lifetime and contribute to long-term outcomes; and, it provides crucial connections to programs and services for low-income families. Community connections are not an accident of the program, but by design; Head Start is run through Health and Human Services, not Education, which is the first hint of its broader goals.

And so many in the field – but especially those families who have been served by Head Start – were not surprised by the recent Center for American Progress report on the essential role of Head Start in rural areas. It is a crucial report for putting the spotlight on areas often left behind in our policy debates, as I explore at the Institute for Child Success’s blog:

“It is easy, sometimes, for cities to dominate the conversation on education policy in America, especially in the world of early childhood. In recent years, we have seen major preschool initiatives as central policy issues from New York to Seattle and in between. Cities, with their high student populations and larger pools of potential teachers, are an easy poster child for early childhood innovation. But a new report from the Center for American Progress makes clear what residents outside cities have known for years – the unique needs of families in rural communities are a tough fit for early childhood services.”

I’ve had the opportunity to explore data sets on Head Start in the South for a paper at ICS as well as to contribute to the Rural Trust’s report on the state of rural education. But this report from CAP fills a huge hole in the literature with this deep dive. Combining information from Head Start’s Program Information Report database with USDA data on rural geographic areas is a tough methodological lift – we had considered it for the Head Start in the South paper but ultimately decided it was too heavy a lift for the scope of that project. The CAP researchers do a huge service for the field and ensure that the voices of rural families are centered in our early childhood policies.

25 years later, early childhood educators still get a raw deal

This week, the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment released its report Worthy Work, STILL Unlivable Wages: The Childhood Workforce 25 Years after the National Child Care Staffing Study with a live event at the New America Foundation. In 1989, the National Child Care Staffing Study brought attention to the high turnover rates and poverty-level salaries for early childhood education teachers. The new report revisits the topic of teacher wages and working conditions in light of the dramatic increase in attention to, and investment in, early childhood education in the last 25 years. Despite this focus at the local, state, and federal government levels, as well as in private industry and philanthropy, early childhood education teachers are still struggling to get by….Low salaries have real, negative impact on early childhood professionals. In 2012, almost half of childcare workers used one of four public income support programs to support their own families, compared to a quarter of the U.S. workforce. The utilization of these programs by early childhood workers (the Earned Income Tax Credit; Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program; Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program; and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) totals $2.4 billion per year

via Revisiting early childhood teachers, 25 years later | Preschool Matters… Today!.

Those are my thoughts on a new blog with NIEER. As a researcher talking about a new report, my job is to focus on the data and the facts. But a large part of me can’t get over the gut response of “OMG.” It’s not news that early childhood education is a low-paying field, but to see the realities of teachers lives, and what they give up for pursuing meaningful work with big impacts, is heartbreaking. The original staffing study was published just as my parents were exploring early childhood education options for me. I can’t stomach idea that my beloved teachers from that part-day, church-based programs were statistically likely to be in a rough economic place; I certainly can’t stomach the fact that friends going into the field 25 years later are facing the same barrier.

Pre-K in President Obama’s Budget Proposal

Here it is, the moment you’ve all been waiting for: pre-K in President Obama’s FY14 budget! The budget was released on Wednesday with quite a bit of accompanying paperwork, but the basic takeaway is that the President proposed $75 billion over 10 years for the Education Department to match state efforts to expand access to high quality preschool. The program would be first focused on 4-year-olds below 200% of the federal poverty level (about $46,100 for a family of 4), though states would be incentivized to expand to middle-income families once these children were served. The plan would be funded through an increase in the tobacco tax – from $1.01 per pack to $1.95. I’ve written on the details of this plan along with our director at Preschool Matters, the blog of the National Institute for Early Education Research.

There’s been a lot of coverage of this proposal from several major media outlets, particularly as details of the tobacco tax emerged. If you’re looking for more information, I recommend several writers who know their early ed well. Fellow policy wonks at the New America Foundation explored early learning in this budget as well as key questions still out there on education in the budget more holistically. Joy Resmovits at the Huffington Post was one of the first journalist to predict early education in the State of the Union, so she’s followed this from the start. Check out her coverage on the response from the tobacco industry as well as why the plan won’t appeal to all states universally. Dylan Scott at Governing places this proposal in political context.

My thoughts – and only my thoughts! – on this proposal is that a tobacco tax is going to be a fight, and there are legitimate concerns about how to develop sustainable funding from a tax meant to drive down consumption. That being said, I’m eager to see how this conversations plays out at the national level. The President has elevated pre-K as a national priority, and this is a big moment in the field. By proposing the plan as a consumption tax and making it deficit neutral, I’m cautiously optimistic that the debate can center on the merits of the proposal and less on shouting over spending. Stay tuned!

UPDATE: The Washington Post’s Wonkblog wrote on the sustainability question last week, bringing up some important concerns. Economist Tim Bartik has a great piece up in response explaining that the budget numbers the federal government releases are constrained by certain rules, but looking at the long-term savings of high quality pre-K makes the case that a tobacco tax for pre-K would be sustainable, and wroth it.

WSJ Falls Behind on Head Start Coverage

Obama in Pre-K Classroom
“President Barack Obama visits a pre-kindergarten classroom at the College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center in Decatur, Ga., Feb. 14, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)” via WhiteHouse.gov

Since President Obama’s State of the Union speech declaring his goal of preschool for all young learners, there’s been no shortage of misinformed, factual inaccurate, and/or just downright dishonest hackery. I won’t enumerate those pieces for you, since most are neither worth the time nor the page clicks, but the Wall Street Journal’s February 25th Head Start for All is particularly notable both in its scope of misinformation and its prominence among media coverage (let’s not get me started on the condescending tone used to diminish one of the biggest education reform proposals in recent memory). From the very start, its frames pre-K as some sort of Bizarro World policy suggestion: “Government failure is hardly new, though President Obama has given it a characteristic new twist: A program’s proven inability to do the things it is supposed to do is now an argument for expanding it.”

Luckily, I don’t have to deconstruct this piece, because several more eloquent and even-tempered experts in the field have already offered their expertise. Here for your edification is a quick look at the responses offered. All are worth reading in their entirety to bring you up to speed on the realities of this debate.

Larry Schweinhart, President of the HighScope Education Research Foundation, wrote a letter to the paper (which is currently being shared at the blog of the National Institute for Early Education Research) challenging their conclusions on the Perry Preschool Program study, which he directed. While noting that the Perry and Abcedarian studies are not the only studies support the effectiveness of pre-K, Schweinhart notes Perry is significantly more cost-effective than the editorial suggested:

“…[T]he Perry Preschool cost per child was well below the $16,000 per child per year or more you said it cost. In current dollars, it cost $11,107 per child per year, about the same as the cost per K-12 student in the U.S. The Perry Preschool program is not that hard to replicate—and have its return on investment widely realized. We simply need to insist on reasonable program standards – qualified teachers using a proven curriculum, partnership with parents, and regular evaluation…”

Since SOTU, Tim Bartik, a senior economist at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, has used his blog to respond to misinformation in the media and make clear what research really does indicate on pre-K. Bartik has worked for years on the economics of pre-K and is one of the researchers on the well-regarded Tulsa Pre-K Program study.  Bartik addressed a number of issues with the WSJ editorial, including even the fact that the headline’s very suggestion – that the President is seeking to expand Head Start to all children – is rejected on face by just reading the White House fact sheet. Bartik expresses a similar concern to Schweinhart that the evidence of pre-K success does not come from simply a few “boutique” programs, but rather a more robust field of research that has been ignored in the WSJ editorial. The entire blog is a truly wonderful and thorough deconstruction of a truly flawed editorial. Bartik also followed up a few days later with a response specifically to the WSJ’s editorial’s contention that a study of pre-K in Georgia (by Maria Donovan Fitzpatrick at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research) was misinterpreted and presented as “unduly pessimistic.” His blog sets the record straight on what’s become an often-cited study as Georgia is closely examined in this policy debate, but also serves as a great primer in understanding the difficulty and nuance of studying the effects of pre-K in a large population.

Lisa Guernsey, director of the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation, also responded to the misrepresentations of the WSJ piece in a letter that was printed by the paper. Guernsey also holds that the President’s proposal was misrepresented by labeling it an expansion of Head Start, noting that the plan calls for the federal government to empower and support state efforts on pre-K at a time when “[a]round the country, good preschools want to expand and improve.” Guernsey built on these points in a blog post, calling for a substantive debate on this policy proposal and sounding the sobering alarm that:

“If we continue at our current rate of progress, “it will take more than three decades to reach the point where even 50 percent of young children are reading proficiently at the end of third grade,” according to the 2012 Child Well-Being Index published by the Foundation for Child Development….Most developed countries are already well-ahead of the United States in making public investments in early care and education. We cannot afford to keep stalling.”

The National Institute for Early Education Research (where I am employed full-time) released a policy report specifically meant to tackle misunderstandings and misinformation in ongoing debates around the President’s proposal. Pre-K has a rich research base, with long-term studies of effectiveness going back almost half a century as well as more recent studies of the effects of state-funded pre-K programs. This report is not a response to any one media report but rather seeks to frame the pre-K debate in solid research. Steve Barnett, NIEER Director, explains:

“Both science and public policy are best advanced based on impartial analysis of all the available evidence. No single study stands on its own, much less provides the definitive answers to policy questions on its own. This requires that scientists and policymakers consider all the evidence rather than simply select a few studies that fit their preconceived notions. The Obama administration’s new universal pre-K proposal first announced in the State of the Union address comports conclusions drawn from a full review of the evidence, just as one would hope.

Critics of the pre-K proposal in the ensuing debate have not followed the same approach. Their attacks on the President’s proposal have been based on a few selected studies considered in isolation and when convenient, misinterpreted.”

A federal plan to expand pre-K raises a lot of important questions on what, how, who, and at what cost. But it will be impossible to have a productive conversation about education young learners for the future without setting the facts straight.