A few recent preschool related articles

First is the Brookings Institution’s write up on new research into Tennessee ‘ program. The author also tackles misleading statements regarding previous research,  including Tulsa’s program.

Second,  good discussion on universal pre-k on the Freakonomics blog. They seem to have come to the same conclusions I have.

Third is the YWCA Tulsa’s recently released report on “Child Care in Crisis”.  I am looking for an online link. The center just ended its forty year program due to rising costs.


In Defense of Children’s Online Privacy

My most recent article attracted a bit of attention this week. I’m somewhat surprised there hasn’t been a retaliatory screed about how hypocritical I am (Yes, I am. Very much.)


Hope to write more about boring parental stuff (sippy cups still on the horizon. No Baby J still hasn’t given up the bottle.)

Technology and Literacy: Are Screen Time Restrictions Necessary?

What happens when you give a toddler an iPad?

A quick Google search reveals the following:

So, not very helpful.

Screen time restrictions

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently set out new guidelines on screen time for kids, based on a comprehensive “family media use plan” and intended to counter “nearly round-the-clock media usage” (an affliction their parents probably share as well).  Parents, specifically, are asked to discourage the use of media during bedtime and meal times. The guidelines also reiterate earlier recommendations to limit screen time to only 2 hours a day for children older than 2, and to ban screen time for children younger than 2.

What do we do? Personally, I’m on the very liberal end of the screen time spectrum, although in general we do fit within AAP guidelines regarding television usage (and no screens during mealtime, especially — but that’s more of a ‘social skills’ lesson than worrying about their brains). But there are many, many days my daughter goes over that 2 hour TV limit, a fact I don’t usually admit as it distresses me.

As for the iPad, it is often in easy reach.  What has occurred in our family is the iPad is just another toy (with only educational games loaded on), which has greatly demystified it and has led to decreased use.

Do I monitor the number of hours she’s on an iPad? No more than I monitor how long she’s been doing any indoor activity — because in general my ideal is that my children spend their days outside.  Other than that preference, I treat, say, an electronic puzzle on the iPad no differently than her physical puzzles. And this is the disconnect I have with many of my fellow parents, who like the AAP treat all screen time the same. I fret about TV usage. I don’t fret over other electronics.

Am I in the wrong? Is it harming my daughter to be doing puzzles and educational quizzes on the iPad?

The Atlantic explored that issue last April.  The author pointed out the 2011 AAP report on media use by children indicated the issue was with ‘passive’ screen use, not necessarily those interactive apps. But parents and experts remain wary.

I wish I could just quote the entire article here, because I found myself nodding at all her points. She illustrates the tension between wanting our children to benefit from the digital age — they are, after all, “digital natives” — and wanting our children to explore and grow and learn in the way most play-based education experts recommend, by real experiences in real places. Not virtual places.

On the one hand, parents want their children to swim expertly in the digital stream that they will have to navigate all their lives; on the other hand, they fear that too much digital media, too early, will sink them. Parents end up treating tablets like precision surgical instruments, gadgets that might perform miracles for their child’s IQ and help him win some nifty robotics competition—but only if they are used just so. Otherwise, their child could end up one of those sad, pale creatures who can’t make eye contact and has an avatar for a girlfriend.

Norman Rockwell never painted Boy Swiping Finger on Screen, and our own vision of a perfect childhood has never adjusted to accommodate that now-common tableau. Add to that our modern fear that every parenting decision may have lasting consequences—that every minute of enrichment lost or mindless entertainment indulged will add up to some permanent handicap in the future—and you have deep guilt and confusion.

Yeah, that’s basically where I am.

So is every minute of screen time a ‘minute of enrichment lost’ or ‘mindless entertainment’? And how does brain chemistry change while staring at a screen?

The TV analogy

As  many articles point out, there is a dearth of research regarding children and tablet/smartphone use. So the best information we have is what happens when children watch television.

One theory is that for all people, not just for children, staring at the TV amounts to watching a blank wall — the so-called zombie effect.  The support for that theory comes from a 1969 experiment by Herbert Krugman, which indicates television watching “numbs our left brain and leaves the right brain to perform all cognitive duties.” In addition, psychophysiologist Thomas Mulholland found that just 30 seconds of watching TV activates alpha waves in your brain, which leads to more receptivity to suggestions.

Can I note something here? I haven’t read either study, so the same quotes are really being repeated over and over again on various websites.  And, incidentally, most of those websites are a bit alarmist and focused on conspiracy theories.   Calling on all scientists — help here please.

There are indeed indications the alpha waves are not caused by television per se but by the screen itself — the screen flickering, specifically. Which brings me to two questions: 1.) Is reading on the Kindle also bad? Or is it not because there is no screen flicker? 2.) If reading on the Kindle is not bad, does it follow that playing an app on a tablet is also not subject to this ‘alpha wave’ problem?

I’m going with the theory that the zombie/alpha wave effect isn’t applicable to the iPad. The AAP has been criticized for not distinguishing between passive and interactive screen use – even when considering children under 2, for whom the data show passive screen use is very unhelpful and perhaps even harmful. We simply don’t have any peer-reviewed studies on whether interactive screen use for even under 2-year-olds is harmful or helpful.

But for kicks, let’s explore the TV-watching/passive media thing a bit further. Does TV turn you into a zombie?

Not so, say many experts.

Consider the concept of ‘stickiness’, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point. Shows such as Sesame Street may actually improve literacy and shows such as Blue’s Clue’s may improve cognitive thinking. Why?

Research in the 1980s began the work of nullifying the ‘zombie effect’ by focusing on how kids learn and how to help them retain what they see on the screen (hence, the ‘sticky’ effect).  Fewer screen cuts and linear stories assist in that endeavor — something Sesame Street tried to emulate. And then, in the 1990s, Blue’s Clues introduced ‘the pause’:

Steve asks a question and then pauses for about five seconds to let the viewer shout out an answer. Small children feel much more engaged and invested when they think they have a role to play, when they believe they are actually helping Steve and Blue piece together the clues. A longitudinal study of children older than 2 and a half showed that the ones who watched Blue’s Clues made measurably larger gains in flexible thinking and problem solving over two years of watching the show.

So TV, at least for those over 2.5 years old (under that age, they may not be able to cognitively comprehend what they are seeing on screen), may actually produce positive effects. One can probably assume physical activities and exploration is better, but TV is not necessarily ‘the boob tube.’

A 2007 study …suggests there’s even less reason to be paranoid about TV. This time, researchers looked at what kinds of shows kids watched. They found that toddlers who watched entertainment shows saw an increased risk of developing attention-related problems five years later (and an even greater risk if those shows were violent). Kids who watched “educational” TV shows exhibited no greater risk.

So how do we ensure our kids are watching the ‘right’ kind of television? Focus on what type of show they are watching (‘educational’ TV isn’t always beneficial, just because there is some sort of lesson at the end.) Shows that promote interaction (Blue’s Clues and SuperWhy are my favorites for this), are more likely to at least have some sort of educational benefit. In fact, SuperWhy taught my daughter her lower case letters. She was about 18 months old — I don’t say that to brag, but to point out that with some children, TV isn’t even horrible for the under-2 set. Know your child.

(Note that despite the early plaudits for Sesame Street, later research does indicate very young children actually do not learn much from the program because of its ‘magazine’ format with multiple vignettes.)

Engaging your children with the television they are watching is also key — especially if they are watching more traditional cartoons (like the ones my daughter loves on Disney Jr).  Repeat what they are seeing on screen and reinforce the lessons on the show.

We can extrapolate, therefore, that the same rules apply to iPad use. Angry Birds may not be the best choice for a toddler (an older child may benefit from the problem-solving aspect of the game). An app that has puzzles, or encourages a child to trace her letters, or has Elmo talking about numbers and asking questions, probably is ‘less bad’.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) reiterates this is a well-researched 2012 policy statement jointly issued with the Fred Rogers Center at St. Vincent College. “Throughout the process of researching and writing this position statement,” they begin,
“we have been guided by the legacy of Fred Rogers. By appropriately and intentionally using the
technology of his day—broadcast television—to connect with each individual child and with parents and families, Fred Rogers demonstrated the positive potential of using technology and media in ways that are grounded in principles of child development.”

But reading a book is better, right?

Yes. Even for a toddler, who can’t read, having a live person reading to them is much better than  some book being read on an iPad app — a phenomenon known as the “video deficit”.

So what happens when you read? Words may stimulate parts of your brain not directly related to language processing. Think olfactory associations and texture. The brain does not necessarily distinguish between the ‘experiences’ gained reading and the experiences of real life — in contrast to what the conventional wisdom is with television.  This effect is reproduced even when a child is not physically reading.  A 2010 research study done on preschoolers indicates stories read to them elicited similar results.

Does that mean watching television is automatically the opposite of reading? Perhaps not. The same 2010 study found the same effects occurring when preschoolers watched movies, but not television — perhaps, the researchers surmise, because parents are more likely to watch movies with their children and talk to them about the story lines.  Mark down another vote for engaging with your children while they are watching TV.

What about imagination? Again, we have the conventional wisdom that reading engages one’s imagination, while television does not, because one does not have to imagine the pictures already playing in front of you on the screen. However, it is possible that with moderate levels of TV viewing, children will engage in imaginative play related to what they saw on screen.

The keys to literacy

Television, therefore, does not automatically inhibit literacy, and therefore perhaps neither does the iPad.

However, although a television program or interactive app can do well in teaching phonics, those programs and apps likely will never replace the adult interaction needed to really promote literacy.   What else do you need? Phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Consider a 2010 literature review looking at the most effective ways to put preschoolers on the path to reading. The study argues (as I have in the past) that even the most ‘high-quality’ programs will not teach the essential components to literacy unless the teacher has had specialized instruction on how to promote vocabulary in disadvantaged children:

Reese and Cox (1999) tested the effects of a researcher implemented storybook reading intervention tailored to children’s initial levels of language skill, finding
that children who heard and discussed storybooks with vocabulary matched to their own knowledge levels outperformed their peers on the Peabody
Picture Vocabulary Test-Revised (PPVT-R, 1981). Most recently, in a randomized control study, Wasik, Bond, and Hindman (2006) provided Head Start
teachers with intensive training in book reading and other literacy instructional practices to extend book reading vocabulary, resulting in children making significant
gains on the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test-3rd edition (PPVT-3, 1997) over the preschool year as compared with peers whose teachers did not participate in the training intervention. Thus, teachers’ conceptual and procedural knowledge appears
to be a key factor that determines whether or not instruction will promote children’s vocabulary skills.

As conventional wisdom indicates, the best and well-designed app cannot exclusively replace an adult’s ability to teach.

Want smart kids? The best thing you can do, according to The Chronicle, is to have books in the home.

The study was conducted over 20 years, in 27 countries, and surveyed more than 70,000 people. Researchers found that children who grew up in a home with more than 500 books spent 3 years longer in school than children whose parents had only a few books. Also, a child whose parents have lots of books is nearly 20-percent more likely to finish college.

For comparison purposes, the children of educated parents (defined as people with at least 15 years of schooling) were 16-percent more likely than the children of less-educated parents to get their college degrees. Formal education matters, but not as much as books.

But what does that mean? And are we screwed now that everyone is using a Kindle?

Well, first, it does indicate even parents with lower levels of education or lower poverty levels can create educated children by having books in the home. Of course, hopefully we’re not stupid enough to think the mere act of buying books is going to jump little Johnny’s IQ or guarantee him a college degree. Yes, the very act of buying books means education is important to the parents, but the key, points out a fellow evidence-based parent, is creating a  “scholarly culture” in the home. The presence of books just reflects that type of integrated wrap-around educational parenting.

Having your children notice how much you read is likely a good way to promote that scholarly atmosphere. I’m sure reading on the Kindle won’t hamper that, as one can assume the Kindle is mostly used for reading. Now, I myself read on the Kindle app on the iPad, so it may not be as obvious to my kids. But I doubt they are going to grow up not realizing that I’m a reader.

So even if my kids watch a bit more TV than recommended, education is just a holistic part of our lives. We’re always explaining and teaching and learning, and our parental conversations are geeky arguments that often end in consulting Wikipedia or doing some sort of math equation.  Some television for my children likely is not going to cause significant harm.

This belies some of the alarmist research we’ve seen in the past.  As Farhad Manjoo recounts in Slate:

The most-cited study on the cognitive effects of TV on young children was conducted by a team led by Dimitri Christakis, a pediatrician and director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior, and Development at Seattle Children’s Hospital. The paper, published in 2004, examined the relationship between the number of hours of television that a child watched at ages 1 and 3 and the child’s score on a well-known diagnostic test of attention problems at age 7. The study found a significant relationship between these variables: The more TV that you watch as a toddler, the more likely you’ll have attention-related problems as a first-grader. The researchers reported that this relationship held up even after they controlled for various complicating factors, including parental substance abuse and socioeconomic status.

But, as Manjoo continues, the study suffers from good that old correlation versus causation problem.  Not only does the Seattle study only measure what happens when a child watches too much TV, but it doesn’t measure what type of shows they were watching, and — most relevant to the whole ‘parents are important’ bit:

 The study can’t establish a causal relationship between TV viewing and attention problems. This seems important: Some parents were letting their kids watch five or more hours of television a day. It stands to reason that these weren’t great parents—so maybe it was something about their parenting skills, and not the boob tube itself, that caused these kids to develop problems.

Christakis and other researchers have conducted several follow-up studies that seek to address some of these problems, and much of this research presents a less alarming story. In a paper published in 2009, Marie Evans Schmidt, a researcher at the Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital Boston, looked at a group of children who watched slightly less TV than those in Christakis’ study. Schmidt also took into account many environmental factors that could shed some light on the effects that parents played in a child’s life, including whether and for how long a child had been breast-fed and the amount he slept each night. Instead of focusing on attention problems, Schmidt’s team analyzed the effects of TV on the child’s visual and motor skills. They found something remarkable: There was no effect. After controlling for environmental factors, each additional hour of television that a child watches at or before age 2 is not associated with any change in test scores at age 3.

Wow. Guess what? Parents matter.

This cuts both ways. Just as some TV and electronic use is likely to not have significant effect on my children due to the culture of the home, for others who do not emphasize the love of learning, no amount of ‘books in the home’ or the alternate ‘super educational iPad apps’ are going to change the course of your child’s life.

The siren call of ‘educational’

Case in point: Baby Einstein

We’ve already talked about the components of a truly educational television program as opposed to those that claim to be educational.  But still, programs such as Baby Einstein fool parents into thinking their very young children (read: under 2 years old) can benefit from television content, especially something as esoteric as Baby Einstein, which has really psychedelic pictures and images and classical music. But, according to Zimmerman, Chirstakis, and Meltzoff, exposure to “baby” DVDs among infants may lead to lower scores on a standard language development test, the Communicative Development Inventory.

There must have been quite some schadenfraude among the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (which issued a complaint to the FTC) when the Walt Disney Company, in response to the bad press, ended up offering a refund for all Baby Einstein DVDs/videos purchased between 2004 and 2012.

The most insidious of the claims belong to the Your Baby Can Read company (which has gone out of business due to the another CCFC complaint to the FTC).  The company, which sold complete packages of books, videos and flashcards for babies as young as three months old, claimed it helped parents seize the ‘small window of opportunity’ (again, we’re talking about babies and toddlers) during which a child has the best chance of learning how to read.

Yes, the baby and toddler years are very important to future reading success, but the answer, as we all know, is not memorizing flashcards — which is essentially what the program was about — but is instead vocabulary, vocabulary, vocabulary. And pretend play. And exploration. All that stuff.

Baby First TV is the latest in a long line of programs marketed to the under-2 set. However, at the very least, it does follow the rules of slow and linear storylines as well as ‘the pause.’ Can 6 month olds benefit from their programs? Perhaps not, and it is disingenuous to include them as targets for the shows. But toddlers very well could.

But even as parents become more savvy to misleading TV program marketing, we can still be led astray by the claims made by iPad app developers. (It’s interactive! It talks about shapes and letters! It has to be educational, right?)

As Lisa Guersey writes in Slate, only 2 percent of purportedly educational iPad/iPhone apps “allow for open-ended discovery and exploration,” according to a 2012 Australian study She further points out:

Some e-book studies at labs at Temple University and the University of California at Riverside—as well as a forthcoming report from the Cooney Center—show that the wow factor of the device and the presence of interactive “hotspots” on e-book pages may interfere with children’s ability to recall the story line of the book. This isn’t just a problem of electronics. Even traditional print-and-cardboard pop-up books can lead children at 2½ and 3 years old to learn less from the story than they would have otherwise, according to research at the University of Virginia conducted by Cynthia Chiong. Is all this interactivity more about attracting a child’s attention than teaching her?

Family media use

Certainly, with great power comes great responsibility. And so we return to the AAP’s most recent statement, which say parents need to abide by family media-use rules in order to model healthy behavior.  Much of the concern over tablets and smartphone use is the sense that children will immerse themselves in something virtual without noticing the physical world around them. This concept is advocated by Catherine Steiner-Adair, author of The Big Disconnect:

Parents are pulling away from family life, lost in their own smartphones and screens, leaving many children feeling neglected and lonely. The “digitalized life,” she argues, is taking its toll on us — altering the way children think and relate and pulling families apart.

“Stop bothering me, Baby J.  Mommy’s blogging about how to be a good parent.”

Want to have some ratings on the educational value of iPad apps? Check out Common Sense Media.

Responses to Breastfeeding and Baby Friendly Hospitals

While we’re stoking the fires this week, here are two responses to my earlier breastfeeding article in The Federalist.


Slate: No, You Boob, Government Support For Breastfeeding Is Not a Threat to Our Freedom.

(Can I tell you how much I love this headline? Even though it’s directed at me? Snark for the win. There’s a reason I love Slate).

On a more serious note, upon reading this article, it seems as though Ms. Marcotte and I actually agree on a lot of things, and that she really didn’t take the time to read my article. We, of course, differ on the role of government, but that’s the main disconnect between both parties. I wish people would realize that.

Suzanne Barston responds: Of Nanny States and Nonesense

<begin self-conscious butt-covering>

I hesitated posted links here to my Federalist articles and the responses because I really really didn’t want to get all political here. I’m one of those people that think it’s totally okay to agree to disagree (and am non confrontational and want everyone to like me and am open minded and have changed my views often based on good arguments).  The articles have taken up a lot of my writing time, but I will try to go back to writing for this site as well.

</end self-conscious butt-covering>

Enough politics. Back to The Dreaded Sippy Cup Transition!

Okay, I still haven’t succeeded in moving 16 month old J to sippy cups, so maybe I can’t be the authority on that subject.


What I Really Wanted to Say Today

I had the pleasure today of being on Midday with Dan Rodricks on WYPR, Baltimore’s local NPR station. I’ll post the podcast as soon as it’s up. (Edit: Here it is. I start at the 36 minute mark)

But don’t judge me for the speed talking. I had about five minutes to make my case.

Naturally, I couldn’t make my case effectively, nor respond to the advocates of universal prekindergarten, one of whom was in the studio and on for the entire hour.

Here’s the bottom line: Preschool for everyone is not a panacea to fix all the educational ills in our states. The reason intensive programs like the Perry Preschool Project and the Abecedarian Project worked is because they  didn’t focus on just educating the child.  They focused on the family and the community. It is a holistic approach to learning that we cannot just get by adding an extra grade onto formal schooling. If we are going to spend state resources, let’s please spend them on the most vulnerable of our citizens, the ones for whom just an extra grade of schooling will not have long term effects.

Look at the wonderful CAP Head Start Program and Educare. They focus on wraparound care. They understand the power of involving the parents.  And they still are struggling to have real long term results. How much could we do if we took all those valuable resources we have and boost that power, to create an intensive program that will approach the level of the Perry Preschool Project?

In terms of response to some of the comments:

Here’s what Margaret Williams of the Maryland Family Network and Professor Bill Gormley of Georgetown say (paraphrased, of course)

– Prekindergarten in Oklahoma has wonderful, across-the-board effects for children of all income levels and races. All students who go to PreK vs. students who do not have higher cognitive abilities on entering kindergarten

– The third grade ‘fade out effect’ does not immediately mean prekindergarten is a bad idea. In fact, children may come roaring back in high school and have wonderful cognitive and behavioral results.

— Maryland is already doing great with preK for disadvantaged children, so why not expand it to a universal program?

-PreK in Oklahoma exists because the voters and the business community wanted it.

Well, hello.

1. Prekindergarten in Oklahoma has wonderful, across-the-board effects for children of all income levels and races.

Short term effects fade out in the third grade (as we all acknowledged on the show). I’m not sure why we keep insisting Oklahoma’s program has fantastic results when the data do not support that. We can conjecture that the kids will close the gap in high school, but you cannot say that in the same breath in which we talk about the short term effects, because we haven’t studied that in Oklahoma.

2.All students who go to PreK vs. students who do not have higher cognitive abilities on entering kindergarten

Yep. And why don’t those higher scores persist? Because we are completely and utterly ignoring the power of the home environment. I am underlining and underscoring that point because it’s important. I want to put it in all caps and make it my title. We need wraparound, intensive care for our disadvantaged children.

  • Preschool benefits children from disadvantaged families far more than it benefits children from families that already provide the socio-emotional support, learning tools, and exposure to literacy as a natural and holistic part of child-rearing. Children in families receiving welfare had vocabularies that were half as large as those of their more affluent peers, and the disparities persisted throughout childhood.
  • A prekindergarten program, no matter how good, is not going to be able to overcome that negative educational home environment years after the fact.
  • As for those students who come from affluent families that also learn their words and letters and phonics sooner? Of course a child in a formal school environment is going to know more stuff in the beginning than a child not in the formal school environment. But any play-based education advocate will tell you that those measures of ability mean squat when you’re actually talking about instilling a life-long ability to learn. Looking at those short-term impacts falsely assumes that impact is the absolute measure of a child’s ability to learn. In fact, learning sight words and phonics are not the most important component of a preschool child’s ability to read. We have much more trouble measuring the true important parts of education — curiosity, problem-solving, and comprehension.
—–Maybe instead of educational policy experts they should have had actual experts in the field of early childhood education on.
3. The third grade ‘fade out effect’ does not immediately mean prekindergarten is a bad idea. In fact, children may come roaring back in high school and have wonderful cognitive and behavioral results.
Those critical of prekindergarten are not necessarily promoting throwing the baby out with the bathwater. In fact:

The main problem I have with universal prekindergarten is the universal component of it.
Let’s look at some of those later effects of prekindergarten:
In President Obama’s  State of the Union speech, he says:
In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children, like Georgia or Oklahoma, studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, and form more stable families of their own.
But the studies refer to the Perry Preschool Project and the Abecedarian Project, both of which were intensive programs for a small population of disadvantaged students. Those programs involved visits with the parents and tailored learning plans.

They are less preschool, more large-scale intervention. A large state-run program is not going to approach that level of wraparound care. Even Head Start, which obviously serves only disadvantaged children, does not approach that level of care.
So no. Our kids are not going to come roaring back and make up the learning gap. And it’s disingenuous to imply they will.
Maryland is already doing great with preK for disadvantaged children, so why not expand it to a universal program?
You are doing great with the enrollment numbers and the short term effect. But you’re really going to spend your resources on expanding preK to kids who don’t need it as opposed to fixing what’s going wrong with the long term effect? No state is doing great with our disadvantaged children. We are all failing. Focus on them.
-PreK in Oklahoma exists because the voters and the business community wanted it.
No, it existed because a lawmaker snuck it into a bill on a loophole. The people of Oklahoma never got to debate it. Do we love it? Sure. It makes us look good and it provides free services to everyone.  Have we had a real discussion on it?  No.
Thanks so much to the show for having me on. I do like the fact they tried to balance their point of view with me and with Lindsay Burke from the Heritage Foundation. I am extremely frustrated, however, that neither Lindsay nor I had anywhere close to equal time.

Why Johnny is Broke: Marrying Market-Driven Principles with Government Excess in Early Education

Part Four of my Preschool Series!

In Part One, I asked: Is Preschool Necessary? The answer? No, if there is enough enrichment, play-based activities, and speaking to your child at home. Which means the majority of middle-to-upper class families likely don’t need preschool. So what about more disadvantaged kids?

Enter Part Two, in which I asked: Does Head Start Work? The answer? To a point, yes. Like any preschool, it provides modest gains in kindergarten-1st grade. The problem is the 3rd/4th grade fade-out, which affects almost any preschool-type learning for almost any socio-economic group. So, short-term – yes, it often is helpful. Long-term – the jury is out.

In Part Three I asked:  So what is the measure of quality? What makes one program better than the other? And do we trust these measures of quality?


So here’s Part Four: What lessons can we learn from the implementation of universal prekindergarten in three U.S. states? And specifically in Oklahoma, what lessons can we learn from the implementation of a model, lauded, Head Start program?

The study’s authors also conclude that because of Head Start’s comparative advantage in health, that it still has a place in Tulsa’s early education landscape. I’m incline to agree – to a point. I am generally against massive federal programs (for that matter, I am generally against massive state programs). But if we’re looking at the reality of where we stand now, with two massive programs that we will likely not be able to curb, then yes, they both have a place.

My reasoning has less to do with health interventions than with the following  – first, CAP and Educare have a mission of wholesale poverty alleviation and interact well with the parents. I want to keep encouraging that interaction, which is less likely to occur in the TPS system. Second – TPS is full. Of course it’s full. No state program like this can serve 100% of students. Head Start funds right now are necessary to serve those who actually need the intervention, such as disadvantaged students on the north side, not Maple Ridge elites who are attending the universal program over at Lee Elementary.

Despite the third grade slump, there are short term gains in sending children to preschool, and as the study notes, the gains are even larger when dealing with disadvantaged students.

In terms of the collaboration between TPS and Head Start, the results indicate that competition, as always, is good. That is, when we talk about competition in market terms, not in terms of bureaucratic infighting.  Head Start needs to justify its existence since there is a quality prekindergarten program already around. The TPS program needs to justify its existence since there is a quality Head Start program all around. And, the two programs (plus Educare) have learned its better to join forces and work to increase the resource pie together as opposed to fighting over crumbs. Hence, we have collocation, collaboration, and coordination. We have similar salaries, similar benefits, similar credentials, and similar teaching approaches. We share donors and complementary missions.

To those not used to the way the government works, of course this seems like an unnecessary redundancy.  In the intelligence world, we always praised redundancy – to a point- because it eliminated group think. Certainly that’s something we’re seeing here – yes, the programs are similar, but they aren’t coming up with their ideas in a vacuum. They are consistently refining their best practices based on the other programs’ inputs.

Do I believe this is all the best solution? No, I don’t. I’d prefer no federal interventions and no massive universal statewide program. I’d prefer targeted intensive interventions in the populations who need it most, a la Perry and Abcedarian.

But alas, in Oklahoma, we’re not going to get that.

A side note – Kindergarten as an optional program

As the author of the Georgia study points out, in some respects, the introduction of Universal Pre-K parallels the
expansion of access to kindergarten in the 1960s and 1970s.  Cascio (2004) finds little effect of kindergarten
availability on high school graduation.

  • However, with prekindergarten, we’re talking about children one year younger.  At these ages, that makes a large difference in cognitive abilities.  Therefore younger children may respond to similar programs differently.

Kindergarten literally means “children’s garden”; i.e.. not supposed to be a set curriculum. But at this point, kindergarten has a bona fide curriculum and academic standards with substantial cognitive emphasis, harmonizing with the primary grades.

  • Part of the problem may lie in how we’re emphasizing too much schoolwork in kindergarten. Play based education is best for kids – they don’t NEED to learn to read by 5 (despite the fact that many successful people learn by 3 or 4 even). That doesn’t mean they don’t need education – far from it – but the emphasis should be different.
  • On the other hand, if we are going down this road, then take a lesson from the integration of kindergarten. Integrate the primary grades better. Of course, proponents of universal prekindergarten education will point to just that — make pre-k effectively another grade (like in OKlahoma).

I would argue kindergarten itself isn’t proven to have much effect on children’s later education. Don’t continue down a bad path by including Pre-K in this. Target, target. And focus on play-based education.

Policy proscriptions

Let’s make one thing clear: no new federal programs. I would say let’s fix Head Start before going on to new programs, but instead, I will say, let’s fix Head Start, full stop.

The status quo would be better than adding a new federal program.

Let’s change how Head Start is administered.  Make sure a percentage of funding comes from nonprofits or for-profit businesses or foundations. (Not local governments) Instead of requiring Head Start to hit a certain number of accomplishments (which leads to NCLB and Common Core problems and problems of measuring things like literacy), allow the private funding to pull out at any time. If private funding is pulled, federal funding is pulled. The private foundations will be then able to figure out and measure their own standards on a local and case basis and require periodic evaluations and data-driven policies.

Second, boost your inputs. Require all teachers to have postsecondary degrees. Follow up on your mandate that class ratios need to be at least 10:1.

Third, give Head Start grants only to programs that have whole scale poverty alleviation as their focus. Head Start does not need to allocate any extra dollars toward this, but the programs administrating it can.

Fourth, require local Head Start programs to come up to the standard of any local public preschooling option available to disadvantaged children when  it comes to teacher pay, teacher certifications, and class ratio. I do not want to require Head Start to necessarily adopt other experimental measures, such as a Reggio Emilia program or a calendar-based school year because those are not necessarily proven to be beneficial.

That will not stop some states from wanting to adopt their own programs. Fine. One of the beauties of the federalist experiment is the ability of states to try what works for them. I, for example, see Oklahoma as a crucible for education reform and appreciate the chances it takes.  However, here are some suggestions to those legislators:

First, no universal programs. Heckman states a program focuses on the poor is a poor program, and thereby advocates a universal program. It’s an interesting point, to be sure. But ,we know what makes a program a quality program.  We have examples such as Perry and Abecerdan.  A cheaper-but-still-effective model is the Chicago Parent-Child Program. We know teachers with advanced degrees, a play-based curriculum, and a small class ratio makes a good program. Proponents of universal pre-Kindergarten education are aware that anything ‘universal’ is more likely to be voted up than voted down. But to argue that by making it available to all we are somehow increasing the lot of those who need it most is disingenious at best.

  • Programs focusing on up to 200% above the poverty line (such as the recent proposals) are better, but intensive programs focusing on individuals below the poverty line are better.
  • NIEER dings states for how few students they serve, but between Head Start, for-profit programs, and other non profit programs, more students are served than NIEER shows. As Finn says, “except in advocates’ eyes, there is nothing truly unique about state-funded prekindergarten”. If those students are being served elsewhere, it is unlikely the state program is much better. If the state program IS much better (and universal), then one will see a movement to it. (in the universe of free programs  or free family childcare)

Second, don’t just follow the NIEER standards on program inputs. Consider ECER standards as well as CLASS stadnards.

  • Individuals such as Chester Finn argue, however, that too much of a focus on program inputs (such as the ECER standards) means too little focus on program outputs – i.e. measurable advances in cognitive learning. Certainly he has a point, but at the same time, a focus on test scores (even oral checklists) runs into the No Child Left Behind problem. One possible way of fixing this is the Educare model of adhering to the ECER standards but also throughout the year measuring individual students’ progress. A measure of progress, as opposed to certain standards reached, can help with accountability.

Encourage a variety of education providers to fill the preschool slots. In the case of Tulsa, we have Educare with Early Head Start and Pilot Program and universal pre-K slots and CAP Tulsa with Head Start and universal pre-K slots. Better yet,  take a lesson from Florida’s VPK program and encourage contracting with private preschool providers more than public preschool providers. In Florida as of 2009, 89% of the programs were privately run and adhered to an output model. If the programs did not have measurable results in three years, they were counselled out of VPK. I would tweak that a bit and require ECER-type standards from those programs such as teacher certifications and class ratios. If a pre-K model is mostly public- rather than private-run, tou are crowding out private programs that parents may otherwise pay for.

Encourage transparency in input and output measures, allowing parents to choose the providers.

Want to focus on the entire population of children in your state? Revamp kindergarten; revamp the early grades. Fight against NCLB and the Common Core and use proven strategies on how children learn.

  • As a corrolary, draw a distinction between daycare and preschool.  As I have pointed out in the past, and as Finn points out in his book, the line is murky, especially when dealing with the earlier years and a play based curriculum. But again, the key is a curriculum. And certified teachers. A focus on teaching social skills, not just peer socialization. And set hours, not a drop off/pick up schedule.

Require your program to measure up at least to the standard of Head Start. Hopefully, that would mean all teachers with bachelors degrees and a class ratio of 10:1. If it doesn’t, then it should be an internal standard.

Employ administrators who know more than just education policy but who also have an academic understanding of preliteracy and premath skills. That can help the ‘testing gap’.

Collocate your program with the local public school. Make it part of the whole elementary school process, even though it should be available only to disadvantaged students. Let teachers at the local school cycle through the program, thereby ensuring continuity of care and schooling.

Consider early schooling. Use Early Head Start funds if you must. Get the children before their vocabulary is permanently maimed. By no means do I want to discourage mother care, but I want to discourage low-quality care for infants, if those infants are being put in negative child care settings. (for example, Educare is for working parents)

Use private funding for the majority of your budget.

Use external sources to evaluate your data, but also evaluate your own. Compare and contrast.

Partner with external sources of teachers, such as Teach for America and TNTP.

Partner with external education research groups, such as Harvard.

Flexible spending of TItle I dollars.

Partner with external sources for nonprofit workers in your centers. Consider a program such as Atlas Corps.

Use state dollars to fund targeted programs, not universal. Yes, it mimics Head Start, but the existence of multiple programs will still have a competitive effect. TPS rolls are full, and there is no way to ensure those who would beneift from preschool the most are getting in. In fact, the four schools without preschool programs are in disadvantaged areas. Those students may go to spill over ECDC centers, or qualified students may go to HeadStart and Educare, but you are adding hurdles for parents who may not have the time, motivation, and/or know-how to navigate a complicated system.

Focus on the parents. Model correct parental behavior. Helping with child care and education issues also helps lower incidences of depression in parents.  Stress in parents lead to stress in children, and there are now studies exploring what higher levels of cortisol do to children.

For those legislatures concerned with reaching the middle class, who often fall through programs that target the impoverished, instead of expanding programs to those who fall up to 200% of the poverty line, consider these classic ideas:

  • Education accounts
  • Vouchers
  • Extra tax incentives for employers that provide quality childcare environments for children under the age of three.

For those concerned that those policies may reward just the working mom and punish those who choose to stay at home with their children, consider Ben Domenech’s Etsy Earner agenda.

Do I want to get into the stay-at-home mom vs. working mother debate? Not one bit. (For the record, whatever works for your family is what works.)  But I’ve seen the argument out there, both from the Heritage Foundation and from Penelope Trunk, that women want to stay at home with children. True? Possibly.  But, not necessarily full-time.

  • In addition, child care is also increasingly utilized by families with stay-at-home parents. A 1999 study  shows that almost a third of 0 to 4 year old children with mothers who are not employed are in non-parental child care, compared to three quarters of children of employed mothers .  They spend 16 to 20 hours per week in the primary mode of non-parental care.
  • This literature has produced little conclusive evidence of a negative effect of maternal employment on children. Mothers apparently reduce both leisure time and housework in order to maintain their time inputs into child raising (National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, 2003).