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).



Universal Prekindergarten: Evidence from the Field

Welcome Carnival of Evidence-Based Parenting readers!  Today’s Carnival focuses on preschool education. I will keep an ongoing list of links from other participating blogs at the end of this post.

This is Part Three 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.

So here we have Part Three. We are spending exorbitant amounts of money to educate disadvantaged kids through Head Start and other programs, with spotty results. We are also now advocating universal prekindergarten, even though the evidence shows preschool in general provides spotty results. There are confounding factors throughout, including the way one measures achievement, the varying degrees of quality in Head Start programs across the nation, and the quality of the schools the children enter for elementary.

Here we ask: So what is the measure of quality? What makes one program better than the other? And do we trust these measures of quality?

The Oklahoma Experiment vs Georgia vs Florida

First, let’s clear up a misstatement in President Obama’s State of the Union speech:

Tonight, I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America.  Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on – by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime.  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. (my bolding)

Somewhat disingenuous.  The bolded parts are in reference to very specific preschool programs  such as the Perry Preschool Project and the Abcerdarian Experiment. Hardly a large scale universal prekindergarten program such as Oklahoma’s. No universal prekindergarten program has been able to prove that students are more likely to graduate high school, hold a job, or form more stable families – as a matter of fact, they are too new anyway.

Despite that misstatement, Oklahoma (Tulsa, specifically) does boast a “quality” Head Start program as well as a “quality” prekindergarten program. Due to the presence of these programs and a 74% enrollment rate for Tulsa prekindergarteners, Tulsa-area prekindergarten and its Head Start program is a subject of a multi-year Georgetown University research project.

However, first, we must define quality, as it is a contentious measure.  What most researchers call the ‘accepted’ measures of a program’s quality are measuring input factors – the amount of money spent per student, the student-teacher ratio, teacher pay and certification, and the facilities in which the children learn. Input then, rather than output.

Let’s look at input first.

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