Winning a Great Start for Young Children

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1 Winning a Great Start for Young Children Policy Brief Molly A. Hunter, Education Justice at Education Law Center, November 2010 Achievement gaps begin very early in children s lives. Children in low-wealth communities often start school one or two years behind their wealthier peers in critical literacy and numeracy skills and readiness to learn. Without adequate preparation, many children struggle to take advantage of the learning opportunities in their kindergarten or first-grade classrooms. For all children but especially children in poverty and children learning English high quality preschool offers the first step to success in school and beyond. The States are key decision makers on preschool policies, funding, and implementation. Even though federal funding supports Head Start and some childcare, state policies are central in determining whether children have access to preschool and whether their preschool experience is high quality. This policy brief summarizes preschool research and provides examples of states that have successfully implemented high quality preschool programs at scale thereby helping families put their young children on a lifelong positive trajectory. This brief addresses the following questions: Why does high quality preschool matter? Who has access? What is high quality preschool? What can we learn from examples of success? Why Does High Quality Preschool Matter? Children who attend high quality preschool programs perform better in school and throughout life. Extensive research demonstrates that high quality preschool benefits children academically and socially. Children who attend high quality preschool have more advanced language and math skills and enter kindergarten with an understanding of the classroom environment. They proceed through their ELC Policy Brief: Winning a Great Start for Young Children Page 1

2 school years with better grade-to-grade passing rates, fewer referrals to special education, greater high school graduation and college-going rates, and lower teen parenting rates. High quality preschool also creates lifelong benefits. Studies show that former participants are more likely to be employed and own a home as adults, commit fewer crimes, and make better health choices, such as smoking and using drugs at lower rates than those who did not attend high quality preschool. Children from low-income families or whose parents have limited education may benefit the most, as they are most likely to encounter problems in school and later in life due to poor academic performance, writes Steve Barnett of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER). And, recent studies reveal that, despite better performance on average, children from middle-income families [have] school failure and dropout problems that a good preschool education can help prevent. Preschool also generates high economic return for taxpayers. Finance experts have measured the costs and benefits of effective preschool education, based on studies that have either followed children well into adulthood and examined a broad range of outcomes, or estimated costs and benefits of the positive impact on in high school graduation rates. For every dollar spent on high quality preschool, the returns on that investment are found to be at least two and a half present-value dollars. Who Has Access? Despite these well-documented benefits, the U.S. lags many other developed nations in providing preschool for its children. In recent years, 38 states have established state-funded preschool programs, as has Washington, DC. However, program access and quality vary tremendously from state to state, and not nearly enough children are served. Overall, preschool enrollments have increased significantly over the last 45 years. In 1965, only 14% of 4-year-olds and a mere 5% of 3-year-olds attended preschool. By 2005, 2/3rds of 4-year-olds and over 40% of 3-year-olds were in a preschool education program. Nevertheless, participation rates vary markedly by income and ethnicity, representing gaps in availability of this crucial learning resource. ELC Policy Brief: Winning a Great Start for Young Children Page 2

3 Children in low-income families participate less, despite the fact that Head Start and many state-funded preschool programs are partially meeting the preschool needs of low-income families. The expansion of these programs has prevented a widening of the gaps in participation, but has not narrowed the gaps at least not on a national level. Preschool by Income: 2005 Source: NHES and Barnett & Yarosz In more detail by family income, 2005 figures for both 3-year-olds and 4-yearolds at each income level show much higher participation rates for children in higher income families. While program participation among 4-year-olds in lowincome families is significant, there are major gaps. For 3-year-olds at both lowand moderate-income levels the gaps are even larger: only 20% of children from families earning between $20,000 and $30,000 attend preschool at age three, compared with 52% for families earning $75,000 to $100,000 thousand dollars, and 71% for families over $100,000. To close these wide gaps in access, States need to expand programs that make preschool available to low-income and moderate-income families. ELC Policy Brief: Winning a Great Start for Young Children Page 3

4 Preschool Participation by Ethnicity 100% 90% 80% 70% 60% 50% 40% 30% 20% 10% 0% White Black Latino Source: NHES 1991, 2005 and Barnett & Yarosz For both 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds, participation rates increased from 1991 to 2005 for each of the three largest ethnic groups in the U.S. white, black, and Latino. Latino families, however, continue to have the lowest participation rates by a wide margin. The research on preschool indicates that Latino families heavily favor preschool attendance for their children and points to the lack of availability as a key factor behind the lower participation rates. Unfortunately, the broad increases in enrollment have not reached all children equally. Those children whose parents have the least education and least income are least likely to attend preschool. Without a commitment from States to build and support high quality preschool systems, families often struggle to find well-designed programs that prepare their children for kindergarten, elementary school, and beyond. What Is High Quality Preschool? While access is crucial, so is quality. Only high quality preschool increases academic achievement and improves employment and other life outcomes. However, research tells us that many preschools are not high in quality. Children s rights advocates face a double challenge here: closing preschool gaps in both access and quality. When you walk into a high-quality preschool program, you immediately see that learning is taking place, says Pre-K Now, a project of the Pew Center on the States. Children are nurtured and challenged. They engage in individual, small ELC Policy Brief: Winning a Great Start for Young Children Page 4

5 group and large group activities each day, with opportunities for art, music/movement, science, math, block play, sand, water and dramatic play. Teachers ask questions, reward successes and guide learning. The room is well equipped and has a sense of purpose. There is also frequent communication, such as listening, talking and responding, and children are encouraged to reason and problem solve. NIEER (National Institute for Early Education Research) has created a ten-point evaluation that analyzes the quality of preschool programs state-by-state. See State of Preschool 2009: State Preschool Yearbook, at The key components of a high-quality program include: Well-Educated Teachers: The most effective preschool teachers have earned bachelor's degrees and have specialized training in early-childhood education. Salaries and benefits comparable to K-12 teachers improve the stability of preschool staffing. Teachers trained in skills that enable them to develop strong, responsive, interpersonal relationships with their students contribute to each child's motivation to learn, social competence, and school achievement. Preschool assistant teachers should have a child development associate credential, and both the teacher and assistant teacher should have access to well-designed professional development opportunities. Small Class Sizes: Young children learn best in small groups where they receive individualized attention from the teacher. Small classes also enable teachers to be more supportive of each child's learning style and have time to develop students' language skills, guide their social interactions, and encourage exploration and problem solving. A ratio of one teacher and one assistant teacher for every 20 or fewer children is important to the children s success. Engaged Families: High quality programs respect the role of families as children's first and most important teachers, and therefore support learning at home. Families home culture and language are respected and appreciated. Families and teachers communicate directly in conferences and regular reports home, and exchange information about a child's strengths and successes, favorite activities, and learning progress. High quality programs also encourage additional family involvement through opportunities, such as assisting in the classroom or on field trips or sharing expertise. Focus on the Whole Child and Family: Children cannot learn when their basic needs are unmet or when special needs are undiagnosed. High quality preschool programs screen children's vision, hearing, and general health in order to identify ELC Policy Brief: Winning a Great Start for Young Children Page 5

6 problems and make appropriate referrals early. Preschool programs also offer children a nutritious breakfast and/or lunch. When needed, families should have access to social services or to information about nutrition, parenting, and family support. For these support services to be effective, they need to be administered by trained professionals who have the necessary expertise and resources. Strong Curriculum: A thorough but flexible curriculum helps teachers organize daily learning activities. High quality preschool programs build their curriculum with specific goals for all aspects of a child's development: cognitive, physical, social, and emotional. A strong curriculum offers daily opportunities for each child to reinforce individual strengths and cultivate new skills, and enables teachers to meet the realities of diverse languages and cultural groups. Long-term research on preschool provides convincing evidence that high quality programs make crucial differences in children s readiness for future success. What Can We Learn from Examples of Success? Some state preschool programs offer high quality and broad access, but many do not. Based on widely accepted standards, Oklahoma and New Jersey offer high quality programs and exceptionally good access. In Oklahoma, over 70% of four year olds attend, and in New Jersey, 82% of three and four year olds attend in the highest needs school districts, where almost 25% of the state s children are educated. Oklahoma: Oklahoma offers a preschool success story. Research that focused on Hispanic preschool children found the state s high quality program effective and accessible: Hispanic students experienced substantial improvements in prereading, pre-writing, and pre-math skills. Hispanic students whose parents speak Spanish at home or whose parents were born in Mexico benefited the most. English language test gains were stronger than Spanish language test gains, but the latter were sometimes significant. Conclusions. Preschool education has considerable potential to improve educational outcomes for Hispanic children. Hispanic students benefit two ways, from a high-quality preschool program and from relatively high participation rates. (Gormley date) ELC Policy Brief: Winning a Great Start for Young Children Page 6

7 Advocacy: Effective advocacy in the states begins by focusing on the children and their needs. Declaring that all children deserve the opportunity to learn can be particularly persuasive when referring to three- and four-year-olds. They are wonderfully adorable, so that only the most callous curmudgeon can view these, our youngest students, skeptically. After focusing on the kids, their tremendous potential, and their educational and developmental needs, advocates must also help policymakers gain an understanding of the importance of high quality preschool in lifting children towards their potential. Advocates can also cite the many business leaders, the military, and law enforcement organizations that are arguing for this excellent investment in young children. Finally, moving to the costs and benefits of high quality preschool reveals the win-win opportunities in this policy arena. When presented with this perspective, voters and taxpayers, parents and educators, and the broader society can feel good about supporting high quality preschool. State Court Advocacy: Because powerful research shows that high quality preschool can close preschool learning gaps, education equity plaintiffs are including preschool claims in their demands for better opportunity. Plaintiffs such as those in Lobato v. State of Colorado make the case that the state constitution requires the State to provide all of its children a genuine educational opportunity. For at-risk children, the first step in that opportunity is high quality preschool. A number of state courts have agreed with these arguments, including the trial court in North Carolina and the New Jersey Supreme Court. The Abbott preschool program in New Jersey, born of the landmark Abbott v. Burke litigation, is one of the best examples of high quality preschool and how it closes achievement gaps. New Jersey: New Jersey has become a national leader in providing high quality preschool, especially in its 31 lowest-wealth school districts, which educate almost 25% of New Jersey s children and a majority of its minority children. The Abbott preschool program began over 10 years ago, after the state supreme court ordered well-planned and high quality preschool for all three and four year olds in the State s lowest wealth districts. With ongoing pressure from the court, leaders in the legislature, school districts, community-based organizations, and the NJ Department of Education (NJDOE) helped implement this high quality program. Abbott preschool has grown to serve over 41,000 children and is delivered in public schools, or in collaboration with ELC Policy Brief: Winning a Great Start for Young Children Page 7

8 childcare centers or Head Start programs, both of which must meet Abbott quality standards. Overall quality has improved during implementation to a statewide average now approaching excellent. In collaboration with colleges and universities, the State funded new opportunities for preschool teachers and assistant teachers to gain the expertise and credentials they need. Also, the NJDOE provided program quality guidelines, including strong, research-based recommendations for supporting English Learners (ELs) in their native languages as well as English. Achievement has climbed impressively for the children who attended and are now in elementary school. The latest detailed analysis from researchers at NIEER reports outcomes at the end of first and second grade. (Frede, et al. 2009) Abbott preschool children continue to outperform their peers. And, those who had two years of preschool compared to one also have better outcomes. By second grade, grade retention is lower for Abbott preschool children, and it is cut in half for children who attended two years of preschool. Oral language and conceptual knowledge are keys to reading and writing, and preschool effects on these are strongly positive. For math, also, all results favor the Abbott preschool participants. In sum, the findings reflect the Abbott preschool program s success in preparing children to learn, and imply long-term savings for taxpayers. (Frede) The results of this study add to the considerable body of evidence that great progress can be made on a large scale by public programs administered through the public schools. These Abbott children are experiencing sustained, not just initial, positive gains in their learning. (Frede) The Abbott preschool program is high quality because: All Abbott preschool teachers must have a bachelor's degree and early childhood certification; Class sizes must be 15 children or less with a teacher and an assistant teacher; Families home culture and language are respected, appreciated, and incorporated into communications; Preschool teachers' salaries are equivalent to K-12 teachers' salaries; Designated staff work with parents and the community; Enrolled children receive comprehensive services, such as hearing and vision screening, special needs assessment, and hot meals; and Programs must use an approved curriculum. ELC Policy Brief: Winning a Great Start for Young Children Page 8

9 In conclusion, New Jersey has built a robust system to deliver high quality preschool in the Abbott districts. And, those districts that have aligned preschool and the early grades, while implementing intensive literacy supports at the elementary level, have closed the achievement gap for the students they serve. Looking Forward: Education Law Center represents the children in the Abbott case, repeatedly pressing their claim for high quality preschool. The Association for Children of New Jersey has led related advocacy efforts with strong support from the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, the New Jersey Education Association, and the Garden State Coalition of Schools. Many childcare center directors also added strength to the campaigns for preschool. Despite ongoing challenges due to the economic downturn, New Jersey s preschool advocacy community will continue to work to: Address a shortage of facilities; Strengthen collaboration between childcare-based programs and school districts; Encourage policymakers to secure additional funding for professional development and build on the well-trained teacher workforce; Gain program expansion to serve all low-wealth children; and Ensure that all preschool programs maintain high quality. Conclusion High quality preschool not only boosts children s learning, but also positively affects their lives long-term. Better access and higher quality programs are essential for education justice and equity. Some states and large school districts have successfully implemented high quality preschool and are reaping the rewards of higher achievement. Many benefits of quality preschool, including higher graduation rates, better health, and employment for the children, as well as excellent financial returns for society s investments, are little known. Nonetheless, they present opportunities for advocates to inform policymakers and win the benefits of a great start for our most vulnerable young children. ELC Policy Brief: Winning a Great Start for Young Children Page 9

10 Sources: W. Steven Barnett and Donald J. Yarosz, Who Goes to Preschool and Why Does it Matter? Preschool Policy Matters, NIEER (November 2007) W. Steven Barnett and Clive R. Belfield, Early childhood development and social mobility, in Future of Children, 16(2) Paul E. Barton and Richard J. Coley, The Family: America s Smallest School, Educational Testing Service (September 2007) Clive Belfield, The Promise of Early Childhood Education Interventions, in The Price We Pay: Economic and Social Consequences of Inadequate Education, Clive Belfield & Henry M. Levin, eds. Brookings Institution Press (2007) Linda M. Espinosa, High-Quality Preschool: Why We Need It and What It Looks Like, Preschool Policy Matters, NIEER (November 2002) Danielle Farrie and Jenna Webber, The Abbott Preschool Program: A 10-Year Progress Report, ELC (August 2010) Ellen Frede, et al., The APPLES Blossom: Abbott Preschool Program Longitudinal Effects Study (APPLES), Interim Report, NIEER (June 2009) Ellen Galinsky, The Economic Benefits of High-Quality Early Childhood Programs: What Makes the Difference?, Committee for Economic Development (2006) William T. Gormley, Jr., The Effects of Oklahoma s Pre-K Program on Hispanic Children (2008) Molly A. Hunter, Education Justice website at and states/colorado.html retrieved October 29, 2010 Robert G. Lynch, Enriching Children, Enriching the Nation: Public Investment in High-Quality Prekindergarten, Economic Policy Institute (2008) Gordon MacInnes, In Plain Sight, Simple, Difficult Lessons from New Jersey s Expensive Effort to Close the Achievement Gap (2009) National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), at Pre-K Now, a project of the Pew Center on the States, at K. Schulman, Overlooked benefits of prekindergarten, NIEER (2005) Southern Education Foundation, Pre-Kindergarten in the South, The Region s Comparative Advantage in Education (2007) United States Government Accountability Office, Prekindergarten: Four Selected States Expanded Access by Relying on Schools and Existing Providers of Early Education and Care to Provide Services (September 2004) ELC Policy Brief: Winning a Great Start for Young Children Page 10

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