Early education

Spending more on pre-K doesn’t guarantee success, say Vanderbilt researchers

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer

Researchers at Vanderbilt University are using Tennessee as a cautionary tale for the rest of the nation to pause before expanding pre-kindergarten programs.

In their landmark study released last year, Dale Farran and Mark Lipsey found that academic gains achieved by students in Tennessee pre-K classrooms flickered out by third grade. In their new report, published by Behavioral Science & Policy Journal, the authors share similar challenges they’ve observed in other states’ pre-K programs.

“The idea that a year of pre-K can close the achievement gap for at-risk children is appealing to policymakers, school administrators, businessmen and law enforcement officials, but this kind of magical thinking doesn’t benefit children,” said Farran, a professor at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education. “Expansions are being conducted without much attention to the question of how to design and support those programs so they are effective.”

The researchers cited inconsistent curriculum implementation and teacher quality as contributors to the fade-out, as well as lack of supports for the children when they reached the second and third grade. All children in the study were from low-income families.

Successful pre-K programs held up as exemplars are generally expensive, and states shouldn’t expect to replicate their results without making big investments, the researchers argue.

"Expansions are being conducted without much attention to the question of how to design and support those programs so they are effective."Dale Farran, researcher

Farran and Lipsey still believe in early childhood education. They just argue against thinking pre-K in itself is a silver bullet. It needs to be supported and include research-based practices, they say.

They also note that positive evaluations of state pre-K programs frequently stem from examinations conducted or commissioned by the departments charged with their oversight.

“If the (evaluators) adopted a more critical approach, the reports policymakers base their decisions on would be more forthright about the limitations of the studies and less rosy about their conclusions,” said Lipsey, research professor at Peabody Research Institute. “They would also acknowledge the considerable difficulty of implementing an effective program at scale and avoid claiming or implying that scale-up had been successfully accomplished.”

You can read about the researchers’ collaboration with Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools here, and see their new study here.

Littlest learners

Detroit has low-income families needing preschools — and preschools needing low-income families. They don’t always connect

PHOTO: Francesca Berardi
Some Detroit families struggle to find available seats in Head Start programs — while programs struggle to find families.

This story was reported by the Teacher Project, an education journalism fellowship at Columbia Journalism School dedicated to covering the issues facing public school families and teachers.

When Monica Hernandez moved to southwest Detroit last spring from California, she headed to her local Head Start center to enroll her two young children, who are 1 and 4. Hernandez, 21, wanted childcare so she would have time to go back to school and earn her GED. She also hoped that with Head Start—the half-century-old federal program that provides low-income pre-kindergarteners with free education, health, and nutrition services—she would help prepare her children academically and socially for kindergarten.

At the Head Start center at Harms Elementary School, Hernandez made an appointment to discuss enrolling her kids, but the meeting never happened. “They just kept postponing it, and then they never called me back,” she said. “I just gave up.”

teacher-project

At a time when cities and states across the country are trying to expand publicly funded preschool programs, the stories of Detroit families like Hernandez’ show how simply adding publicly funded seats for the littlest learners is not enough—particularly when it comes to low-income families who often have the most to benefit from quality early childhood education programs.

Of the roughly 30,000 low-income children below the age of five in Detroit, only about 3,900 are enrolled in a Head Start program. Funding for about 850 Head Starts slots goes unused. Some parents don’t know of the program’s existence; others struggle to navigate a complicated landscape of Head Start providers with impenetrable enrollment procedures. The experience in Detroit shows that serving more of the country’s youngest students depends not only on expanding access, but getting much better information to the most disconnected communities and parents. (Head Start is federally funded, but delivered by hundreds of local agencies that can be public, private, for-profit or non-profit.)

“The struggle to fill vacant seats is something you could not even imagine in other cities…where the waiting lists are interminable,” says Maria Montoya, who works for Excellent Schools Detroit, an organization devoted to helping families traverse Detroit’s education landscape.

Though Hernandez eventually found a spot for her children in another Head Start center run by an agency called Matrix, her initial problem—wanting Head Start seats and struggling to get them—is frustrating to many people working in that sector. Laura Lefever, who runs the Children’s Center, a Head Start program in northwest Detroit, has more seats available than pupils to fill them. “Where are the children?” she asks, staring at a chart showing the number of vacant seats in the center she oversees.

Lefever’s program is in a neighborhood with a large number of single, working parents in desperate need of childcare. Yet 10 of the seats at the Children’s Center haven’t been filled. “I am becoming a walking billboard,” Lefever says, pointing to her red T-shirt with the name of the school on it. “I carry flyers everywhere.”

The reasons for the Head Start vacancies are numerous, intertwined, and contain valuable lessons for a nation hoping to better serve its youngest students.

Many parents, particularly those who were underserved by the education system themselves, don’t understand the value of early childhood programs—or remain unaware of their existence. This can be especially true in states where even 5-year-old kindergarten is optional. “They don’t realize the impact early education can have, and the importance of learning how to support your children’s studies in the years to come,” says Lefever. “Head Start is not a parking space for babies but the beginning of a journey. It is for parents just as much as for children.”

While the research and policy world remains divided on the quality of Head Start, studies have shown that it can have a positive significant impact over the long term. Children who participate are more likely to earn a high school diploma and less likely to be convicted of a crime. While traditional Head Start programs serve kids once they turn three, Early Head Start enrolls younger children. Some Head Start centers in Detroit also offer Early Head Start, but parents tend to be even less aware of the programs for younger children.

Sheritta Dew might never have discovered Head Start if she hadn’t gone back to school herself. “When I had my first child I did not know about these programs,” said Dew, 21, who has a three- and a one-year-old, and is six months pregnant with a third child. But when someone at her GED center mentioned Head Start, Dew realized she had more options than keeping her children at home. They’re now enrolled at a Head Start center in southwestern Detroit, not far from the homeless shelter where the family lives.

Dew’s three-year-old spent his first two years at home, where he didn’t have nearly as much exposure to educational activities. “I just regret that my son wasn’t here sooner, he could have learned a lot more,” she says. But after hard times in the past, Dew feels that her life is on an upswing. Staying at the homeless shelter means she doesn’t need to worry about where her family will find its next meal, and social workers are helping her to find an apartment. Most important, her children seem content and engaged. “They look happier since they started,” she said.

 

* * *

While parental reluctance and lack of awareness play a role in keeping Detroit’s Head Start centers underoccupied, a blurry enrollment process doesn’t help the matter.

The city administered the Head Start program for about half a century, from the 1960s to 2012. At that point, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced it no longer wanted the city to distribute the money because of longstanding issues, including mismanagement of funds. In 2014, control over the program was handed over to a variety of local organizations and nonprofits that now run the centers, a more typical model from a national perspective.

There are a number of different factors that determine Head Start eligibility, which can vary slightly from center to center, with some exemptions permitted. A child’s family income typically needs to be at or below the federal poverty guidelines of $16,000 for a family of two and roughly $20,000 for a family of three. Other factors that must be taken into consideration are homelessness, disability, and the English language proficiency of the family. But some others factors, like the age or the employment status of the parents, depend on local needs and context. In a neighborhood with a rapidly growing number of refugee youngsters, for instance, they might receive greater preference than they would in other areas.

Skeptics say this system not only confuses parents but allows for a fuzziness that less-than-scrupulous operators can exploit: turning away families they should serve by saying they don’t meet the enrollment criteria. Some center operators are far less responsive and helpful than Lefever.

The complicated, and not always transparent, enrollment process can be particularly detrimental for the most vulnerable kids: those with special needs. Head Start centers are required to enroll at least 10 percent of children with special needs, but according to parents and center operators some make it clear that they are not able to accept students with more severe disabilities.

Tina Edwards, the enrollment coordinator at the Children’s Center, recalls a three-year-old who had been in a car accident and couldn’t walk as a result. “Another school told her parents that they could not accommodate their need based on her handicap,” Edwards said. “We welcomed her here. One bad encounter can affect how families feel about the Head Start program as a whole.”

In order to win parents’ trust, engaging them is a priority. “One of the ways to address the enrollment issue is to empower parents, involve them in the process and ask them to spread the world about the program,” says Kaitlin Ferrick, director of the Michigan Head Start Collaboration Office. “The peer to peer review is always effective,” she adds. This is particularly true in Detroit, where many residents have grown to distrust official sources after decades of being underserved.

* * *

In a city where a population of roughly 700,000 is spread out over 140 square miles, geography and transportation form another barrier to access. Until recently children had to be enrolled in a center located in the zip code where they lived, which was not always the closest one to their home. They usually couldn’t switch zip codes unless all of the programs in their own area were full—something that happens very seldom in Detroit. However, new standards implemented earlier last month create more flexibility. While Detroit Head Start operators are still waiting to see if the new standards will help solve their problems, they do allow centers to more frequently enroll children in the zip code where parents work, not live if center operators can show they’ve made every effort possible to recruit families who reside in their zip code.

Parents often prefer sending their children to centers near where they work, especially those who don’t find a spot in a full-day program. Some travel more than an hour on buses with unreliable schedules to get to their jobs. “You really need to be unemployed, or have someone who helps you, in order to enroll your child for three hours a day” in a half-day program, says Melanie Ford, a 34-year-old mother of two.

After a “challenging” nine months spent trying to enroll her daughter in a quality and convenient Head Start center, she finally settled on one she disliked because it was the only one with an open full-day slot. (Full day programs typically run from 8 a.m. to 3 or 4 p.m.) “There were no many activities, children were not learning as they should,” she said, noting that staff members didn’t interact with the kids as much as she wanted. She was eventually able to move her daughter to another center in the same zip code where she learns a lot more. “She is always smiling now. But I tell you: You gotta be really consistent to enroll your kid in school.”

Even those working families who find “full day” programs may struggle with the limited hours—another deterrent to enrollment. Some may eschew Head Start and opt for private, home-based child care centers as a result.

Nobles has been working in Head Start programs since 1999 and has first-hand experience of how valuable early childhood education can be, having attended a Head Start center herself. She loves her job, yet sometimes she has to confront hard challenges.

According to a 2015 report funded by the Kresge Foundation, Detroit has 6,684 full-day, full-year licensed slots in schools and centers for children ages three to five— a number that meets only 29 percent of the demand. Roughly 16 percent of available child care in the city is comprised of family child care homes, most of it unlicensed. This type of private child care has played a historic role in Detroit communities where families have learned not to rely too heavily on government-run services. But it is not subject to any kind of inspection, even if partially subsidized through publicly funded vouchers.

“The collection of data on early childhood education in Detroit is still challenging, the Head Start program included,” said Kaitlin Ferrick. This can be true in many big cities, but Detroit, according to Ferrick, offers “an extreme example.” Competition among providers doesn’t make the data gathering any easier, with agencies sometimes competing for the same teachers, social workers and facilities.

There is some cause for hope. Ten foundations in the Southeast Michigan Early Childhood Funders Collaborative, which formed in 2010, have invested more than $50 million into the region’s early childhood programs since 2012. The fund has helped spur innovative, collaborative ways to help Detroit’s Head Start program expand its capacity and its reach, building a citywide enrollment system.

But if Detroit’s most vulnerable families miss the message, the new money will have far less impact. The city’s experience shows that the future of early childhood education in America’s low-income communities depends heavily on whether parents have the capacity and knowledge to take advantage of their available options — and, when necessary, clamor for something better.

 

A push for change

Plans for tackling Colorado’s early childhood suspension and expulsion problem coming into focus

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Last spring, after plans fizzled for legislation to address the suspension and expulsion of young children, a loose-knit group of early childhood advocates and state officials began meeting monthly. They wanted more input before trying again in the 2017 session.

Those meetings wrapped up on Wednesday and although no definitive answers emerged, they provided a peek at some of the policy changes that may end up in legislation or other state rules.

In broad strokes, the plans include collecting more detailed suspension and expulsion data from more early childhood programs, creating policies limiting the use of suspension and expulsion, and giving providers more training in how to handle challenging behavior like chronic biting, hitting and tantrums.

Multiple lawmakers have expressed interest in sponsoring a bill in 2017. Rep. Susan Lontine, a Denver Democrat, attended several stakeholder meetings and pledged her support from the start.

In addition, Representative-elect Dominique Jackson, an Aurora Democrat, as well as a staff member from the office of Rhonda Fields, another Aurora Democrat, attended Wednesday’s meeting and offered their help.

A coalition of groups have participated in the meetings, including Padres & Jovenes Unidos, the Colorado Children’s Campaign, the Denver chapter of the National Black Child Development Institute, and several early childhood councils and school districts.

Over the past couple years, there’s been a growing spotlight on early childhood suspension and expulsion — discipline tactics that disproportionately impact boys of color.

But while many advocates decry the use of such methods as both harmful to children and ineffective, there’s also the reality that many child care workers are not well-versed on alternatives, and don’t have the time or money to pursue extra training.

The draft of policy proposals presented on Wednesday acknowledged that in a way—with the longest list of recommendations falling under a category focused on giving child care providers more support.

Here’s a summary of the policy ideas presented Wednesday:

Better data

Currently, the government collects data from school districts showing the number of suspensions and expulsions they’ve handed out to students, including preschoolers. The data is broken out by race, gender, disability status and English-language learner status, but not based on which students get government subsidized meals, a proxy for poverty. No data is collected for the large percentage of young children who attend preschool or child care outside of public schools.

Policy proposals include:

  • Expand the discipline reporting requirement to include preschool kids who are in taxpayer-funded care outside of public schools.
  • Break out discipline data based on free-and-reduced-price meal status.
  • Survey child care providers, particularly those who care for children 0 to 3, to gather discipline data from those not required to report their numbers to the government.

Clear policies

State child care rules already require that licensed providers establish policies stating how they’ll handle challenging behavior, when they’ll bring in mental health consultants and what steps they’ll take prior to a suspension or expulsion. Still, suspensions and expulsions aren’t prohibited and there are no rules about how long suspensions can last.

Policy proposals include:

  • Prohibit out-of-school suspensions and expulsions for children under 8 with exceptions for ongoing safety concerns or as required by federal law.
  • Limit the length of time for out-of-school suspensions for children in preschool through second grade and ensure plans for the transition back to school when suspensions occur.
  • Embed restrictions on the use of suspensions and expulsions in the state’s mandatory five-level child care rating system, Colorado Shines.

Support for providers

The state and various nonprofit organizations already offer a number of options to help child care providers manage children with challenging behavior. These include training programs as well as coaching from early childhood mental health consultants.

Still, such services aren’t universally accessible and don’t address the overall lack of teacher preparation training on the topic or other problems, such as low pay for child care workers and the lack of access to social workers, counselors and other mental health specialists.

Policy proposals include:

  • Put in place early detection and prevention programs for kids with challenging behavior.
  • Ensure access to teacher preparation and on-the-job training that includes focus on cultural competence, social-emotional learning, restorative justice and early intervention when children show challenging behavior.
  • Provide greater access to specialists such as social workers, counselors and mental health consultants.
  • Diversify the early childhood workforce.
  • Pay early childhood teachers more.
  • Provide families with wraparound services from birth and invest in programs like home visiting.