early investments

A powerful pairing: Pre-K boosts future incomes and reduces risk of jail, especially when schools spend more

PHOTO: Francesca Berardi

It’s an issue that has long puzzled policymakers: Why do some early childhood programs produce big benefits for students, but others don’t?

The answer may be linked to what happens after kids leave the programs altogether and move through school.

That’s the conclusion of a working paper released Monday. Economists Kirabo Jackson of Northwestern and Rucker Johnson of Berkeley find that students benefit from both well-funded schools and access to early childhood education — and that Head Start had greater long-run benefits for students whose K-12 schools were better resourced.

In other words, the whole of those two policies in tandem is greater than the sum of their parts.

“The findings suggest that early investments in the skills of disadvantaged children that are followed by sustained educational investments over time can effectively break the cycle of poverty,” the researchers write.

With the latest analysis, Jackson and Johnson build on previous work (coauthored with Claudia Persico) that found that court-ordered increases in school spending meant students were more likely to attend college and make more money as adults.

The duo used the same national data to connect school spending to the rollout of Head Start, a federally funded preschool program for poor children. The key question was whether additional funding is a complement or replacement for the program — that is, does more money for K-12 schools make Head Start more effective or less necessary?

The results point to the former.

On average, access to Head Start improve low-income students’ income as adults by 1.9 percent, and decreased their likelihood of incarceration by .75 percentage points. But the effect of Head Start multiplies when students later attend relatively well funded schools: in that case, adult earnings increased 5.6 percent and risk of incarceration dropped 2.2 percentage points. This was on top of the benefits seen from additional spending itself.

On the other hand, for students attending elementary and secondary schools with below average funding, the benefits of Head Start were negligible.

A limitation of the study, released through the National Bureau of Economic Research, is that it is not a randomized experiment and so it’s impossible to say definitively that it isolates cause and effect. The researchers compared students with access to Head Start, court-ordered school spending increases, or both to similar groups of students from the same area before these initiatives were put in place.

Another drawback of the study is that it relies on fairly old data: it examines students who entered Head Start between 1965 and 1980. That’s the tradeoff to using longer-run outcomes, said Jackson.

“Any time you do analysis with historical data, that is going to be the rub,” he said. “If you use recent data you have to analyze test scores or something of the like, and then we don’t know how that translates into long-run outcomes.”

The results point to a number of potential lessons for policymakers. Chief among them: A child’s education can’t be neatly divided into early childhood and later schooling.

“In order to sustain the benefits of these early childhood interventions, you have to keep spending to keep it going,” Jackson said. “Taking a more holistic view, as education being part of a system, rather than early childhood and K-12, [they’re] really both part of an interconnected system.”

The study is particularly relevant to the ongoing debate on the value of pre-K.

Multiple other analyses have shown that access to Head Start translates to long-run gains for students. But much of the attention to the program has focused on the fact that test scores gains often “fade out” as students move through elementary school.

Significant debate has ensued after research in Tennessee showed that students who participated in the state’s pre-K program saw the effects dissipate by first grade and even turn negative compared to students who didn’t participate in the program.

Jackson has a hypothesis for results like those: insufficient spending on students’ K–12 schools.

“The least encouraging [preschool] evaluation was in Tennessee,” he said. “Tennessee it turns out is one of the most poorly funded K–12 states in the country. We don’t have any proof that this might explain it, but if you just looked at our data it tells us that that’s exactly the kind of situation where we might expect [preschool] to be the least effective.”

All over the map

What do children need to know when they start kindergarten? You might be surprised.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

How many letters should kids recognize when they enter kindergarten? Should they be able to cut with scissors? How long should they be able to sit still?

Such basic questions seem like they should come with clear-cut answers, but parents and teachers — and even Colorado state standards — differ widely in their expectations for entering kindergarteners

Early childhood leaders in Larimer County discovered just how much variation exists after they surveyed 800 local parents, preschool teachers and kindergarten teachers in 2015.

“The answers were all over the map,” said Bev Thurber, executive director of the Early Childhood Council of Larimer County. “A lot of times it was way above what research says is developmentally appropriate.”

Such findings spotlight the lack of consensus about what it means to be ready for kindergarten. The survey found parents and preschool teachers generally had higher expectations for youngsters than kindergarten teachers or state standards, suggesting that some parents and preschool teachers may be focusing too much energy on teaching academic skills to young children.

“Our concern is not only do you have this variability, but also this pressure on the academic side … when that’s really not the most important thing, especially at this young age,” said Thurber.

To help parents sort it all out, Thurber and a team of early childhood teachers and advocates created a new eight-page parent guide called “Ready Set Kindergarten.” Available in English and Spanish, the whimsically illustrated booklet gives parents tips for building academic and social-emotional skills — things like simple counting, recognizing the letters in a child’s name, naming feelings and taking turns. It also includes a month-by-month schedule for the pre-kindergarten year highlighting logistical details like registration windows and meet-the-teacher opportunities.

All three Larimer County school districts, — Poudre, Thompson and Estes Park — have agreed to use the guide, which is being distributed through preschools, elementary schools, doctors’ offices and libraries.

But some experts say too much emphasis on getting children ready for kindergarten relieves schools of their obligation to serve students regardless of their background or experience.

“It’s critical for schools to take responsibility for being ready for children – not the other way around,” said Sherry Cleary, executive director of the New York Early Childhood Professional Development Institute at the City University of New York.

Cleary reviewed the guide and worried that it would create unneeded stress for families and set up teachers to have unrealistic expectations for kids.

Thurber said many teachers and parents already have unrealistic expectations for entering kindergarteners, according to survey results. The guide scales those back, she said, and offers a more reasonable list of activities that are based on state standards and Colorado’s early learning and development guidelines.

“This is what experts have said is developmentally appropriate,” Thurber said.

“I completely buy in that schools have to meet kids where they are at,” she said. ”However, within that, there is a certain anxiety among families when you have all these differing expectations.”

Karen Rattenborg, executive director of the Colorado State University Early Childhood Center and an assistant professor at the university, saw the disparity in expectations when she analyzed the survey data.

Take letters, for example. State standards say kids should recognize at least 10 letters when they start kindergarten, specifically the letters in their name. Survey results showed most parents and preschool teachers believed entering kindergarteners should recognize more than 20 letters. Kindergarten teachers opted for a lower 11-20 range.

The same dynamic held true for counting — about half of parents and preschool teachers thought kids should be able to count higher than 20 while state standards say 10 is enough.

In some cases, both preschool and kindergarten teachers placed a high value on tasks that state standards and other common benchmarks don’t mention. Both groups rated cutting with scissors as the second most important fine motor skill for entering kindergarteners, but state standards and the state’s early learning guidelines are silent about scissors.

“It’s things like that where we had these a-ha moments,” said Rattenborg.

In some cases, there was agreement. For instance, the vast majority of both preschool and kindergarten teachers said the ability to communicate needs and wants was the top communication skill kindergarteners need.

Rattenborg said the diversity of views made one thing clear.

“We realized having a common guide throughout Larimer County would be helpful for virtually everyone involved,” she said.

Diane Umbreit, a kindergarten teacher at Kruse Elementary School in Fort Collins and a member of the committee that conceived the guide, agreed.

Over the years, she’s seen plenty of confusion and anxiety among parents. Some push their kids hard to acquire new skills before kindergarten. Some want to do learning activities with their children, but aren’t sure where to start.

Others, she said, are “shocked that their child needs to know the letters in his name.”

Umbreit said of the new kindergarten guide, “Hopefully, it evens the playing field.”

Teaching teachers

How a Memphis pre-K giant is changing the way early childhood educators are taught

PHOTO: Porter-Leath
Porter-Leath's new training program places emphasis on early literacy.

Morgan Bradley thought that teaching children at her church’s Sunday school would have prepared her to work in early childhood education.

But the recent college graduate was shocked by all she learned at a recent training at Porter-Leath’s new Early Childhood Academy.

“I thought I knew how to work with little kids, but I didn’t know how much a child’s brain develops during those years before kindergarten,” said Bradley, who will be helping in a Head Start classroom through AmeriCorps. “I’m realizing now how necessary good teaching in pre-K is to getting a baby ready for kindergarten, especially when it comes to using my words to build a child’s vocabulary.”

Bradley is one of more than 500 educators who will go through Porter-Leath’s training this year in an effort to boost the quality of early education instruction in Memphis. Porter-Leath is the city’s largest provider of early childhood education and has a partnership with Shelby County Schools for Head Start and other services, including training.

The program comes as Tennessee grapples with a low literacy rate and mixed quality of early education programs. Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has emphasized the need for better early childhood education across the state for Tennessee to improve as a whole.

Porter-Leath’s trainings are held almost monthly and revolve around four tenets: socio-emotional learning; literacy; health; and STEAM, or science, technology, engineering, art and math.

The socio-emotional and literacy pieces are what make the program different from usual professional development for early educators, said Rafel Hart, vice president of teacher excellence for Porter-Leath and the training program’s leader.

“When we think about professional development in early childhood, we think about training on CPR and first aid,” he said. “That’s important, but Teacher Excellence focuses on classroom practices. How do we make our quality of instruction better?”

A Memphis organization since 1850, Porter-Leath serves about 6,000 children in its preschool program and employs 670 people. It serves students in some of Memphis’ poorest neighborhoods who may be dealing with the trauma of food or home insecurity at early ages. This makes training teachers in socioemotional learning especially crucial, said Hart.

Porter-Leath’s program draws from organizations like Acknowledge Alliance that trains teachers to help students regulate their emotions and learn self-awareness.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
AmeriCorps members who will work in Porter-Leath classrooms are among more than 500 educators to go through the training.

“I’ve been in early childhood for 25 years, and socioemotional learning is rarely used,” Hart said. “That’s a tragic mistake we’re correcting. Students can’t grow to develop strong academics if their emotional health isn’t growing first.”

All new Porter-Leath and Shelby County Schools early childhood educators will go through this training, but it’s also open to and encouraged for longtime teachers.

Kelly Thieme, a former literacy specialist and now Porter Leath instructional coach, is especially excited to see the focus on literacy.

“A lot of people don’t understand literacy starts from birth, and speaking to children makes reading and literacy easier,” she said. “We go through current research on how young children learn to read. To me, this helps us and others understand that we’re not just babysitters; it helps us professionalize our profession.”