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.”

Detroit's future

Despite top scores in quality standards, Michigan’s early education programs neglect English language learners

PHOTO: Jamie Cotten, Special to The Denver Post
Josiah Berg, 4, paints a picture at Mile High Montessori, one of more than 250 Denver preschools that are part of the Denver Preschool Program.

Michigan’s 4-year-olds have some of the highest quality education and care available in the country — that is, if your child can speak English.

Michigan was one of only three states to meet all 10 quality benchmarks designed by a national advocacy organization that released its annual State of Preschool Report this week. However, the state met only one out of 10 benchmarks for English Language Learners.

Four-year-olds enrolled in privately funded programs are not included in this data.

The enrollment of 4-year-olds and state spending per pupil stayed largely constant from the same report last year. About 30 percent of 4-year-olds are enrolled — some 38,371 children — while state spending was steady at $6,356 per pupil.

Early education advocates in the state have been increasingly focused on younger children. Research suggests how much a child learns before they begin kindergarten — starting from birth — has a huge impact on school outcomes, and especially reading. This is especially important in Michigan, as a tough new reading law will take effect in 2020 that holds back third graders not reading at grade level.

Compared to the rest of the country, Michigan ranks 16th out of 43 states and Washington, D.C., in enrollment for 4-year-olds and allocates about $1,000 more dollars on per pupil spending than the average state.

These findings come from the State of Preschool 2017 report published by the National Institute for Early Education Research, or NIEER, at Rutgers University.

Three states — Alabama, Michigan, and Rhode Island — met all 10 of the institute’s benchmarks for minimum state preschool quality standards. Benchmarks included things like student to teacher ratios, teacher training, and quality of curriculum.

But the only benchmark the state met for English Language Learners is that bilingual instruction is permitted in the state-funded preschool program. Michigan did not meet benchmarks for assessing children in their home language, allocating more money for English learners, or making sure staff are trained in working with students learning English.

Authors of the new report say supporting English learners is important, especially early in life.

“For all children, the preschool years are a critical time for language development.” said Steve Barnett, senior co-director of the institute. “We know that dual-language learners are a group that makes the largest gains from attending high-quality preschool. At the same time, they’re at elevated risk for school failure.”

About a quarter of early education students nationwide are English language learners. Michigan does not collect data on the number of early education students who are English language learners, so it’s unclear how many students the low quality of instruction impacts.

Chalkbeat Colorado’s Ann Schimke contributed to this report.

 

Starting early

Colorado’s state preschool program doesn’t serve English learners well, report finds

PHOTO: energyy | Getty Images
Preschool children doing activities.

Colorado’s public preschool program fails to meet most targets for effectively serving young English learners, according to a new state-by-state report released today.

Besides having just two of nine recommended policies in place for serving such youngsters, Colorado also doesn’t know how many of the 22,000 preschoolers in its state-funded slots speak a home language other than English.

These findings come from the “State of Preschool 2017” report put out by the National Institute for Early Education Research, or NIEER, at Rutgers University. This year, in addition to the organization’s usual look at state preschool spending, enrollment, and quality, the report includes a section on how states are serving English learners. Nationwide, 23 percent of preschool-aged children fall into this category.

Colorado fared about the same as last year — average or below average — on the criteria examined annually in the preschool report. It ranked 25th among 43 states and Washington, D.C., for 4-year-old access to preschool, 10th for 3-year-old access and 39th for state preschool funding. It also met only five of 10 benchmarks measuring preschool quality, worse than most other states.

Colorado’s state-funded preschool program, called the the Colorado Preschool Program, provides half-day preschool to 3- and 4-year-olds who come from low-income families, have parents who didn’t finish high school, or other risk factors. Seven states, mostly in the West, have no public preschool programs.

Colorado isn’t alone in having few provisions focused on preschoolers learning English. About two-dozen other states also met two or fewer of the report’s nine benchmarks, which include policies such as allocating extra funding to English learners, and screening and assessing them in their home language.

Only three states met eight or nine of the benchmarks: Texas, Maine, and Kansas.

Colorado education department officials said the NIEER report could help spur changes in the Colorado Preschool Program.

“This actually might be an opportunity for us to look at these more specific indicators of high quality practices [for] dual-language learners, to help drive improvements in our program,” said Heidi McCaslin, preschool director at the Colorado Department of Education.

To alter the program or its data collection requirements, she said the state legislature would have to change the law or the State Board of Education would have to change rules.

Authors of the new report say supporting English learners is important, especially early in life.

“For all children, the preschool years are a critical time for language development.” said Steve Barnett, senior co-director of the institute. “We know that dual-language learners are a group that makes the largest gains from attending high-quality preschool. At the same time they’re at elevated risk for school failure.”

Colorado earned credit for two of the study’s English-learner benchmarks: for allowing bilingual instruction and having policies to support families of young English learners. Those policies include providing enrollment information and communicating with the child’s family in the home language.

McCaslin mentioned one Colorado preschool initiative focused on dual-language learners. It’s a training to help preschool teachers distinguish between children who have speech problems because of a disability and those who have speech delays because they are learning English and another language at the same time.