Education Funding Opinion

Proposed Pre-k Legislation: What’s Good, What’s Not So Good

By Sara Mead — November 13, 2013 8 min read
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In my previous post, I explained some of the key things that the pre-k bills introduced today by Sen. Tom Harkin and Rep. George Miller do. Here are some things to keep an eye on:

What’s Good:

Strong support for diverse delivery. Under this legislation, states that receive pre-k funds would make subgrants to “eligible local entities” to provide pre-k, which could include school districts, charter schools or charter management organizations, community-based early childhood providers, and consortia of these groups. The legislation also would require states to make assurances that they will consider impacts on diverse delivery in making pre-k subgrants. This is an improvement over the Obama administration’s budget justification, which suggested that all funds for the program would be required to run through school districts. That would have created a problem for states that already have pre-k programs premised on diverse delivery and would also have shut out some high-quality providers. This approach respects states’ existing diverse delivery systems and recognizes that a variety of types of providers can deliver quality pre-k programs. I also particularly like that the language explicitly calls out that charter schools are eligible local entities under this program.

Emphasis on data systems and comprehensive assessments. Requiring states to link pre-k and K-12 data in order to benefit from this program will help build the knowledge base around pre-k quality and impacts and also help states have the data they need to make better policy and resource allocation decisions. Of course, data systems are only as good as what you put in them, so it’s also important that the bill requires states to have or explain how they will develop comprehensive early learning assessment systems that include child screening measures, child formative assessments, measures of environmental quality, and measures of the quality of adult-child interactions. This data will play a critical role in both helping understand the quality of services really offered in early childhood programs, and driving improvement.

Emphasis on monitoring and continuous improvement. One of the things I really like about these bills is that they explicitly calls out the importance of state systems of monitoring, evaluation, and data analysis to ensure pre-k quality and drive continuous improvement. Too often, public policy treats pre-k quality like a check-list of inputs: Put in place teacher qualifications, class sizes and ratios, curriculum, and standards, and presto! quality. But the reality doesn’t work like that. As research shows, the most critical elements of pre-k quality are processes and behaviors that can’t be easily measured through input definitions of quality. Thus the only way to really ensure and drive improvement in the quality of pre-k is by having systems designed to look in a nuanced way at what actually happens to kids in pre-k classrooms, and to use a variety of sources of information to drive ongoing learning and quality improvement at each of the child, teacher, classroom, provider, program, and systemwide policy levels. The big question, though, is the rigor of what states will actually be required to show and do related to monitoring and continuous improvement--particularly given the number of other things the bills demand they do.

Focus on outcomes. The performance measures and targets for states outlined in Sec. 119 of the bills make clear that federal investment in pre-k needs to produce outcomes, not just access and inputs. As I’ve argued previously, if the early childhood field wants to increase public funding and access and be taken seriously as a part of the education system, it must be willing to provide increased information about--and accountability for--early chidhood outcomes. That doesn’t have to mean scary, NCLB-style accountability. If anything, increasing outcomes accountability in early childhood programs should be an exciting opportunity to rethink what we really mean when we talk about outcomes and accountability in education generally, and to develop models that may have resonance for K-12 as well. But that doesn’t change the reality that at the end of the day what really matters is the results programs produce for kids--and we’ve got to have some way of talking about that. The performance measures and targets in this bill are a good start, although I have some questions about some of them (more on that later).

Kindergarten quality and PreK-3rd alignment. One of the crazy things about early childhood policy in the U.S. today is that even as we’re talking about pre-k a lot of children still don’t have access to full-day kindergarten--and a few states don’t guarantee access to kindergarten at all! Thus this bills’ recognition of the importance of kindergarten--and of the need to improve the number of children attending high-quality kindergarten (see Sec. 116 (a)(2)(Q))-have value. More broadly, there is a strong case that pre-k will be most effective when it is coupled with high-quality, aligned K-3 programs, and these bills include language promoting the need for both high-quality transition to kindergarten and broader PreK-3rd alignment.

Mechanism for acknowledging states that have already made significant pre-k investments: The bills would allow a lower match rate for states that already serve at least half of 4-year-olds in high-quality pre-k. This is important to avoid penalizing states that have been leaders on pre-k. States are also allowed to count up to 10% of current state pre-k funding towards the federal matching requirement.

What’s not so good:

Overall, my concerns with this proposed legislation are less any particular thing I don’t like than that they asks states--and providers--to do a lot of stuff, but fail to send strong signals about the importance of the instructional quality factors that are most critical to pre-k quality and outcomes. The list of assurances states have to address in their applications runs to the letter W (e.g.: 23 different things), and includes both really critical things (such as establishing montoring systems to ensure the quality of local pre-k providers, or establishing comprehensive assessment and data systems) and less important things (such as ensuring that local providers coordinate with libraries). In our current kludgeocracy, there’s a strong temptation to require federal grantees or programs to include every good thing that someone could possibly want them to do--even if the net effect is to obscure the true priorities or make it hard to do anything well. I’m skeptical, for example, of applying comprehensive services requirements to all local entities providing pre-k. Comprehensive services are important--particularly for some children. But are we sure that all children this program targets need all these services, that the types of entities that are well-suited to providing quality pre-k learning experiences are really the best suited to providing comprehensive services, or that there aren’t already other organizations operating in some communities that can meet these needs?

I also wish that the ratio of language about comprehensive services to language about instructional quality in pre-k wasn’t so strongly tilted towards the former. There is, for example, NO language in these bills about effective practices for language development and vocabulary acquisition, for example, even though we know these things are critical for preschoolers and what effective preschools need to do to promote them. That said, I don’t really think prescribing effective language development strategies is an appropriate role for federal legislation--I wouldn’t want to see that language in here. But I worry that the net effect of the legislation as written is to suggest that the focus of pre-k quality is much more about inputs and comprehensive services--which are much more highly prescribed in the bill--than it is about the instructional interactions and content that are the true definition of quality in pre-k. I realize there’s no perfect solution here, but I do wish the importance of instructional quality were a clearer priority.

Related to this, I am really not in love with the bills’ approach to teacher quality. I do think pre-k teachers in federally funded programs should have bachelor’s degrees--but the strategies for getting there are lacking in these bills. I particularly don’t like that they would require bachelor’s degreed teachers with a major in a subject other than early childhood education to complete a teacher preparation/certificate program in early childhood--even after passing a subject matter assessment of early childhood knoweldge. While we know that pre-k teachers need knowledge of child development, there’s absolutely no research-based reason to believe that a subject major or credential program includes the “right” amount of content knowledge--particularly if teachers can already demonstrate that they have necessary knowledge or skills. Nor is there reason to believe that the subject matter knowledge a teacher might gain through a major or credential program is necessarily better than what she might learn through job-embedded supports or coaching. This just feels like a giveaway to higher ed-based teacher prep programs. I’m also not crazy about requiring pre-k teachers to be paid at the same level as K-12 teachers. Don’t get me wrong: I believe that pre-k teachers are doing valuable work that should be well-compensated. But this feels like a level of micromanagement beyond what’s appropriate to the federal role. More broadly, this language seems to implicitly assume a single steps and lanes pay schedule for all educators that doesn’t take into account market demand and supply or effectiveness--even as parts of the K-12 system are moving away from that. And that gives more conservative members of Congress who might otherwise be open to pre-k another big reason not to support this. There are some good things in here about professional development and educator quality--but I’m fearful the net effect will be to waste a lot of money on strategies that don’t necessarily yield the greatest bang for the buck.There are better ways to support both high-quality standards and adequate compensation for pre-k educators.

On net:

While I may have some complaints about this proposed legislation, on net its passage would be a good thing for U.S. kids and pre-k quality and access nationally. I don’t want any of my concerns to obscure that--but I do think it would be possible to do even better. I also have some questions, which I’ll address in a subsequent post.

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The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.