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Head of Early-Ed Research Group: Field Beset by ‘Wishful Thinking About Money’

By Marva Hinton — November 27, 2018 4 min read
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In January, new leaders will be taking the helm at the federal, state, and local level. We recently talked to W. Steven Barnett, the senior co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, or NIEER, at Rutgers University, about what he hopes this will mean for policies concerning early learning.

Below is a lightly edited version of our phone interview:

1. As a slew of new political leaders prepare to take office, what is the one thing you wished they knew about early-childhood education?

I think that the one thing would be that there’s a huge gap between what we could do and what we are doing, and that gap is in coverage. Only about half of the children in poverty have access to a program. The second is that the quality isn’t anything like what we think is necessary to produce the kinds of big impacts on children’s learning and development that programs can have.

2. Support for early-childhood education is unusual in that it’s for the most part bipartisan. Is this encouraging to you as we approach 2019?

The bipartisan support for early-childhood programs is critical. One of the greatest impediments to progress we could have is if it became a partisan issue. Right now if I were to pick the two leading states in terms of providing the kinds of programs that children need to make the progress that is promised those would be New Jersey and Alabama. If I would have to look beyond those, I’d look to West Virginia and Michigan, and I don’t think you could get a more bipartisan group of states.

3. Your recent analysis of public preschool policy found that most states still lack what are known as the essential elements for high-quality pre-K. What do you think is holding states back?

One thing that holds us back is that people think the job is done. They think that Head Start adequately serves all the children in poverty. It doesn’t even reach most of them to start with. Or, they think that kids who don’t have access to public programs have access to private programs. They also don’t really understand the intensity, duration, and quality that’s necessary to produce the promised results. They go from Perry Preschool and Abecedarian or even Chicago Child-Parent Centers to programs that don’t look anything like those and aren’t supported. They want to pay teachers half as much, for example. That would be the most glaring and obvious problem. I don’t think it’s so much wishful thinking as being misinformed. It’s not what you don’t know that hurts you so much as what you know that’s not true.

4. Is it just a lack of funding?

Absolutely, there is a lot of wishful thinking about money. Most places spend far less [on pre-K] than they do per child on K-12, and they expect far more. That’s just not realistic. Whatever you think about whether K-12 teachers are paid enough, nobody thinks paying them half as much would work. Yet, somehow magically they think that will work if the children are a year or two younger.

The field avoids even the discussion or planning about adequate resources. The field engages in so much work on systems building and blending and braiding. Blending and braiding is put forward not as just a way to improve program quality but as a way to improve financing. That’s just mixing the money we already have. It doesn’t add any new money to the system, so it’s not an effective way of improving the financing. You can do all the systems work that you want and have the best systems in the world for organizing these. If you don’t have adequate services to begin with, you’re just wasting your time.

5. Is there one thing that every state could do today that would really turn things around in this regard?

If a state convened a group of elected officials, educators, parents and said, ‘What do we want for our children in terms of the day they enter kindergarten?’ and then they said, ‘OK, how are we going to do that?’ then they said, ‘OK, what’s that going to cost?’ that would resolve—at least it could resolve—these problems of knowledge and misinformation because it would become apparent that what we’re doing and what we’re spending is not consistent with our goals. The process typically goes the other way around. The first question they’re going to ask is how much, in a good year, how much additional money are we going to spend? So is it going to be $5 million or $10 million or $100 million, without any consideration of whether that’s adequate to produce the outcomes they’re looking for. If they started the other way around—what are our goals, what is it going to take to accomplish that, and then what is that going to cost—the policies would look very different.

6. Is there anything I didn’t touch on that you’d like to add?

We didn’t really talk about different levels of policy. At the federal level, there really is a vacuum in educational policy making. The states are where the constitutional responsibility lies and where a lot of the action has been. But in the last five years especially, maybe even the last four years, local communities—counties, cities, school districts—have been stepping up, and this is really below the radar except in relatively few instances where they see that their state’s policies are not adequate, so these communities are moving forward on their own. That makes these new elected officials at the local level much more important in terms of the future of early-childhood policy.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.