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Chat Wrap-Up: Early-Childhood Education

January 30, 2007 5 min read
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On Jan. 12, participants explored the connections between early-childhood education and K-12 learning. On hand to answer readers’ questions were two officials from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, Rob Grunewald, an associate economist, and Arthur J. Rolnick, the senior vice president and director of research, and Sara Watson, a senior officer for state policy initiatives at the Pew Charitable Trusts. The chat grew out of a Quality Counts 2007 Commentary by Mr. Rolnick and Mr. Grunewald on the topic. Below are excerpts from the discussion.

Question: What is the main reason the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis has gotten involved in stimulating the growth of early-childhood and preschool education?

Rolnick: The main reason was our concern about long-term economic growth and its dependence on the development of human capital. Research shows that investments in early-childhood development have the highest return.

Read a full transcript of this chat.

Question: What can be done to improve access to early-childhood education?

Watson: It is essential that state (and local) officials provide programs that meet families’ needs (in terms of location, cost, coverage for a full working day, and so forth) and also are of high quality. That means showing public leaders the data on how prekindergarten can benefit their state and what constitutes a program that is of sufficiently high quality to achieve the outcomes expected.

States interested in help in putting together a public education campaign for pre-K can contact Pre-K Now for assistance on communications strategies and other advice (www.preknow.org) and the National Institute for Early Education Research (www.nieer.org) for good data.

Question: Is it really necessary to assign grades and maintain state standards for pre-K education?

Grunewald: Some guidelines and standards can be helpful, but too much emphasis on them can impede programs’ flexibility. There is a healthy balance, but it seems that, more often than not, the err is on the side of too many requirements.

While assigning grades to pre-K children is questionable, assessments play an important role in measuring progress in cognitive and social-emotional development. In the debate about using, or not using, child outcome measures, however, some early-childhood professionals have raised concerns about tying them to program funding or financial incentives. They point out that it’s difficult to measure the progress of a child’s development, since that is complex and influenced by environments other than the early-education program, particularly the child’s home.

Prospective funders and policymakers, on the other hand, have raised concerns over how they can know whether an early-childhood program is achieving the desired results. They want to be sure money is spent productively. We feel that this tension over accountability—the difficulty inherent in measuring child outcomes, and the use of this data to provide performance incentives—will ultimately be productive.

Question: What are the building blocks of high-quality early-childhood programs?

Grunewald: They have the following elements: (1) Well-qualified staffs. Teachers with more training have more effective interactions with children and produce stronger outcomes. (2) Parent engagement. (3) Relatively low ratios of children to teachers. And (4) research-backed, child-focused curricula.

Question: What are your views on the capacities of private providers, including those that are faith-based and for-profit, to ensure that their early-childhood programs are of high quality?

Watson: Private providers can both provide an excellent education for children and give parents the range of choices necessary to suit their preferences and work requirements. Many state prekindergarten programs use private providers, either contracting with them directly or through the school system. According to a report by Pre-K Now, about one-third of children in state-funded pre-K programs nationwide are in community settings. In New York state, the figure is 60 percent. At least 29 states use a diverse delivery system.

To ensure that all children receive the best possible education, state standards for providers should be high and should apply to all locations. The research evidence is strong that a four-year college degree, with specialization in early childhood, is crucial to ensuring the best child outcomes. So that degree should be required of all prekindergarten teachers, along with continuing education to hone their skills.

Question: Which are the handful of states that have more than 20 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds attending state- financed preschools?

Rolnick: We encourage you to read the National Institute for Early Education Research’s state profiles on preschool programs, available at www.nieer.org.

Question: Since accessibility for poor and minority families to high-quality early-childhood programs is often lacking, shouldn’t we make preschool part of the K-12 school?

Watson: Many states are beginning to include prekindergarten as part of their K-12 system, by offering pre-K classrooms in the school building, administering pre-K through the school system, and/or funding pre-K through the state school formula (as in Maine, Oklahoma, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin, and soon to be in Nebraska). This has a lot of benefits: stable funding, the ability to offer teachers pay and benefits comparable to their peers’ in the older grades, and a professional-development infrastructure.

But it can also have risks. For example, it’s important that curriculum is not just translated down from 1st grade or kindergarten, instead of being developmentally appropriate for the younger children. Pre-K also should be linked to programs offering coverage for a full workday, and inequitable financing for K-12 should not spill over into pre-K. It’s especially vital that this approach not hurt the child-care programs that provide essential nurturing and education for younger children.

So, ideally states would use the best of both worlds—the stable funding and professionally supportive environment of K-12, with the responsiveness to parent needs and developmental nature of early-childhood services—along with ensuring that quality child care remains available for infants and toddlers.

Question: Public policy is often about choices. With limited funding, how should the pie be divided? What early-childhood programs should be a priority for Congress? If we had $1 billion (or $500 million), what early-childhood program should we pick? Head Start? Pre-K? Child care? Or something else?

Rolnick: Given limited dollars, we advocate funding parent-mentoring programs and scholarships for high-quality early-education programs for at-risk children, and letting parents working through the market system determine in effect which programs are funded.

A version of this article appeared in the January 31, 2007 edition of Education Week as Chat Wrap-Up: Early-Childhood Education

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