Early Learning

Value of early education questioned at House committee hearing



House Republicans questioned the need for new early education programs and asked if the research showing the benefits of preschool has been oversold Tuesday at a Workforce and Education Committee hearing on early childhood programs.

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An excerpt from a graphic displayed by Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., during a hearing on early childhood programs. Click on the image to view the whole graphic.

“Serious questions remain as to whether these programs are producing positive results for the children they serve,” said committee chairman Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., at the hearing.

President Barack Obama first proposed a new federal grant program to help states establish or expand publicly funded preschool programs in his 2013 State of the Union Address. He renewed that call in his 2014 address. A bill, called the Strong Start for America’s Children Act, which codifies the president’s proposal, was introduced in both houses in November. When the bill was first announced, Kline promised he would hold hearings on early childhood programs, though not the bill specifically, in early 2014. Tuesday’s hearing was the first.

Kline opened the hearing by pointing to the latest report from the Government Accountability Office, which shows that the federal government provides billions of dollars for early childhood support in 45 existing programs.

“These programs need serious review,” Kline said. “This should be our first step before rubber stamping a new program.”

One of the Strong Start bill’s authors, Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, co-chair of the House Workforce and Education Committee, said that only two of the 45 programs – Head Start and Child Care and Development Block Grants – specifically serve young children. Seventy-five percent of the listed programs allow for spending on early childhood, but do not mandate it, said Miller, who added that federally funded programs do not have sufficient funding to serve all eligible children. In California, only 60 percent of eligible children are enrolled in Head Start.

Russ Whitehurst, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, testified that research showing preschool provides benefits like increased graduation rates and less time spent behind bars is outdated and inapplicable to the large public programs being proposed today.*

“Preschool has been sold recently as a silver bullet,” said Whitehurst, a former researcher with the Department of Education under George W. Bush. “It’s not.”

Another witness, Harriet Dichter, executive director of the Delaware Office of Early Learning, countered Whitehurst, directing the committee to a recent analysis of the research done on preschool outcomes over the last several decades that shows even large public programs like Head Start have at least a small positive impact on the future earnings and educational outcomes of enrolled children.

The Strong Start bill was not the focus of the hearing, but Whitehurst did suggest an alternative to a new federal program: more vouchers for early childhood care for low-income Americans. (The federal Child Care and Development Block Grant program currently provides some vouchers similar to what Whitehurst proposed.) Whitehurst said $7,000 would be a large enough voucher for parents to purchase high-quality early child care of their choice. That amount would not be sufficient in California. Private child care in the state costs an average of $12,000 a year.

Miller urged his fellow congressmembers to consider the Strong Start bill and to approve legislation that would provide greater resources for early childhood programs.

“Until Congress chooses to act on this, we are ceding control to the (Obama) administration,” Miller said, then paused to look at Kline. “Got that?” he asked his Republican colleague. Kline nodded.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee will hold a hearing on the same subject Thursday morning at 10 a.m. Eastern Time, 7 a.m. Pacific. C-Span will live-stream the hearing.

Lillian Mongeau covers early childhood education. Contact her or follow her @lrmongeau. Subscribe to EdSource’s early learning newsletter, Eyes on the Early Years.

*Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly characterized the Brookings Institute. It is a non-partisan, independent think tank.

Filed under: Early Learning, Federal Education Policy

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11 Responses to “Value of early education questioned at House committee hearing”

  1. el said

    on February 7, 2014 at 9:12 am

    I really want to see these preschool programs be open to all kids, not restricted to low income or disadvantaged kids, and for them to be optional, so that people can take advantage of them as suits their family.

    When you restrict them to low income kids, you ghettoize those kids. The program is only valued by those who use it, not the broader community, and perhaps not your most active parents. Friendships are formed between kids and families… and there’s an artificial divide created between those who qualify for the state preschool and those who end up finding a private preschool program. A huge opportunity is missed to bond these families into a more cohesive community.

    In my corner of the state, when my daughter was of that age, attending a private preschool would have meant not only rather a lot of money but also transporting her out of my community.

    • Lillian Mongeau replied

      on February 7, 2014 at 11:45 am

      El – would you email me directly about the details of finding preschool in your community. This is an issue in rural areas that I don’t know a lot about, but could make for a valuable story.
      lmongeau@edsource.org
      Thanks!
      Lillian

    • Floyd Thursby replied

      on February 7, 2014 at 1:33 pm

      Agreed, but identifying children with poor parents can mean you know you have to give them something their parents are failing to do, such as flashcards and the idea that reading is better than TV, discipline, focus, math, etc.

      But segregation is a huge problem, exacerbated by the popularity of both private schools and segregated suburbs and school districts.

  2. Floyd Thursby said

    on February 7, 2014 at 1:29 am

    Wow, I can see you think of this as more of a jobs program than a real way to end the achievement gap, I can see you already defending a rigid status quo bad for children which doesn’t yet exist. Once it starts, if ten years later it is shown to not impact the achievement gap, parents will expect it and it will be impossible to cancel, and people like you will say seniority/tenure/LIFO is set in stone. I for one won’t vote for this until they guarantee it WON’T have similar regulations. We only get one chance to get this right.

    It’s not only testing, it’s letting managers manager, observe, and give real evaluations based on attendence, test scores, judgement, and other human factors. You can go to two restaurants, and two waitresses can bring you your meal, statistically they did the same thing, but one is more pleasant, efficient, fast, focused, etc. You can tell the difference, and a boss can tell the difference between teachers.

    And yes, an impartial, intelligent person can indeed test children that age, talk with the 4-year olds and see what they know. Like referees, it’s not rocket science. I could do it.

    There is a difference in the quality of a person kids are at 4 in terms of impulse control, abilities, focus, knowledge, and skills. 60% of Asian Americans prepare their children before starting kindergarten to read, do basic math, write, know the alphabet, count, vs. 16% of whites, in California. You can measure this at 4 and 5. At 18, 8.7% of whites and 33.5% of Asians are UC eligible by GPA/SAT, i.e. get into a UC or better. They are not unrelated. The Asians are clearly better, on average, in skills and ability, at 4 and 5, and then at 18.

    Pre-schools have the ability to change this. We can make sure more kids love to read. We can meet with parents and teach them to turn off the TV, do flash cards with kids, teach them to read, make everything a learning environment, take them to museums, etc. Parents are more attentive in the beginning and lose it later. Convincing them of the importance of flashcards early can have a multiplier effect. Pre-schools being measured will pressure them to make sure the kids are really learning. Laughing off the idea of tests sounds like the excuse the union makes for low achievement, blaming poverty and looking for any excuse to maintain the status quo. Yes, we can make the education system more intimate, and more productive. I want to see this movement close the achievement gap, not be something we look back on in 10 years and remember how optimistic we were and feel depressed it didn’t work and wonder why, and have teachers in the system not tested and averaging 7.5% absence, etc. We can’t afford that. The teachers must be at will and measured. The children must actually learn skills. Families and parents must learn how to set up a good home environment so kids go to college and thrive.

    Let’s face it, there’s a real human danger to the achievement gap now. It’s leaving Latino and African American children in the dust, and not doing great for whites either. Asians are the only ones thriving now. We need to improve this. The status quo is a horrible danger now, and this must change. These are the facts, and they are undisputed.

    • navigio replied

      on February 7, 2014 at 7:33 am

      Jeez floyd. the reason i asked is that a lot of people have huge problems with giving standardized tests to children between 0 and 5 (especially as a way to measure teachers, which standardized tests were never designed to do in the first place. somehow people fail to remember that). my saying ‘of course’ was not to say how it should be, rather to say how it will be. ECE teachers already are part of that system now, so its difficult to see how they would not be if it were to be expanded to even more grades. interestingly, now that puts you in a position of deciding whether those kids are better off with lifo-system ECE, or no ECE at all. thoughts?

      • Floyd Thursby replied

        on February 7, 2014 at 1:31 pm

        Navigio, you seem to be of the mindset that seniority is the only way to judge teachers. Don’t you think a boss can tell the difference between outstanding and mediocre pre-school teachers? There are a lot of mediocre ones now. I think you can easily tell how many are determined to add value and teach kids flash cards, how to read, to enjoy reading, math, etc., and how many are looking at the clock and can’t wait to leave and going through the motions. We can’t afford to take mediocre teachers and give them godlike status to keeping their job and assume there are evil people out to get them if anyone wants to fire them, and put up 100k plus and everyone’s energy to defend them and zero energy to defend the children, and accept that they aren’t learning because they are poor, as the union basically does now. We have to avoid this scenario or it will be money down the drain we won’t have for something truly goal-oriented in the future.

        Are you saying you support LIFO for these teachers? Do you feel there is no more credible way than seniority to judge their human quality?

        I measure my kids at every age. My kids learned to look at each letter and say it clearly between 17 months and 22. They learned to read some words at 2, read a first book at 4, did math at 4 and 5, etc. The oldest two made it into Lowell, so my focus is paying off, for them. Amy Chua and Jed Rubenstein co-wrote a new book about this, cultural focus. It works. We need teachers to be aware of this and focused on goals. Just like I feel bad if my sales are low, teachers should feel good if a child knows the 110 sight words and bad if they don’t.

        • navigio replied

          on February 7, 2014 at 3:18 pm

          Floyd, it is not LIFO’s goal to judge people (at least mostly not), rather it is intended to be a fair and objective process in a political and mostly subjective system. We have admins to judge people (whether they do or not is a valid point, but I believe its possible to address that issue independent of LIFO).

          LIFO has the supposed added advantage in that teacher effectiveness correlates with experience. If this is true, and if the vast majority of teachers are in fact effective, then such a process might be considered near perfect (yes I just said that, but notice it was a conditional).

          Now, it is valid to argue how effectiveness correlates with experience (and if you’ve paid attention, you’ll notice i actually questioned that in another post). It is also valid to question whether the vast majority of teachers are actually effective. I think this is a very difficult question to answer, not solely because there are many different opinions about what effective means. I know in my experience I’ve never run across what I would consider a grossly ineffective teacher (ironically, the only person I’ve run across that could be classified that way was an administrator. ergo my concern with blindly giving administration absolute control for political reasons, but even that is anecdotal). Of course, anyone who has come across such a teacher will have their view colored forever. And that is understandable. I dont believe that warrants changing the entire system though, especially if it has other, more severe negative consequences.

          You may also notice that I’ve been very careful to qualify my statements about LIFO. It is not my goal to claim it is perfect or ideal or even good, rather to understand how it works in the context we have, and more importantly, what the impact of the alternative would be. I mentioned it once before, but El posted a link to an analysis of how to lay off teachers using different methods. If you havent read it, its really enlightening. I happen to believe (and i’ve said it before) that LIFO is a design that did not take multiple sequential years of budget cuts into account (and it probably could/should have). Not only is that hopefully an anomaly, but it paints a distorted view of what the ‘status quo’ really is.

          I absolutely agree that letting managers manage makes a lot of sense. Problem is that makes all sorts of assumptions that are not or may not be true. The first is that they actually have time to do what they’d need to do. If ECE is folded into a k-12 school, as it seems has already started to happen, who is actually overseeing that staff? If its one or two classes, there is no separate ECE ‘principal’ on site. The normal principal from the K-12 school not only has enough to deal with, but because ECE is generally a separate slice of the district hierarchy, is not even charged with overseeing those people. Granted, there are ways to deal with that, but they will take a LOT more staffing than we currently assume at the k-12 level (actually, the state already has ratios defined for this I believe, and the younger the children, the more densely staffed the environment must be). Then the other assumption is that the people in charge are actually able to effectively oversee those teachers. In a highly-staffed ECE environment, that should probably be the case, but in schools where there is one administrator for 500 children, and however many teachers that means, good luck with that (if you get a chance, try to find a principal responsibilities document, you probably will be shocked). I could go on and on about the responsibilities issue, and the question of ability is also valid. In reality, in terms of evaluating and oversight, the principal position is probably the most important in the ‘chain of command’. Perhaps only slightly less important are their direct supervisors at the district office. What if one or all of those people is ineffective themselves? I think the idea that there is necessarily sufficient visibility into the school level (either logistically or capacity-wise) in order to make those decisions is a fallacy. But making the decision that you propose requires that that be the case!

          Then finally, the biggest issue historically is whether the decisions end up being made by the people who should be making them after all. Its great to have someone effectively managing teachers and able to say whether they are good or not. But what about when a teacher speaks up about physical dangers at her school and the district tells her to keep her mouth shut or she is out; independent of her ‘effectiveness’? What about the teachers who are pets of someone at the district office, or enemies of someone on the BoE?

          And what about the nuanced decision making dynamics? Ask your district HR person how many probationary teachers they’ve let go because they were ineffective. My guess is the reason is usually something quite different, even when they are able to do this (ie before tenure happens). I know you are a no-excuses kind of guy, but would we be firing teachers because they didnt get along with their principal? If they are otherwise effective (assuming thats possible), is that a valid reason? Is that better or worse for the kids? How about when it happens in the middle of the school year? (and yes, I’ve seen it happen even in this ‘system’).

          And what about the impact that these decisions have on the budget? You’ve already pointed out how many beginning teachers we could get with the salary of a seasoned veteran. Would LIFO be replaced with ‘highest salary first’? Kids be damned? And it’s a fair question. Not only did you suggest this, but I’ve seen it happen even now when the district had the option. I think I mentioned before that I estimate something like 75% of current teachers are maxed out on the salary scale. At the highest experience level the difference between a beginning teacher and maxed out teacher is about 60% in salary. For lowest and highest salary the difference is about a full 100%. If you think decisions will not be made based on budget questions, especially given that we have reformers arguing for cutting funding even more, then I think you are not understanding how these decisions are made. The board members dont sit in classrooms. The finance subcommittee meeting are in an air conditioned room in the central headquarters. The decisions come down to numbers, and the numbers are not test scores. They are not even evaluation ratings. They are class sizes and budget deficits.

          One last little tidbit. During the budget crisis, the argument to teachers was, ‘you give up something now, we will take care of you when we are returned to normalcy’. Funny, we are starting to return to normalcy and what’s the first thing we hear? ‘Teacher suck. No raises.’ Do you not understand why people dont trust your argument? Or even why unions exist in the first place? It is after all, just politics all of this rambling. If it were not, you would not suggest that no ECE is actually preferable to one with LIFO. (??)

          So to answer your question, yes, I absolutely believe there is a better way to ‘judge their human quality’. But that does not matter because the proper question should be whether the rest of the system would let us do it that way. For all the reasons I’ve listed above (and a bunch more), I dont think it would. Simply put, I am not convinced that the alternative would be better overall for students. And despite what you believe about me, that is my priority.

  3. Floyd Thursby said

    on February 6, 2014 at 2:10 pm

    I think good pre-school is very beneficial to children. The fear is that as it becomes universal, those from the far left will try to unionize the teachers and require seniority/tenure/LIFO/due process (meaning burdensome so hardly anyone is very fired) and it will become more of a jobs program and won’t be as effective.

    Children this age need focused learning. They need math. They need reading. They need the alphabet. They need flash cards, phonics. Arts and play are good too, but if kids are there 6 hours, they need to spend at least half that time doing flashcards, phonics, stories, etc. Too many day care centers are just warehouses for children where little to no learning takes place.

    A recent study showed 60% of Asian American parents teach their children reading, math, flashcards, the alphabet, etc. BEFORE starting Kindergarten, vs. just 16% of whites, which is almost exactly the gap in California in terms of getting into a UC or better (8.7% vs. 33.5%). Good education before 5 matters. Putting them in front of movies and on a playground won’t do much at all. We need focused schools with goals, discipline, etc. We need to teach kids to work hard even when it’s not interesting, that you can’t play until you finish the 110 sight words and we’ll do them twice if you miss too many. That you have to improve daily. Counting, math, etc.

    Children are capable of so much intellectually at such a young age, and it can make a huge difference in their future. We must have more pre-school, but we must make sure there is actual learning going on during that time. I’m not saying no play, before someone responds that way, just saying in 6 hours, there should be an hour of math, an hour of stories and songs, an hour of flashcards, a nap, and a couple hours of play and arts. We must make sure children are making progress.

    • navigio replied

      on February 6, 2014 at 2:28 pm

      this is a good opportunity to ask how it is you would measure those ECE teachers. would we have to give tests to 2 year olds?

      and if the pre-k goes through the district, then of course its going to have similar labor regulations.

      one of the true ironies of the reform movement has been that the focus on in-school environment needing to overcome out-of-school circumstances has resulted in the public education system requesting that more of that ECE time be spent in schools as opposed to at home. Even though that may work from a testing standpoint, I think there is a real human danger to that, especially given how the public education system is no longer an intimate part of our communities.

  4. Eric Premack said

    on February 6, 2014 at 12:04 pm

    Thanks for generally-informative piece.

    My sense, however, is that most folks consider the Brookings Institution to be more of a left-leaning think tank and by no means a conservative one–even by Left Coast standards.

    • Lillian Mongeau replied

      on February 7, 2014 at 11:43 am

      Thank you for pointing this out, Eric. We looked into it and we agree with you. We have taken out the adjective and issued a correction.
      As always, thanks for reading,
      Lillian

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