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.”

Early childhood literacy

How to make a good reader? Combine in-school tutoring with hundreds of books for toddlers and babies

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post
Fourth graders at College View Elementary in Denver.

A new literacy program for children from babies to third grade will focus on tutoring students and encouraging reading at an early age as it works with 100 families in the Munger Elementary-Middle School area.

The 3-year pilot program will combine the resources of 80 volunteers, the Munger school staff, and Brilliant Detroit, a social service organization. Brilliant Detroit will house a national program called Raising a Reader, which will ensure that the families receive as many as 100 books each over the next three years to read to babies and toddlers.

“We believe the city of Detroit is turning around,” said former state Supreme Court justice Maura Corrigan, who is spearheading the program. “But we understand that Detroit cannot turn around effectively if the schools don’t turn around, and that can’t happen unless the children learn to read.”

The program is part of a state-wide push to help more children learn to read before a new state law takes effect in 2020 that will force schools to hold back third-graders who aren’t reading at grade level. This year, fewer than 10 percent of Detroit students met that grade-level threshold.

Announced today, the program launches in January and has more than $20,000 in funding.

Munger Principal Donnell Burroughs said students who received the lowest reading test scores will likely be the ones who receive tutoring.

“Here at Munger we want our students to continue to grow,” Burroughs said. “We will identify certain families and students from preschool to third grade and they’ll work with individual tutors who come into the school every day.”

Students will work with a tutor in groups of three for 40 minutes a day.

Lt. Gov. Brian Calley described another benefit of the program: helping students with disabilities.

“Perhaps an unintended consequence of the work that’s happening here is we can identify developmental delays and disabilities earlier for intervention.”

Calley, whose daughter has autism, is an advocate for people with disabilities. Studies have shown that early intervention improves outcomes.  

“We still have so far to go there,” he added. “This is a reading initiative, but it’s gonna have benefits beyond reading.”

Special education has been a pressing concern for education advocates in the state. The Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren issued a list of recommendations for ways to improve Detroit schools in early December. Among them was a priority to fully fund special education.

Plans to continue or expand the program are unclear, and depend on the pilot’s success. The effort is supported by 15 local and state partners, including Gov. Rick Snyder and Raising a Reader.

Pre-k push

Memphis gets back into education game with vote to fund pre-K classrooms

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A pre-K student plays with blocks at the Porter-Leath Early Childhood Center.

The Memphis City Council committed on Tuesday to find a way to invest at least $8 million in pre-kindergarten classrooms before 2019, marking their first big investment in Memphis schools in four years.

The measure, which was approved 11-0, did not provide a funding stream for the multimillion-dollar need, but essentially holds Memphis to find a way to come up with $8 million for 1,000 pre-K seats that the city stands to lose with the expiration of a major federal grant in 2019.

Councilwoman Janis Fullilove recused her initial yes vote without comment.

Councilman Kemp Conrad, who introduced the resolution, told his fellow council members that this measure is a way for the city to once again fund programs that help children. Tuesday’s vote marks the first new money for  Memphis classrooms since 2013 when city and county school systems merged.

“We can make a statement, a formalized action to the mayor who is very supportive of this issue, as a policy-making body,” Conrad said. “We’re making a statement to other funding bodies, Shelby County Schools, the Shelby County Commission and private entities that the city can come to the table with money.”

At an executive session two weeks ago, Mayor Jim Strickland said he supported the initiative and that the seats could mean the difference in children developing the reading skills they need by third grade to be successful in school.

Councilman Bill Morrison, a former Memphis teacher, brought forth an amendment before the vote that would have expanded the measure to also guarantee funding for schools beyond pre-K, such as after-school programs and career and technical training. However, he withdrew his amendment after Councilman Berlin Boyd suggested he bring the issue as a separate resolution in the future.

Currently, about 7,420 of the city’s 4-year-olds attend free school programs, and a coalition of nonprofit groups led by Seeding Success has been pushing to maintain — and even grow — the number of free, needs-based pre-K seats in Memphis. The group estimates that about 1,000 additional seats are needed to offer free pre-K to all who need it.

Mark Sturgis, the executive director of Seeding Success, told Chalkbeat after the meeting that the council vote will spur further collaboration between private and public funders to bolster pre-K in Memphis. Seeding Success will help to lead a closed-door meeting tomorrow between City Council members, Shelby County Commissioners and philanthropic and private donors.

“Now, it’s about leveraging the momentum from tonight with coordinated conversations,” Sturgis said. “We have to build the infrastructure to do this right. It’s all about creating quality pre-K.”

Charles Lampkin, a Memphis parent whose three sons were students in pre-K classrooms, said during public comment that the free early education made a big impact on this family’s life.

“My (now) first-grader is reading on grade-level and above and my kindergartener is at grade level,” he said, adding that his third son was currently enrolled in pre-K classes at Porter-Leath. “I don’t know what my children would have been like if they did not have that benefit, where they would be in terms of performance. There’s a lot of disparity here with our children. Fortunately for me, my children have benefited.”