Yesterday, New America’s Early Education Initiative and Federal Education Budget Project brought together Susan Neuman, a professor of education at the University of Michigan and a former assistant Secretary of Education, and Doug Besharov, a professor at the University of Maryland and fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, to discuss high-quality early childhood interventions that help poor children succeed in school and life.
Neuman has just written a new book about the topic, called Changing the Odds for Children at Risk: Seven Principles of Educational Programs that Break the Cycle of Poverty. In this book, she lays out seven principles for effective interventions in the lives of poor children. Neuman’s seven principles are:
- Target children who need care the most, particularly children who face multiple risks, such as parents who don’t speak English, health problems, and poor community supports.
- Begin as early as possible, because it is easier to prevent problems than to remediate them.
- Coordinate education services with health services, because poor eyesight or nutrition can be a fundamental obstacle to learning.
- Provide compensatory programs that specifically help kids who are still struggling.
- Use highly-trained professionals, not volunteers, because the quality of the relationship between teacher and child is crucial.
- Emphasize program intensity, because research shows that the programs that work are those that are both comprehensive and high-quality.
- Hold programs accountable, conduct rigorous assessments, and don’t hesitate to change programs that aren’t working.
You can hear what Neuman and Besharov have to say by watching the entire event here.
First, some applause. Both Neuman and Besharov rightly emphasized the importance of quality and rigor in early childhood interventions. To truly change the odds for disadvantaged children, we need intense intervention programs that are more than just a weekly check-in; in-depth assessments to gauge how and if programs are meeting their goals; accountability measures to make sure programs stay on track; and a commitment to change programs in response to evaluation findings. Too often programs are strong on one element of rigor--say, program intensity--but fail to incorporate adequate monitoring and quality controls to ensure that program quality is sustained over time. Case in point: the much maligned Reading First program, which has a rigorous program design but which has produced disappointing results in rigorous impact studies . Unfortunately, politically motivated policymakers have chosen to use these findings to cut funding for the program, rather than redesigning it to incorporate an increased focus on content and vocabulary that disadvantaged youngsters need to acquire in order to improve their reading comprehension skills.
But we also need to think bigger. Most of the interventions Neuman identifies as “programs that work” are operated by community-based organizations, not the public education system. Neuman advocates creating more early education, after-school, summertime, and coordinated services—all investments we support—but believes that K-12 public education systems are insufficiently nimble to administer them effectively. We agree that community-based organizations should be important components of any effort to improve outcomes for at-risk children, because they have local connections and have greater flexibility and space for innovation than many public schools. Yet the need for high-quality early education programs is so great that we can’t afford to write off any potential partners in this effort. Policymakers must draw on a diverse range of providers to serve at-risk children, including community-based organizations, for-profit providers, public schools, and charter schools. Rather than type of provider, the only criteria should be whether these programs can deliver quality programming and good results for kids.
Moreover, Neuman’s focus on community-based organizations brings up a problem that we often see with early education programs: the lack of alignment. As we expand early education programs--whether in public schools or community-based settings--we need makes sure that they not only supplement the core K-12 curriculum, but reinforce it. Research shows us that curriculum alignment is especially important in the earlier years, which is why we advocate a PK-3 approach to school reform. Neuman acknowledged that many children experience interruptions as they move through a series of well-meaning but uncoordinated early education programs. Any effort to make education services more comprehensive should also make sure it seals the gaps between different early education and elementary programs.
Alignment doesn’t mean K-12 schools need to be the ones in charge of early childhood programs—far from it. It’s possible to build aligned PK-3 early education systems that incorporate both community providers and public schools. But doing so requires a concerted effort to make sure all providers—public schools and community-based providers, are on the same page. Alignment also requires changes in the K-12 schools themselves, to enable them to work more effectively with parents and community providers, and to adjust their practices to build on the gains children make in early childhood programs.
Doug Besharov’s comments during the discussion touched on a larger point. Early education is the buzzword these days when it comes to helping at-risk youth, yet, Besharov argued, programs that target older students, especially high school dropouts and vocation programs, are also important and their value should not be overlooked. But having two strong bookends on either end of the K-12 system isn’t enough. We also need to make sure children get a quality education in the early elementary grades, middle school, and high school. Any reform that has college readiness as an ultimate goal needs to be developed in coordination with the entire PK-16 system to ensure that there are no gaps where students can slip through the cracks, where students’ newfound potential goes unused. This is why we advocate a PK-3 approach in the early education circles, but the imperative for alignment applies throughout.
Besharov and Neuman both make the case for targeting resources to the neediest children, not spreading them across a larger population. We agree that highest risk children should be first in line for services. Yet we worry about too much targeting, because it ultimately shuts some kids out, especially kids from working poor and middle-income families and children from more isolated ethnic and racial groups – kids who may not yet be on the “at-risk” watchlists. Targeted programs are the best way to start, because they serve the neediest kids first and give policymakers and practitioners time and opportunity to define best practices for their community. But the ultimate goal should be to scale up to serve all kids who need it. Moreover, we would argue that targeting is most effective when it focuses at the community level—serving all children in a neighborhood or school district, as New Jersey’s acclaimed Abbott Pre-K program does, rather than trying to label individual students, whose risk factors may change over time.
The history of intervention programs, especially early intervention programs, is filled with both stories of promise and several of disappointment. Neuman’s very readable book does a great job of pulling this research together to support her argument of a 360-degree, comprehensive approach to helping at-risk children. The next step is to think about ways we can support efforts to make sure that wrap-around intervention is accompanied by reforms that improve the K-12 education system it’s wrapping around.