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Early childhood

Beth Meloy, Madelyn Gardner, Linda Darling-Hammond.

Research showing that high-quality preschool benefits children’s early learning and later life outcomes has led to increased state engagement in public preschool. However, mixed results from evaluations of two programs—Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K program and Head Start—have left many policymakers unsure about how to ensure productive investments. This report presents the most rigorous evidence on the effects of preschool and clarifies how the findings from Tennessee and Head Start relate to the larger body of research showing that high-quality preschool enhances children’s school readiness by supporting substantial early learning gains in comparison to children who do not experience preschool and can have lasting impacts far into children’s later years of school and life. Therefore, the issue is not whether preschool “works,” but how to design and implement programs that ensure public preschool investments consistently deliver on their promise.

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Marjorie Wechsler, David Kirp, Titilayo Tinubu Ali, Madelyn Gardner, Anna Maier, Hanna Melnick, Patrick M. Shields.

Although there is considerable research on the elements of high-quality preschool and its many benefits, particularly for low-income children and English learners, little information is available to policymakers about how to convert their visions of good early education into on-the-ground reality. This study fills that gap by describing and analyzing how four states—Michigan, West Virginia, Washington, and North Carolina—have built high-quality early education systems. Among the common elements of their success are strategies that prioritize quality and continuous improvement, invest in training and coaching for program staff, coordinate the administration of birth-through-grade-3 programs, strategically combine multiple funding sources to increase access and improve quality, and create broad-based coalitions and support.

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Andrew C. Barr, Chloe Gibbs.

Despite substantial evidence that resources and outcomes are transmitted across generations, there has been limited inquiry into the extent to which anti-poverty programs actually disrupt the cycle of bad outcomes. We explore how the effects of the United States’ largest early childhood program, Head Start, transfer across generations. We leverage the rollout of this federally funded, means-tested preschool program to estimate the effect of early childhood exposure among mothers on their children’s long-term outcomes. We find evidence of intergenerational transmission of effects in the form of increased educational attainment, reduced teen pregnancy, and reduced criminal engagement in the second generation.
 

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Megan Kuhfeld, James Soland, Christine Pitts, Margaret Burchinal.

Students’ level of academic skills at school entry are a strong predictor of later academic success, and focusing on improving these skills during the preschool years has been a priority during the past ten years. Evidence from two prior nationally representative studies indicated that incoming kindergarteners’ math and literacy skills were higher in 2010 than 1998, but no national studies have examined trends since 2010. This study examines academic skills at kindergarten entry from 2010 and 2017 using data from over 2 million kindergarten students. Results indicated kindergarteners in 2017 have slightly lower math and reading skills than in 2010, but that inequalities at school entry by race/ethnicity and school poverty level have decreased during this period.

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Drew H. Bailey, Jade M. Jenkins, Daniela Alvarez-Vargas.

The sustaining environments hypothesis refers to the popular idea, stemming from theories in developmental, cognitive, and educational psychology, that the long-term success of early educational interventions is contingent on the quality of the subsequent learning environment. Several studies have investigated whether specific kindergarten classroom and other elementary school factors account for patterns of persistence and fadeout of early educational interventions. These analyses focus on the statistical interaction between an early educational intervention – usually whether the child attended preschool – and several measures of the quality of the subsequent educational environment. The key prediction of the sustaining environments hypothesis is a positive interaction between these two variables. To quantify the strength of the evidence for such effects, we meta-analyze existing studies that have attempted to estimate interactions between preschool and later educational quality in the United States. We then attempt to establish the consistency of the direction and a plausible range of estimates of the interaction between preschool attendance and subsequent educational quality by using a specification curve analysis in a large, nationally representative dataset that has been used in several recent studies of the sustaining environments hypothesis. The meta-analysis yields small positive interaction estimates ranging from approximately .00 to .04, depending on the specification. The specification curve analyses yield interaction estimates of approximately 0. Results suggest that the current mix of methods used to test the sustaining environments hypothesis cannot reliably detect realistically sized effects. Our recommendations are to combine large sample sizes with strong causal identification strategies, and to study combinations of interventions that have a strong probability of showing large main effects.

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Jade M. Jenkins, Tutrang Nguyen.

Child care subsidies play an important role in stabilizing parental employment and helping low- income families access care. With limited federal requirements under CCDBG, states developed divergent subsidy program policies. Our study examines how variations in six state policy levers that capture CCDF administrative burdens and generosity relate to stability in children’s care in the CCDF program, known as subsidy “spells.”: (1) length of eligibility redetermination; (2) reporting requirements for income changes; (3) grace period for care before termination; (4) provider reimbursement rates; (5) parent copay amounts; and (6) difference between initial and continuing eligibility income thresholds. We exploit states’ changes in these policies during a 10- year period (2004-2013) using state fixed effects analyses to identify their impact on spell length. We find that administrative burdens robustly affect child care spell length; increasing states’ redetermination period length by one month increased state median subsidy spell length by 1.4 weeks, but requiring all changes in family income to be reported while enrolled in CCDF decreased spell length by 2.3 weeks. Switching to a 12-month redetermination period increased median spell length by 30%. CCDF policy generosity was not related to spell length. Results are discussed in the context of the 2014 CCDBG reauthorization.

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Jade M. Jenkins, C. Kevin Fortner.

We provide causal estimates of the effects of delayed kindergarten entry on achievement outcomes by exploiting a policy change in the birthdate enrollment cutoff in North Carolina that forced children born in a six-week window to redshirt. Using multiple peer group comparisons, we identify impacts on achievement and gifted or disability identifications in third through fifth grades. Delayed entry provides small benefits to students’ math and reading achievement, and reduced identification of a disability; these impacts operate through cohort position and age advantages, and not from hold-out year experiences. Redshirting differentially benefitted low-income students, but further disadvantaged non-white students.

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Francis Pearman, Matthew Springer, Mark Lipsey, Mark Lachowicz, Dale Farran, Walker Swain.

The sustaining environments thesis hypothesizes that PreK effects are more likely to persist into later grades if children experience high-quality learning environments in the years subsequent to PreK. This study tests this hypothesis using data from a statewide PreK randomized experiment in Tennessee that found positive effects at the end of PreK that did not persist past kindergarten. These data were combined with teacher observation and school-level value-added scores from Tennessee’s formal evaluation system to determine whether positive effects of PreK persisted for the subgroup of students exposed to higher-quality learning environments between kindergarten and 3rd-grade. Neither exposure to highly effective teachers nor attending a high-quality school was sufficient by itself to explain differences in achievement between PreK participants and non-participants in 3rd-grade. However, this study found evidence that having both was associated with a sustained advantage for PreK participants in both math and ELA that lasted through at least 3rd-grade. Notably, however, very few children were exposed to high-quality learning environments after PreK, suggesting that maximizing PreK investments may require attending to the quality of learning environments during PreK and beyond.

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Lindsay Weixler, Jon Valant, Daphna Bassok, Justin B. Doromal, Alica Gerry.

The early childhood enrollment process involves searching for programs, applying, verifying eligibility(for publicly funded seats), and enrolling. Many families do not complete the process. We conducted a randomized controlled trial to assess strategies for communicating with families as they verify eligibility. Working with administrators in New Orleans, we randomly assigned families to receive either: (1) the district’s usual, modest communications, (2) the usual communications plus weekly text-message reminders formal in tone, or (3) the usual communications plus weekly text-messages reminders friendly and personal in tone. Text-message reminders increased verification rates by seven percentage points (regardless of tone), and personalized messages increased enrollment rates for some groups. The exchanges between parents and administrators reveal the key obstacles that parents confronted.

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Kalena Cortes, Hans Fricke, Susanna Loeb, David Song, Ben York.

The time children spend with their parents affects their development. Parenting programs can help parents use that time more effectively. Text-messaged-based parenting curricula have proven an effective means of supporting positive parenting practices by providing easy and fun activities that reduce informational and behavioral barriers. These programs may be more effective if delivered during times when parents are particularly in need of support, such as after work, or, alternatively when parents have more time to interact with their child, such as on a day off of work. This study compares the effects of an early childhood text-messaging program sent during the weekend to the same program sent on weekdays. We find that sending the text messages on the weekend is, on average, more beneficial to children’s literacy and math development. This effect is particularly strong for initially lower achieving children, while the weekday texts show some benefits for higher achieving children on higher order skills. These results are consistent with the hypothesis that the parents of lower achieving students, on average, face such high barriers during weekdays that supports are not enough to overcome these barriers, while for parents of higher achieving students, weekday texts are more effective because weekdays are more challenging, but not so difficult as to be untenable for positive parenting. In sum, the findings suggest that parenting support works best when parents have time, attention, and need.

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