To help the poor, give them money

To prepare children from low-income families for school success, U.S. policy and funding has focused on Head Start and universal pre-kindergarten, writes Brookings’ Russ Whitehurst. But research shows that giving more money to low-income parents is more cost effective, he writes.

The Earned Income Tax Credit, which raises the income of  low-income working parents, is more effective than providing free pre-K for four-year-olds, he writes. The chart also shows the modest effects of class-size reduction and Head Start.

Northern European countries focus on supporting family incomes rather than providing preschool or pre-K, writes Whitehurst. “A policy midpoint” could be giving families more money, but limiting it to expenditures on their young children. He envisions something like food stamps.

In Finland, working parents of young children can choose from a variety of child-care providers or “opt to receive a financial subsidy that allows them to reduce their work hours in order to be home more with their child,” he writes. “They can also take unpaid leave.” The rate of enrollment in child-care centers is very low for children under four.

School-based pre-K doesn’t work

School-based pre-K doesn’t improve the lives of disadvantaged children in a “significant, sustained” way, write researchers Katharine B. Stevens and Elizabeth English on the American Enterprise Institute blog.

Some early childhood programs do make a lasting difference, they write. “Intensive, carefully designed, well-implemented programs” such as Abecedar­ian, Nurse-Family Partnership and the Perry Preschool Project, “target very young children, engage parents, and teach a broad range of skills.”


Closing the ‘word gap’ — is it enough?

Home visitor reads a book with a mother and her 18-month-son in Providence, Rhode Island.

By the age of three, the children of educated, middle-class parents have heard millions more words — often encouraging, informative, vocabulary-building words — than the children of poorly educated, low-income parents, according to the Hart-Risley study.

Closing the “word gap” is the goal of various campaigns, including the Clinton Foundation’s Too Small to Fail initiative,  writes Amy Rothschild, a preschool teacher, in The Atlantic.

Providence, Rhode Island is trying to prepare every child for school by sending Providence Talks educators into homes to encourage parents to talk, sing and play with their children. 

But some — “social justice” folks — think focusing on closing the word gap ignores larger issues, such as poverty.

Pediatricians encourage reading and provide free children's books through Reach Out and Read.

Pediatricians encourage reading and provide free children’s books through Reach Out and Read.

“If the problem facing low-income children of color is simply a question of parents saying more words and longer words, it would be much easier to fix than poverty and access to education for adults,” said Oscar Barbarin, a child psychologist who chairs the African American Studies department at the University of Maryland. “It’d be much easier to fix than the sense of alienation that poor and ethnic minority groups feel from mainstream society.”

He thinks the “number one thing” that would help children is to “give parents a stable job with a livable wage.”

Claire McCarthy, a pediatrician who works with low-income families, is a big fan of Reach Out and Read, which gives children’s books to low-income parents and encourages family reading. However, “there’s so much a book and a pep talk from me can’t do,” she writes in the Huffington Post. “They can’t teach a parent to read. They can’t make it so that a parent is home at bedtime, instead of working the evening cleaning shift while an older sibling or neighbor watches the child. They can’t get rid of the toxic stress that pervades every family interaction.”

Helping stressed, low-income parents do a better job of parenting will not solve every problem. But I think it’s more effective than ignoring parents — or assuming they’re too stressed, ignorant and “toxic” to do any better — and trying to maximize small children’s time early childhood education programs. The stable, middle-class job for every parent is . . . not going to happen.

Hyperactive — or just young?

Many children diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder are just immature, suggests a study in Taiwan. Children who are young for their grade are much more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD, reports The Telegraph.

Only 2.8 percent of boys born in September, the oldest in the class in Taiwan schools, are diagnosed with ADHD. The rate is 4.5 percent for boys born in August, who are the youngest in the class.

For girls, the rate of ADHD diagnoses rose from 0.7 to 1.2 per cent, depending on birth month.

Teachers may be comparing the behavior of younger children to their older, more mature classmates, researchers concluded.

How many ADHD kids just need more time to learn how to focus their attention — and instead get medication?

Using nature to nurture

The classroom is outdoors at The Alaska Forest School, reports Erin Kirkland in the Alaska Dispatch News.

Lia Keller asked preschoolers if they could “find the tunnel from last time” and they led the way to a downed cottonwood, where they could play “foxes and bears” in a pit under the root ball.

Leif Stanbury, 3, catches a snowflake.

Leif Stanbury, 3, catches a snowflake. Photo: Loren Holmes, ADN

“I am passionate about getting children outside,” said Keller, who founded the school. “Kids have to get out as young as possible so they learn how to explore and foster a deep love of nature and our wild places.

She also believes “children need more unstructured time” to learn from their play.

Keller offers parents three sessions a week.

Elliott and Harriet Levine, aged 4 and 8, climb under the eyes of mother Maria Levine. The school encourages kids to take "appropriate risks." Photo: Loren Holmes, ADN

Elliott and Harriet Levine, aged 4 and 8, climb under the eyes of mother Maria Levine. The school encourages kids to take “appropriate risks.” Photo: Loren Holmes, ADN

The forest school idea started in Europe, but has spread around the world. It seems like a perfect fit for Alaska, says Beka Land, whose daughters are five and three. “The natural consequences of exploring the outdoors and talking through choices is so valuable,” Land said. “As a family, we like the idea of an outdoors-centered program that lets kids pick their own path.”

After 30 minutes of “hollering, discovering and exploring,” the preschoolers were full of questions, writes Kirkland.

Why does snow look like crystals under the frame of a magnifying glass? What happens when you try to climb a tree much taller than your mom and way higher than any recess monitor would ever allow? How can five small kids figure out how to tie up a blue tarp without adult assistance?

Keller answered many questions with: “What do you think we should do?”

I saw the link on OneTree Alaska, a Facebook site set up by Jan Dawe, a University of Alaska botanist who was my best friend in elementary school. We were co-editors-in-chief of The Wednesday Report, which we published twice a month for four years.

Le robot educateur est arrivant

European scientists are developing language-teaching machines to help five-year-olds learn a second language, reports Jacek Krywko in The Atlantic.

L2TOR (“El Tutor”) robots will use “microphones to listen, cameras to watch, and artificial neural networks that will analyze all the information that’s collected.” The project is funded by the European Union.

Designers believe the machines will be able to pick up nonverbal cues to monitor students’ boredom, confusion, happiness and sadness.

“The problem with previous generations of teaching machines was their complete lack of social intelligence,” says Stefan Kopp, a German L2TOR researcher. “Our robots will notice tears, smiles, frowns, yawns … and dynamically adjust to how a child feels.”

Designers will observe kindergarten teachers “and then program our robots to act like them,” Kopp says.

It sounds crazy to me. But a robot teacher that looks like a poodle and speaks French — well, who knows?

“New” and techy isn’t necessarily better, advises Andy Smarick on Star Wars and Education Reform. “Like the Empire and manymanymany other reform movements, today’s education reform also seems to place an outsized faith in technology.”

When toys talk, Mom doesn’t

Talking toys may be bad for babies and toddlers, writes Cory Turner on NPR. Parents talk less when toys talk more, according to a new study in JAMA Pediatrics. And young children need to interact with a human to learn language.

Children between 10 and 16 months old were fitted with microphones.

Books and traditional toys, such as blocks and a shape sorter, stimulated the most high-quality conversation, says Anna Sosa, a Northern Arizona University professor who ran the study.

When kids played with the electronic toys — a “talking farm,” a “baby cellphone” and a “baby laptop” — parents and children communicated less. “When there’s something else that’s doing some talking, the parents seem to be sitting on the sidelines and letting the toy talk for them and respond for them,” she says.

“Back-and-forth conversation” with a parent or caregiver is crucial to developing language, writes Aaron Loewenberg on Ed Central.

Preschool kids work more, learn less

Preschool won’t close the achievement gap as long as teachers focus on kindergarten prep and neglect conversation, writes Erika Christakis in The Atlantic. “Today’s young children are working more, but they’re learning less,” she argues.

“A child who’s supposed to read by the end of kindergarten had better be getting ready in preschool,” she writes.

Four-year-olds are asked to sit still and complete pencil-and-paper tasks that are beyond their motor skills and attention spans, writes Christakis. But it doesn’t work.

One meta-analysis of 13 early-childhood literacy programs “failed to find any evidence of effects on language or print-based outcomes,” Christakis points out.

A Vanderbilt study found low-income children who attended Tennessee’s publicly funded preschools started kindergarten with more “school readiness” skills than a control group. By first grade, teachers rated the preschool grads as “less well prepared for school, having poorer work skills in the classrooms, and feeling more negative about school,” the researchers write. They blame burn out.

The average preschool program “narrows the achievement gap by perhaps only 5 percent,” estimates Robert Pianta, a leading child policy expert. Research suggests higher-quality preschools could cut the gap by 30 to 50 percent, he writes.

Quality preschools “provide ample opportunities for young children to use and hear complex, interactive language,” writes Christakis.

. . . their curriculum supports a wide range of school-readiness goals that include social and emotional skills and active learning; they encourage meaningful family involvement; and they have knowledgeable and well-qualified teachers.

. . . In a high-quality program, adults are building relationships with the children and paying close attention to their thought processes and, by extension, their communication. They’re finding ways to make the children think out loud.

Conversation is the golden key, she writes.

More children today seem to lack the language skills needed to retell a simple story or to use basic connecting words and prepositions. They can’t make a conceptual analogy between, say, the veins on a leaf and the veins in their own hands.

The article comes from her book, The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need From Grownups.

If the name sounds familiar, it is. As associate master of a Yale college, Christakis wrote an email saying that college students could pick their own Halloween costumes. Under heavy fire for racial insensitivity, she resigned her teaching job at Yale citing a “climate” on campus that is not “conducive to the civil dialogue and open inquiry required to solve our urgent societal problems.”

U.S. lags in preschool, college graduation

The U.S. is falling behind the world in college-educated workers, concludes a OECD report on education in 46 countries. “The U.S. hasn’t backslid, but other countries have made big gains,”  OECD Education Director Andreas Schleicher said.

In the past, the U.S. ranked second in the world in the percentage of adults with postsecondary vocational or academic education. Today, the U.S. has slipped to fifth position.

South Korea leads the world: nearly 70 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds are college educated. Only 46 percent of young U.S. workers have earned a certificate or degree.

The U.S. is not on track to meet President Obama’s goal of leading the world in college-educated workers by 2020. College graduation rates are falling. according to a new report. Among students who started college in 2009, the year Obama launched his college campaign, only 53 percent had graduated in six years.

College enrollment rates have fallen since 2008, especially for low-income students. In 2013, just 46 percent of low-income high school graduates enrolled in two-year and four-year institutions, according to Census data.

More than 70 percent of young children attend preschool in OECD countries, compared to 41 percent of U.S. 3-year-olds and 66 percent of 4-year-olds. “It’s an area where the U.S. trails quite a bit behind,” said Schleicher.

‘Pay for success’ preschool gains are iffy

Students in a preschool program in Utah meant to help kindergartners avoid special education. Credit: Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

A  “pay for success” preschool program in Utah helped 99 percent of high-risk children avoid special education in kindergarten, Salt Lake County officials announced last month. Investors who bought “social-impact bonds” to fund the program received a $260,000 payout, representing a share of the district’s savings on special education. They’ll get more in coming years, potentially making a profit.

Results are too good to be true, early-education experts tell the New York Times.

Even well-funded preschool programs — and the Utah program was not well funded — have been found to reduce the number of students needing special education by, at most, 50 percent. Most programs yield a reduction of closer to 10 or 20 percent.

It’s either “a miracle, or these kids weren’t in line for special education in the first place,” said Clive Belfield, an economics professor who studies early childhood education.

It seems clear that “miracle” is not the right answer.

The school district used a picture and vocabulary test called the PPVT to screen the incoming preschoolers. Those who scored below 70 — 30 to 40 percent of children over three years — were labeled likely to need special education.

“To just assume that all these children would have gone to special education is kind of ridiculous,” said Ellen S. Peisner-Feinberg, a senior scientist at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute.

The test rarely is used to screen for disabilities, especially when used alone. Furthermore, 30 to 50 percent of the preschoolers may have scored poorly because they were not fluent in English.