Preschool pays — for kids and investors


First graders play during recess. Photo: Chris Detrick, Salt Lake Tribune

“Pay for Success” is succeeding in Salt Lake City. Expanding preschool cut special-ed spending dramatically. Most of the savings will go to repay investors who funded the expansion, reports the Salt Lake Tribune.

Private funding allowed about 600 students to enroll in public and private preschool programs in 2013. Of those students, 110 4-year-olds were expected to need special education during their kindergarten year.

But only one of the students — who are now in the first grade — has required special education, which translates to about $281,000 in cost avoidance for Utah’s public education system.

Goldman Sachs and J.B. Pritzker committed $7 million to the pay-for-success program.

United Way of Salt Lake has cut a check for $267,000 to cover 95 percent of the first-year savings.

Once investors are repaid, with interest, they’ll receive 40 percent of ongoing cost savings until the participating students complete sixth grade.

An Pay for Success project that tried to reduce recidivism at New York City’s Riker’s Island jail failed this summer, notes the New York Times. Goldman Sachs lost its money. The project was canceled.

Pay for what works


Salt Lake City uses social-impact bonds to fund high-quality preschool for at-risk children.

There’s a wild and crazy idea in funding social programs, writes AEI’s Katharine B. Stevens: Pay for what works — and stop paying for ideas that don’t work.

New York’s Rikers Island Jail tried a program to reduce youth recidivism that worked elsewhere, but failed at Rikers. Thanks to Pay for Success, also known as social-impact- bonds, it was evaluated rigorously and lost funding when it proved ineffective. Other ways of keeping juveniles out of jail will be explored.

Less than 1 percent of billions of public dollars spent annually on social services goes to programs that have evidence of actually accomplishing their goals,” writes Stevens. What’s unusual is that an idea was tried — and abandoned — without any cost to taxpayers.

1. The government and investors work together to find a social service provider with a rigorously-documented track record of success that proves their program is worth investing in.

2. Investors pay that service provider to run a scale-up of the program, aiming to improve specific, agreed-on outcomes for a defined group of at-risk individuals.

3. After the program is implemented for several years, the results are evaluated to see if the program achieved its goals.

4. If, and only if, the program is proven successful, the government pays investors back their original investment plus “success payments” out of the taxpayer dollars saved by preventing expensive problems that would have occurred without the program.

5. If the program isn’t successful, like Rikers Island, the government pays nothing and the program is closed.

Two private investors, Goldman Sachs and J.B. Pritzker, have put $6.8 million into the Utah High Quality Preschool Initiative. If Utah saves money on special education for preschool graduates, the state will use the savings to repay the investors.

Six Pay For Success projects have been approved so far and more are in the pipeline, writes Stevens. All are focused on preventing problems.

What’s a rhombus? Ask a 4-year-old


Cheryle Chewning leads a discussion about shapes with her pre-K class at P.S. 93 in New York City. Photo: Steve Remich, Wall Street Journal

Some preschools are teaching math, reports John Higgins in the Seattle Times.

On a recent morning in South Seattle, Kristin Alfonzo challenged her preschoolers to make the number 7 using beads strung across two rows of pipe cleaners. One 5-year-old boy slid four beads across the top and three across the bottom. Another did the reverse, and one kid pushed all seven on one row. “I see many different ways of making 7!” Alfonzo said over the ruckus of kids counting out loud.

Research shows students who start out behind in math rarely catch up, writes Higgins. Seattle educators hope introducing math in preschool — in a playful way — will prepare children to be successful in elementary school.

Statewide, only 53 percent of children arrive in kindergarten with basic math skills. At South Shore PreK-8, where almost two-thirds of students live in lower-income families, 95 percent learn entry-level math skills in pre-kindergarten.

Boston’s city-run preschools use the play-based Building Blocks math  curriculum, which includes geometry.

In a game called “feely box,” the teacher puts a thin foam shape in a box with holes on two sides.

“It has four L [right] angles and four sides,” said Hoang-Son, a boy at Everett Elementary, as he cupped his hand around a rhombus.

“Can you tell us anything else about the sides?” asked his teacher, Sara Gardner.

“All the sides are the same length,” he said.

Someone guessed correctly that it was a square, but Gardner pushed for more, until Hoang-Son confirmed that the equal sides meant it was a rhombus, too.

I learned what a “rhombus” was in seventh grade.

New York City will spend $6 million to roll out Building Blocks in free preschool classes, reports the Wall Street Journal. Preschools will be given “books, related games and seven days of training, plus coaching.”

At P.S. 93 in the Bronx, teacher Gabriela Yildirim “held up a moose puppet named Mr. Mix-up and challenged him to look at several shapes to find one with two parallel lines.” After the moose picked a triangle, the children corrected him. “A trapezoid!” they said.

Yes, trapezoids came up in seventh grade for me.

Still, early learning may not stick. A 2011 study of Building Blocks found “very few differences at the end of kindergarten, and virtually none at the end of first grade.” Researchers speculated that children’s preschool math gains vanished because “primary grade curricula and teachers do not build” on what they’d learned.

Hearing test predicts reading woes

The Associated Press

Testing how well preschoolers can recognize sounds such as “dah” predicts reading difficulties, according to a Northwestern study published in PLOS Biology.

Early intervention could help children develop their auditory processing skills, said senior author Nina Kraus, director of Northwestern’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory.

The new study used an EEG to directly measure the brain’s response to sound, attaching electrodes to children’s scalps and recording the patterns of electric activity as nerve cells fired. The youngsters sat still to watch a video of their choice, listening to the soundtrack in one ear while an earpiece in the other periodically piped in the sound “dah” superimposed over a babble of talking.

The 30-minute test predicted how well 3-year-olds performed a language-development skill and how those same youngsters fared a year later on several standard pre-reading assessments, the team reported.

In tests of older children, the EEG scores correlated with their reading competence.

Big Bird vs. preschool

Watching Sesame Street appears to help disadvantaged children get off to a good start in school, according to a new study. In the program’s early years, when it wasn’t available in all areas, children who had a chance to meet Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, Bert and Ernie were less likely to be held back in school.

The effect was stronger for boys, blacks and children living in low-income areas.

Watching Sesame Street was as effective at improving academic readiness as attending preschool, researchers Phillip Levine and Melissa Kearney told the Washington Post.

However, preschool teaches important social and emotional skills, they said.

Big Bird can’t close the achievement gap, responds Sam Chaltain. “The problems that beset poor children run a lot deeper than the 30 million word gap,” he writes.

Improvements in school readiness didn’t affect high school graduation rates, college enrollment or success in the job market, the study found. Big Bird’s fans weren’t any more likely to escape poverty as adults.

Of course, fade-out is the primary problem with Head Start. Readiness isn’t everything.

Head Start will move to a full-day, year-round program, reports Ed Central. Tat will be very expensive. The feds want to do less micromanaging — but also want to require more home visiting, higher attendance rates and limits on suspension of children with behavior issues.

Millionaire turns around poor Florida town

Harris Rosen visited a day care center he funds in Tangelo Park, Fla. Credit: Melissa Lyttle, New York Times

For 21 years, a Florida millionaire has funded day care centers and college scholarships in a small, low-income, mostly black town near Orland, reports the New York Times. With $11 million of Harris Rosen’s money, “Tangelo Park is a striking success story.”

Once, nearly half the town’s students dropped out of school. Now nearly all graduate and most go to college or trade school with full scholarships.

Property values have climbed. Houses and lawns, with few exceptions, are welcoming. Crime has plummeted.

The son of immigrants, Rosen grew up poor in New York City and made his money in the hotel business.

For the youngest children, he created a system of free day care centers in Tangelo Park homes, ensuring that the certified providers, who are also the homeowners, instruct children as young as 2. He also started and finances a prekindergarten program in the local elementary school and offers parents training through the University of Central Florida on how to support their children.

The Tangelo Park Program doesn’t fund K-12 education.  “It is run almost entirely by volunteers, mostly community leaders,” reports the Times.

Next year, Rosen will begin funding early education in a downtown Orlando neighborhood with housing projects and few neighborhood institutions.

Head Start is 50 years old

Head Start got its start 50 years ago as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program. What’s its legacy? asks PBS NewsHour.

The story quotes the head of the Ford Foundation, who was a Head Start kid, but it also includes Russ Whitehurst, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies preschool programs. Federal studies have found Head Start graduates do no better than a control group by third grade, he points out.

They were not better readers. They were not doing math better. They didn’t have better social development. They didn’t have better health outcomes.

It costs $8 billion a year and makes no difference in anything we can measure.

For $999, adults can go to ‘preschool’

Brooklynites who want to fingerpaint, play dress-up, snack and nap can pay $999 for five weeks of Preschool Mastermind, which bills itself as the world’s first preschool for adults.

Blocks are the anti-app

One child's stage is another student's obstacle course. Preschoolers at Bing Nursery School play with outdoor blocks.

After one preschooler tired of building a stage, others turned it into an obstacle course.  Photo: Eric Westervelt, NPR

Wooden blocks are the anti-app, writes Eric Westervelt as part of NPR’s series on the iconic tools of early schooling. 

Measurement. Balance. Math. Negotiation. Collaboration. And fun. The smooth maple pieces need no recharging, no downloading.

He visits Bing Nursery School on the Stanford campus, where four-year-olds are working together to “balance and secure two semicircular wooden blocks atop two long, straight ones.”

The tower collapses to the carpeted floor at Stanford University’s Bing Nursery School.

They work the problem.

It is Silicon Valley, after all. Fail early, fail often, kids. Iterate. Collaborate.

Jacques makes a pitch for stability.

“Corinne, I think if we just put a little on each side and used the right amount where mine was, it would work,” he says. “OK?”

“OK, let’s try,” says Corrine. “OK!”

The tower grows.

Then, to paraphrase Homer, the tower falls thunderously and the blocks clatter about.

“It keeps falling down! Maybe a little higher,” Jacques says, resisting the urge to lose patience.

Wooden blocks, designed in 1913 by a progressive educator, teach mathematical thinking, says Todd Erickson, a head teacher. 

For example, 4-year-old Yuri uses large, hollow outdoor building blocks to create a stage. “She looks at the spaces between two sides and starts to grapple with different sized pieces to bridge the gap,” writes Westervelt.

It’s the start of algebra, says Erickson. 

“Essentially they’re solving for X,” he says. “They’ve got one piece on one side and one piece on the other and a distance to fill. So what is that amount going to be, what does the length of that block have to be to bridge, to sit at both edges of the block. It’s the beginning of mathematics, really.”

When Yuri loses interest and runs over to the swings, two other girls “turn Yuri’s half-built stage into a makeshift obstacle course,” writes Westervelt.

My sister and I had wooden blocks when we were kids. My sister figured out how to build a domed ceiling with them.

Teaching preschool doesn’t pay

Child-care workers earn about $10 an hour, according to a new Berkeley report, “Worthy Work, Still Unlivable Wages. That’s more than fast-food cooks but less than animal caretakers. Preschool teachers earn 40 percent less than kindergarten teachers.

Pay preschool teachers like they matter, argues Laura Bornfreund in  The Atlantic. Early-childhood educators can make a big difference, research shows.

 The adults working in early-childhood programs set the foundation for future learning, developing essential knowledge in their young students as well as the skills, habits, and mindsets children need to succeed later in school and flourish in life. And the quality of interactions between teachers and children is especially important when it comes to sustaining the gains children make in pre-k programs.

 It will be hard to hire and retain smart, skilled preschool teachers if they’re paid like babysitters.