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April 17, 2015

Early education: Profiles from 10 states

Sometimes getting and maintaining a job can be difficult enough for some people in poverty. To further make matters complicated, when these people are parents, they additionally have to care for others, their children, which includes finding a preschool or childcare facility to look after their children during the day. To highlight what some states are doing to ensure high-quality early childhood education, the Center for American Progress recently released a series of snapshots profiling early childhood policies in ten states drawing primarily from the research of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER). NIEER compiles and releases an annual record of early childhood programs across the United States and aids in providing a glimpse at preschool across the nation. In its most recent edition, The State of Preschool 2013 report explains that across the US, the average state spending per child is $4,026. Keep this number in mind as each state is highlighted in turn.

Additionally, general trends are reported that may (or perhaps should) alert many readers. For example, 31 states throughout the nation have annual childcare costs that amount to more than annual community college tuition and fees for in-state students.

Although these states (Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Michigan, North Carolina, Nevada, Ohio, Virginia, & Wisconsin) differ somewhat in both their approach and the quality of their early childhood programming, several findings deserve illumination.


  • For children 6-years-old or younger, 43% live in low-income families.
  • Colorado ranks 37th out of 41 states in per-student funding for preschool ($2,159/student).
  • Biggest challenges: Colorado state preschool programs only meet 6 (out of 10) of NIEER’s benchmarks of (high) quality. Colorado programs could increase quality by requiring preschool teachers to hold a B.A. degree or having preschools offer at least one meal per day, for example.


  • Over half (53%) of all children six or younger grow up in low-income households in Florida.
  • Florida ranks 35th out of 41 states in per-student funding for preschool ($2,242/student).
  • Biggest challenges: Florida meets only 3 of NIEER’s 10 benchmarks of quality. Maintaining ratios of 10 children per teacher or less and ensuring that teachers are provided appropriate training and resources are two ways in which these state programs can improve.


  • Fifty-four percent of children less than 6 years of age live in low-income families.
  • Georgia ranks 28th out of 41 states in per-student funding for preschool ($3,599/student).
  • Biggest challenges: Although Georgia meets 8 of NIEER’s 10 benchmarks of quality, only 4-year-olds are allowed to enroll in preschool. Opening enrollment to 3-year-olds would be a large step forward in terms of assisting those children most at-risk.


  • Roughly 4 out of 10 children (41%) ages six and younger in Iowa grow up in poverty.
  • Iowa ranks 32nd out of 41 states in per-student funding for preschool ($2,674/student).
  • Biggest challenges: Iowa meets only 6 of NIEER’s 10 benchmarks of quality. Alarmingly, the programs in Iowa only operate for 10 hours per week, having the programs operate on a full-day schedule would likely be a significant improvement for Iowan families.


  • Every other child (50%) under age 6 comes from a low-income family in Michigan.
  • Michigan ranks 18th out of 41 states in per-student funding for preschool ($4,452/student).
  • Biggest challenges: Michigan meets 7 of NIEER’s 10 benchmarks of quality. An example of how Michigan programs can improve is by allowing (and ensuring) preschool teachers at least 15 hours of annual in-service training. Additionally, to address earlier issues related to its limited operating schedule, Michigan increased its preschool program to a full-day schedule. Unfortunately, this resulted in fewer enrollments slot available for children.

North Carolina:

  • North Carolina has 1 of 4 state programs across the US that meet all 10 of NIEER’s benchmarks of quality.
  • North Carolina ranks 13th out of 41 states in per-student funding for preschool ($4,960/student).
  • Biggest challenges: Although North Carolina has placed a large investment in its youngest residents, it is not without need. Roughly 54% of North Carolinian families with children ages six or younger are impoverished and greatly benefit from having high-quality early education programs. Unfortunately, these efforts likely only cover the symptoms and do not address any underlying causes for these families being at-risk, although one could argue that perhaps that is not the purpose of early education.


  • Fifty-two percent of Nevadan families with children 6 or younger live in poverty.
  • Nevada ranks 33rd out of 41 states in per-student funding for preschool ($2,397/student).
  • Biggest challenges: Nevada meets only 7 of NIEER’s 10 benchmarks of quality. Nevada programs can seek higher quality implementation through ensuring that all assistant teachers have at least a C.D.A. (Child Development Associate) credential (or its equivalent) and by providing at least one meal a day to its children.


  • Half of Ohioan families with children 6 or younger are impoverished.
  • Ohio ranks 21st out of 41 states in per-student funding for preschool ($3,927/student).
  • Biggest challenges: Ohio’s preschool programs meet only 4 of NIEER’s 10 benchmarks of quality. Significant improvements to the state’s early education system will likely be seen if class sizes are kept to below 20 students while maintaining a 1:10 teacher-child ratio. Additionally, requiring teachers to have a B.A. and assistant teachers to have at least a C.D.A. (Child Development Associate) credential (or its equivalent) will help ensure that Ohio children experience the best in early education.


  • Slightly over one-third (36%) of all families with children under six are living in poverty in Virginia.
  • Virginia ranks 23rd out of 41 states in per-student funding for preschool ($3,752/student).
  • Biggest challenges: Virginia meets just 6 of NIEER’s 10 benchmarks of quality. Noticeable improvements will likely be seen if teachers are required to have a B.A. and assistant teachers to have at least a C.D.A. (Child Development Associate) credential (or its equivalent) and if at least one meal was provided to children per day. Additionally, Virginia does not serve 3-year-olds in the state preschool programs and their inclusion would serve as a substantial improvement to the early education system, although considerable increases in funding would likely be necessary.


  • Forty-four percent of the families with children six or younger in Wisconsin are considered low-income.
  • Wisconsin ranks 29th out of 41 states in per-student funding for preschool ($3,366/student).
  • Biggest challenges: Wisconsin preschool programs meet only half of NIEER’s 10 benchmarks of quality. State programs would see improvements by requiring assistant teachers to have at least a C.D.A. (Child Development Associate) credential (or its equivalent), maintaining teacher-child ratios of 1:10 or less, and offering screenings and support services related to vision, hearing, and health.

March 22, 2013

What is it about Finland?

American education is suffering from Finn envy.  While the U.S. has been steadily but slowly climbing its way out of the mid-rankings on PISA — the international assessment of 15-year-olds — little Finland has been knocking the academic socks off of its OECD peers in math, reading and science.  So what do the Finns have that we don’t?

A lot has been made about the differences in culture. As many observers point out Finland is smallish, fairly homogenous and has a low poverty rate, slightly over three percent compared to our approximately 20 percent, and so they question how much of the Finnish way would transfer to our massive and massively complex system.

Even so, American educators and policymakers are so eager to uncover the Finn’s secret, they have created a new tourist industry for this off-the-beaten-track Scandinavian country. Interestingly, what they find both validates and contradicts reform policies advocated here in the U.S.

For one, Finland does not administer standardized tests  which has been a dominant feature of education improvement policies in the U.S. for over a decade. Homework is put off until high school in favor of play for younger students. Another surprise is that children aren’t required to start school until age seven, although voluntary preschool is available to all six-year-olds. Observers like me who believe data-driven policies and making Pre-k available to four-year-olds will help raise achievement won’t find much support here.

Finland also dishes up a potential moment of truth for so-called “reform” advocates, for the idea of merit pay, competition and other market solutions are alien concepts to their view of schooling. As one Finnish education official put it: “Real winners do not compete.”

There is one lesson that nearly all the edu-tourists take away, however. Teachers enjoy a high position of respect in Finnish society.  Finland actively recruits the top 10 percent of its college graduates to pursue master’s degrees in education, a credential most teachers possess. Teachers are trusted to develop lessons, design and administer assessments and grade students on their own. They also enjoy smaller classes and less time in front of students than their American counterparts. Those voices in the U.S. who call for bolstering the teaching profession as essential to improving achievement — a group in which I include myself — will find a great deal of support in the Finnish model.

An article in the Atlantic raises another characteristic of Finnish education that we have tended to overlook but that the Finns credit with their success.  The article’s author, Anu Partanen, explains:

Decades ago, when the Finnish school system was badly in need of reform, the goal of the program that Finland instituted, resulting in so much success today, was never excellence. It was equity.

Since the 1980s, the main driver of Finnish education policy has been the idea that every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background income or geographic location. Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality.

Equity in Finland is established through equal funding, free school meals, health care and access to guidance and counseling.  There are very few private schools. All schooling, Pre-k through college, is free. Apparently, investments in schools and children do make a difference.

To the skeptics, however, demography still explains everything about the gap between Finland and the U.S.  To this, Partanen cites research by Samuel Abrams of Columbia University who compared Finland to neighboring Norway, similarly homogenous but whose approach to education more closely resembles the U.S. Norway, like the U.S. and unlike Finland, is not far from the OECD average on PISA. But there are some takeaways that could be instructive for the U.S.

First, our efforts at equitable funding have not closed the wide financial gap between high- and low-poverty districts. Second, the investments we make in child services are pitiful compared to our international peers. Finally, greater attention to recruiting strong candidates into teaching and preparing them well, as well as developing effective school principals can go a long toward assuring all students get a good public education. Who knows? We might even be able to at least reduce our reliance on standardized tests.

March 10, 2011

Let’s Make a Deal: Class Size Edition

A former colleague of mine sent me this Seattle Times article where the columnist—Danny Westneat– offered Bill Gates a deal. No, the deal didn’t involve shares of Microsoft or upgrading his laptop to Windows 7. This involved schools, specifically class sizes. Westneat proposed that Bill Gates’ former private high school double the size of its classes from 16 to 32 and use the savings to reduce the class size of his former public high school by half from 32 to 16. Since both he and Gates have 8 year old children who will likely attend those schools, Westneat wants to compare what impact those class sizes would have had on their children in 2020.

Why does Westneat want to make such a deal? It’s in response to an Op-Ed Gates wrote recently where he basically argued that smaller class sizes are a big waste of money. Westneat takes exception because Gate’s former prestigious private high school touts its small classes, as do most other elite private schools. So basically Westneat is calling Gates a hypocrite since Gates is advocating for larger classes in public schools, yet spending a lot of money to send his daughter to a school with small classes.

Does Westneat have a point? I say no. Gates is not advocating for increasing all classes by 16 students as Westneat proposes. No, Gates’ argument is actually based on research — not only on class size research, but on the impact of effective teachers. Gates interprets the research to show that having an effective teacher will increase student achievement more than being in a smaller class with a less effective teacher. That’s why Gates actually argued for raising class sizes by four or five students—not 16– for the top performing teachers so that more students have access to the best teachers. Now that’s a much more reasonable argument.

As a new father, I would definitely rather have my girls in a larger class with a more effective teacher than in a smaller class with a less effective teacher. I think most parents would feel the same way. So why do small class sizes typically trump effective teachers? The answer is simple: class size is easy to measure. Parents just don’t have access to data on the effectiveness of their teachers, while data on class size is readily available.  

Yes, parents have a fairly good idea about which teacher is better than another, but nothing quantifiable, since that information is just not available to them (or to school leaders, for that matter). Unfortunately, current evaluation systems fail to identify highly effective teachers. So parents are much more likely to rely on the hard numbers of class size to evaluate their schools than the effectiveness of the teaching staff.

Therein lies a significant shortcoming of Gates’ argument. Yes, in theory, students would be better off if they were in larger classes taught by more effective teachers. But current evaluation systems are unable to identify the most effective teachers. So increasing class size, particularly in the early grades, to reduce cost is something most parents will resist. However, if the Gates Foundation’s work on creating a more effective teacher evaluation system provides accurate and easily understood information about the effectiveness of teachers, then parents may change their behavior. Then Gates may just take Westneat’s deal. – Jim Hull

Filed under: school organization,Teacher evaluation,teachers — Tags: , — Jim Hull @ 9:23 am

March 4, 2011

Class size vs. teacher quality

Yesterday, I wrote about how research clearly shows that class size does matter for poor and minority students in the early grades. However, as the NBC Nightly News segment also pointed out, critics of smaller class sizes argue that increasing class size can give a greater number of students an opportunity to be taught by a highly effective teacher.

The theory goes that if class sizes increase by eliminating the least effective teachers, then more students will be taught by more effective teachers. Meaning, students will be better off being taught by a highly effective teacher in a classroom of 25 students than in a class of 15 students taught by a less effective teacher.

This is a really interesting debate between smaller class sizes and teacher quality. I argued yesterday that class size does matter. But does a highly effective teacher trump smaller classes? Unfortunately, the research is not clear. Although research does find that teachers have the single greatest impact of student achievement, it is not clear under what conditions teachers are the most effective. We don’t really know if effective teachers are just as effective if they have 5, 10, 15 or more students added to their classrooms. But if raising classes sizes negatively impacts the effectiveness of teachers then the assumption that districts can be more productive by simply removing the least effective teachers so more effective teachers reach more students would not hold true.

Either way, this is an important debate to be having about what our schools should look like in the future. As our Cutting to the Bone report noted, schools are not likely to get back to their pre-recession funding levels until late in the decade at the earliest. So without a major change to the way our schools are funded, our schools are going to be expected to do more with much less.

Will larger class sizes enable districts to meet this challenge? Maybe some districts. But for our districts serving a significant number of disadvantaged students, the final impact may be devastating. These are students who need both highly effective teachers and smaller class sizes. Just because our economy has tanked doesn’t mean closing the achievement gap isn’t important anymore. As a matter of fact, the more students that graduate high school college- or career-ready, the better off our economy will be in the long-run.—Jim Hull

March 3, 2011

The class size debate

NBC Nightly News had an interesting segment on the impact of the increased class sizes our nation’s students are likely to be experiencing as more and more teachers are being laid off nationwide, just as we expected in our Cutting to the Bone report. Unfortunately, as the report points out, the worst is still yet to come.

That’s what makes the current debate about class size so important. Districts across the country are having to lay off teachers and increase class sizes due to the perfect storm of federal stimulus funds running out, states cutting their aid to schools, and some states limiting the amount of money districts can raise themselves from already depressed local revenues.

So what impact will these layoffs and larger class sizes have on the future achievement of our students? In the NBC News segment, economists such as Dr. Hanushek from Stanford University say that research doesn’t indicate that larger class sizes will impact our students’ achievement. Well, my jaw almost dropped to the floor when I heard him make such a broad claim about the research. This was just too simplistic an analysis by such an intelligent education researcher.

Yes, he is right: when you look at the national data you see class sizes dropping while average scores have remained relatively steady over the past 20 years. Now, I could go on and on about the many reasons this is an inappropriate overall analysis, but I want to talk about just one today:  it fails to recognize that the research is quite clear that smaller class sizes do have a tremendous impact on certain students in certain grades. So a blanket statement that class size doesn’t matter is just plain wrong.

As the Center’s report on class size clearly shows, minority and low-income students in grades kindergarten through 3rd grade benefit greatly from smaller classes. These are students who have benefitted but do not show up in national averages. Now, it can be argued that some state-wide policies to reduce class sizes for all students in all grades (such as those in California and Florida) went too far, so that the costs outweighed the benefits. But that shouldn’t disguise the fact that class size does matter a great deal for a lot of students. For students who are already disadvantaged, a significant increase in class size in the early grades would have a devastating impact on their future academic success. Those who don’t believe class size matters should keep that in mind when making simplistic claims about the impact of class size on student achievement. – Jim Hull

Filed under: funding,Public education,research,school organization — Tags: — Jim Hull @ 9:00 am

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