Dosage Matters for Washington’s Preschool Kids!

Ross and Kellie work with ECEAP children to fix a bread maker

Our goal as an agency is to get 90% of Washington’s children to be “ready for kindergarten,”  and to have race and family income not be predictors of readiness.

About 20% of Washington’s children are in families at or below 110% of the federal poverty level (FPL,) or about $24,000 for a family of four.  These young people face many challenges in life and are a key part of any rational economic strategy for the state, as well as being part of the paramount duty enshrined in Washington’s constitution. The large gap seen in our kindergarten entry assessment between kids below 110% and their more advantaged peers persists through their entire experience in the K12 system, and the rest of their lives.

We’re looking at a number of ways to help these kids get ready for kindergarten. The most effective in national data and in Washington is high-quality preschool. Without that investment, we estimate that about 28% of this group will arrive in kindergarten meeting our benchmark for kindergarten readiness. 28% isn’t 90%.

Sometimes you can have too much of a good thing. Say – ice cream. When it comes to high-quality preschool experiences – not so much. Dosage matters. There are three major components of “dosage,” the amount of preschool a kid gets.  Length of day, number of years, and length of year.

ECEAP today is mostly a half-day program – about 2 ½ to 3 hours. Most national research suggests that a full-day program is much more successful in getting kids ready for kindergarten.[1] There are other reasons full-day makes a lot of sense, which I’ll cover later.

We also have strong data supporting high quality preschool for both three and four year olds.

  • After one year of ECEAP, about 55% are ready when we measure in June. When we measure in the fall the number falls to about 35%. We attribute this falloff to both to summer learning loss, a problem well explored in the literature[2]and some testing differences between ECEAP and
  • A small fraction of kids start when they are three, getting two years of ECEAP. 69% of those kids are ready for kindergarten. 69% is a lot closer to 90% than 55% is.

Only a very small fraction of kids in ECEAP have summer programming, and it’s too new for us to have enough data to evaluate the effect. We’re super-interested in figuring out how to prevent the large drop of scores over the summer, and this year’s budget includes funds for a reasonable experiment to measure the effect of providing the service all summer. This would inform future investment decisions.

One of my particular concerns about ECEAP is that we’re not getting to the kids at the highest risk. Over 60% of the families below 110% of the federal poverty level (FPL) are headed by single parents, but only 42% of ECEAP families are. There are lots of potential reasons for this, but the most likely is that a half-day program is crazymaking for single parents. What are you going to do in the middle of the day – tell your boss you need time off to switch your kid from one place to the other?

We don’t have another intervention that works this well for getting kids ready for kindergarten, and if we’re serious about ensuring that kids from low income families have the same chance to succeed in school as their friends that are born closer to opportunity then we have to design the preschool experience so that it actually works for Washington families. Governor Inslee’s ECEAP budget proposal in front of the Legislature right now:

  • Continues to expand ECEAP, but with almost all full and extended-day slots. Washington law says that all kids below 110% FPL will be entitled to a slot in the fall of 2020, and Governor Inslee’s budget calls for a significant expansion in the next two years so that we’re not scrambling to try to do it all at once in the next budget cycle.
  • Funds a substantive experiment in summer programming so we can determine which particular model works best to reach our kindergarten readiness goals.
  • Continues eligibility for both three and four year old children, because without this we are unlikely to make our 90% goal and will be living with an opportunity gap for the next generation of kids, something we think is morally repugnant.

In one of my favorite turns of phrase this year, it’s pretty clear from national data that kids really need to spend more time each day in the somatosensory bath[3] of the high-quality preschool and intervention services that ECEAP provides. Research is emerging that indicates more time in high quality preschool each day equals better results for the kids who need it most.[4]

So in short, dosage matters and more is better for ECEAP. Some questions we’re still exploring in order to best steward the public funds in our trust while getting the best outcomes for kids:

  • What is the best combination of length of day, number of years, and type of summer programming to get the most children ready for kindergarten?
  • Which children benefit the most from the three elements above?
  • ECEAP is more than just classroom time. The variety of family supports and health coordination the program provides are a critical part of its success. Not all families need every type of support available. What types and levels of services each family needs, and how to determine that efficiently, is a question we took up in our Family Support Pilot and will continue to examine.
  • What other factors are affecting kindergarten readiness: availability of dual-language instruction, family involvement in various parts of the child welfare system, seamless transitions from effective early intervention programs like Early Head Start, ESIT, and home visiting to high quality preschool programs like ECEAP?

We don’t have a perfect formula for dosage yet, but we have the tools to devise a good one. Most importantly, we need to support and expand ECEAP in a thoughtful and effective manner. I’ll be writing more about how DEL plans to implement ECEAP expansion in the coming weeks, so keep an eye out for that post.

[1] (Kenneth B. Robin, 2006)

[2] Wikipedia “Summer learning loss” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Summer_learning_loss

[3] Somatosensory “of or relating to sensations that involve parts of the body not associated with the primary sense organs.” James Heckman writes about the importance of the somatosensory bath of early childhood here: http://bostonreview.net/archives/BR37.5/ndf_james_heckman_social_mobility.php

[4] RAND 2016, “Informing Investments in Preschool Quality and Access in Cincinnati”, http://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR1461.html

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