Effective Systems

PK-3 at the State Level


Presentation by Ellen Frede at the Foundation for Child Development Annual Forum, PK-3: A Strategy to End the Need for Social Promotion and Improve Academic Achievement, October 7, 2004.


RACHEL JONES: Well, now we move from a county initiative to an entire state’s efforts to address the needs of early childhood education. Our next speaker is Ellen Frede, a developmental psychologist who specializes in early childhood education for children from low-income families. She’s on leave from the College of New Jersey to serve as Assistant to the Commissioner for Early Childhood Education at the New Jersey Department of Education.

Her office overseas the implementation of high quality preschool in over 130 school districts serving 50,000 children and their families. Dr. Frede began her career teaching in a wide variety of early childhood classrooms including my alma mater, Head Start, employer-sponsored childcare and a federally funded model inclusion program. She then served as a professional development specialist at the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation where she assisted teachers and program development specialists throughout this country and abroad to implement high quality early childhood programs.

Since obtaining her doctorate she has served as a project director and principal investigator on various federal, state and foundation-funded research projects. Her work has primarily investigated the relationship of program quality to child outcomes and inclusion practices in early childhood.

I have learned a lot reading about the Abbott pre-school decision in New Jersey and about what the state of New Jersey is doing to provide high quality experience across the board, so I’m very eager to hear your remarks.

ELLEN FREDE: Thank you, and thanks so much for inviting me to present. I’m very excited about
what we do in New Jersey, and I’m always happy to talk about it. The first thing I’m going to do is to give you a quick overview of state funded preschool in New Jersey, but I’m going to focus on the program that serves the most children and that has the highest resources attached to it and that’s the Abbott preschool. I’ll give a little background on Abbott and then talk with you about some research that we’ve been doing on the Abbott program.

Though this is the PK - 3 forum, my office oversees preschool and a little bit of kindergarten in some districts. So I can certainly talk about the PK -Three reform effort, but I’m going to focus on preschool in my presentation.

In 1996 the state legislature in New Jersey funded half-day preschool for four-year-olds in 132 school districts. That’s called the Early Childhood Program Aid initiative, and it was part of a whole school funding formula created in response to a school funding court case - what’s commonly called the Abbott case. This was the state’s attempt to forestall some of the court decisions that had been
made around preschool.

In 1998 the New Jersey Supreme Court then ordered at least half-day preschool for three- and four-year-olds in 30 of those districts. That’s what we call the Abbott districts. The state’s idea of the 132 was to spread this out a little bit more. The court made it very clear that the 30 Abbott districts which were part of the court case needed something more intensive than what was being offered through the early childhood program aid. I won’t go into the history of every court case. We’re now on Abbott 12.

But preschool has not been in every one of those court decisions, thank goodness, because it takes a lot of time - being where I am now. I used to be on the other side fighting for this. Now I’m in the state government saying ‘no more court, no more court.’

In 2000 the Department of Education required full-day, full-year in the Abbott districts, which funds the educational day. So the Department of Education funds about six hours for about 180 days. It varies by district. The Department of Human Services then funds wraparound to have a 10-hour, 245 day program. The standards are different depending on the funding. I’ll talk about the standards in a minute, but what is expected during the school day is different from the wraparound portion.

So we still have the ECPA, Early Childhood Program Aid, going on in 102 districts - at least half-day for four-year-olds. Those are very small districts mostly, and very rural for the most part. The Abbott districts are characterized by being urban, low income, or higher concentration of low income. They are chosen using a very complex formula that I don’t even really completely understand. But basically the easy way to think of it is that ECPA is 20 to 40 percent free and reduced lunch, and Abbott is 40 percent and above free and reduced lunch. That doesn’t exactly work, but it’s close.

We now have, by the way, 31 Abbott districts. So all my numbers are wrong in here [the slide presentation] because they don’t account for that extra district. In 2004, Governor McGreevey announced in his budget the funding of the Early Launch to Learning Initiative which will start with $15 million dollars to fund low income slots in preschool programs that must serve a mixed income and mixed ability community, and it must have children with disabilities included as well. So the district either has to contribute or parents have to pay tuition unless you qualify for the low income slot.

The vision is that, by 2010, there will be universal access to high quality preschool - not universal funding but universal access - outside of Abbott and Early Childhood Program Aid.

So that’s the full context. The idea was to spread the good work and build more support for preschool. I forgot to say that one of the other court ordered remedies for the Abbott districts was full-day kindergarten. So we have full-day kindergarten and full-day programs for three- and four- year-olds.

I didn’t add ELLI in here, I apologize. I just didn’t think about it because it’s new. But in terms of class size, Abbott is required to not exceed 15 students with one certified teacher and one assistant teacher in each classroom. Early Childhood Program Aid varies, currently. There is no set maximum. On average it’s between 16 and 17 students, but we have examples of classrooms with as many as 24 students. The new code that I just proposed to the state board last month stipulates a maximum class size of 18 in the ECPA districts. The ECPA districts are funded at a much lower amount per child, so it is hard to require a lower class size. They also have a lower concentration of low-income children.

We have, by court order, preschool teaching and learning expectation standards of quality. I’m glad we have them. Other states are doing it without having been told to by the court. But these are our teaching and learning standards for preschool. I felt very strongly that we shouldn’t have outcome standards in preschool without talking about what teaching practices lead to those standards. It is dangerous just to say that a child should know 10 letters if you don’t talk about how to teach the child those 10 letters - you can get some really bad teaching.

And then there’s collaboration with childcare and Head Start. About 68 percent of the children are served in settings other than public school classrooms.

Just some quick things that we’re doing with PK-3 transitions and continuity initiatives. I have to say that the work has been focused on implementing standards and regulations. They’re not necessarily being implemented and we’re working on that. But this is what is expected. It’s not what is happening.

Each of the Abbott districts must have a transition plan. The plan should include individual child and family - how you work with individual children and families to help them with their transition. We borrowed this kind of approach from Bob Pianta, who I think spoke here last year. The plan must talk about teacher to teacher. So, preschool teacher to kindergarten teacher. And they also have to align the curriculum. Our standards are aligned, and we’ve also instituted a portfolio assessment, which is a performance based assessment from preschool through Grade one.

Outcomes. I’ll zip through these. Sitting next to me is the co-author of the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale, and we’ve been using it in a sampling of the classrooms statewide to try to measure quality over time. This report, by the way, is in your handout A Rising Tide. It’s a preliminary report. The full report is on the web along with the larger report from the year before.

This just shows where our quality is. It’s not where we want it to be. We would like to have all classrooms scoring above a five. But we’re not doing too badly compared to national data. I’m not going to explain the instrument in great detail, but it basically looks at good developmental practice but it also looks at good care. So are children getting good nap times, and good meals, and are their hands being washed and things like that.

This slide shows the change in practices over time. You can see that since the school year 1999-2000, the beginning of the Abbott program, we’re doing better. Especially on those things that are most likely to relate to child outcome.

We’ve also been looking at quality related to literacy. The SELA is the Supports for Early Literacy Assessment. It has been developed by Sheila Smith at NYU. And you can see that, again, compared
to the year before, we’re making progress, but we’re not where we’d like to be in terms of oral language and literacy practices.

You can see that over time, since 2002, which was the first year we looked at this, the classroom scores are increasing. So we’re excited. This is in the face of rapid expansion. 17,000 children in the first year, 43,000 children this year.

The outcomes slide shows the change in receptive language scores. In the first school year, 2000, children scored about an 85 on the PPVT. This is oral language. Last year they were almost 90. So it’s a five point gain. If you think about that like an I.Q. test, it’s about a third of a standard deviation. It’s real. It’s meaningful. It’s not where we want to be, but we’re getting there. A rising tide.

RACHEL JONES: I hope we’ll have a lot more time to talk about the role of legislation as an engine for early childhood educational quality, etcetera. But I wanted to very quickly ask you about something you said in terms of universal access versus universal funding. It sounds like, in the march towards perhaps having universal PK nationwide, what would be mandated first would be access, not funding. Is that a correct characterization?

ELLEN FREDE: Well, I think you have to provide some seed money and then there has to be some choice. The idea of saying to districts ‘you must do this but we’re only going to pay for 20 percent of your kids or 15 percent of your kids,’ well, that wouldn’t fly in New Jersey.

I just want to make sure that it’s clear that it’s universal access and pay in the 132 districts. This is just in the expansion that we’re doing funding of specific slots. But with the very limited funding, and despite bad deficits in New Jersey, the governor wanted to expand early education and this was a way of giving the most bang for our buck and also getting widespread support.

The other issue is that a lot of middle income families have the money to pay for it, they’re willing to pay for it, but they can’t find the quality that they want and this expansion raises the quality as well.