A Crash-Course in pre-k with Robert C. Pianta

[Robert C. Pianta is Dean, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia. He is founding director of the the Curry School’s Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning and director of the National Center for Research in Early Childhood Education. A fuller biography may be found here. This is an edited transcript of Dr. Pianta’s April 8 presentation and includes some questions from discussants.]

“A Crash-Course in Pre-K with Robert C. Pianta”

The Yale Club

April 8, 2014



[00:00:00] Robert Pianta: …. It’s a real pleasure to be here this morning, so David [Steiner, Director of the CUNY Institute for Education Policy] thanks for making this possible.

Pianta Slide01I am really interested in the ways that we can engage around the larger topic of pre-school education [known as “pre-k,” prior to kindergarten]. Impacts and issues of quality in policy. We’ve been thinking about this and working this space for a long time and what I’ve done to try to structure the time this morning is to put together 15 or so slides to give a sort of high level set of ideas about my observations of where we are in this….

The Pre-K “Footprints”

I think sometimes people don’t understand the footprints that currently exist in Pre-K because we spend so much time on these policies that are trying to enroll a lot of kids.

Pianta Slide02

But if you look at public dollars from all sources that are flowing to early education and care services, whether it’s subsidized child care, Head Start, or state funded pre-k, the majority of three- and four-year olds are touched by some form of public dollar.

Costs Range from $2,000 per child to $15,000

Head Start serves roughly a million children. State pre-k programs are a major component of services for four-year olds and growing. And we now seem to be in the next wave of growth in state funded pre-k. Obama is pushing this as well as many states, including New York. The public spends, depending on how you count it, somewhere between 20 and 30 billion dollars on this early education sector. The range of per child cost is somewhere between two thousand (and actually there are some states a little bit lower than that)… up to about fifteen thousand. In some places it’s even a little bit higher. The Abbot districts… in New Jersey are actually even a little bit higher than that. Those costs are driven in large part by whether the program design is full or part time. Is it universal? Is it targeted?… You probably know this, but this is a stunningly fragmented system….

There is a real need for work on assessments at entry to kindergarten because of the policy and program implications for pre-school and k-3

Early education and care is too much of a non-system.

Pianta Slide03

Services and funds are cobbled together at local and state the state levels. They are cobbled together at the program and school level. And this can have an impact on classroom… [D]espite years of talking about needing to raise levels of impact and raise levels of quality and raise standards, too few standards articulated at state and national levels have been linked to assessments….

For example, there is no… national benchmark assessment for kindergarten readiness…. To the degree that states are talking about this, they are largely using assessments that reply on teacher reports… and many investigators have raised questions about the validity of assessments based on teacher reports.

So, the lack of strong readiness assessment is a real soft space in the sector. [We don’t know] what kids actually know and can do when they come to kindergarten…. [Y]ou can imagine if you want to start driving improvement in the three- and four-year-old range, not having any assessment of what that sector is producing really doesn’t allow you to drive it back into pre-k in any way.

Demographic trends mean more pressure

The demographic trends; if you look at the increasing immigration, ethnic differences, language differences, rises in poverty, the demographic trends are creating enormous pressures that are very much likely to challenge efforts to improve program quality…

[00:05:30] Question from the Audience [Paraphrased]: Why would the demographics drive the quality of the teaching down?

[00:05:40.15] Robert Pianta: … Our data, and colleagues’ data demonstrate a general trend that over the course of the year in classrooms with larger numbers of children coming from challenging circumstances – poverty, particularly — the quality of interactions with teachers in the classroom trends down over the course of a year…. In a sense what we see is a gradual erosion, in these classrooms, of resources available to children; we suspect this is in part because of the lack of available resources for teachers to address children’s concerns, and resources for families. Importantly, there is evidence that you can reverse those declines with the right kind of professional development (PD). But those aren’t the kind of professional development [programs] that are most often being selected….

The current workforce requires more intense and focused support for effective interaction and instruction

So the workforce capacity to address the challenges that we’re seeing-…. I mean we’re talking about a workforce that, for the most part is itself stretched thin — and this is too often the case in Head Start—teachers whose children would be eligible for the programs in which they are teaching. And the training regimes – in-service and pre-service are weak. Most early childhood education programs in higher-ed are extraordinarily soft in terms of focus on contemporary knowledge curriculum, and skill development. In-service professional development, is again, even weaker than we see in K-12. So, one of the other issues is that right now we’re seeing most of the policies that are driving quality and impact just seem to have too little effect on outcome. So, we don’t have good outcome assessments. We don’t have strong and effective and appropriate curricula in most of classrooms… [A]nd the professional development is just really loose.

Can we get “high quality” Pre-K?

So, when Obama argues, or the next state governor argues for pre-k — I’m sure this is actually in the war that Cuomo and DeBlasio were having about how much money they want to spend on pre-k — They always make the claim to spend more funds on a high quality program. What does a high quality program mean? Teacher with a degree? A proven and effective curriculum?… —[T]here is very little purchase that one gets from [many of] those features on the actual quality of what is going on in the classroom.

[00:08:51]So what do we know… when we look at the effects data?… [T]here is this dichotomy between experimental and scaled up programs, right?

Pianta Slide04

And the key issues are how much these various variants cost, and what’s the educational intensity. So we’ve been around this… any number of times. The Abcedarian, Chicago, and Perry programs. We see these long-term gains. The return on investments (ROI) range anywhere from three dollars to fifteen — I think it’s now up to $26… for Perry Pre-School because they kept a person or two out of prison.

State Pre-K programs that work

The state scaled up pre-k programs are much better benchmarks for what we can expect. So it’s a much better benchmark for looking at something like New York. We have some examples from Oklahoma, Georgia, Maryland… [that] have had state funded pre-k around for a while. You’re starting to see trends on the state standards tests, three, four, five years later that are showing some bending of the curve… The Tennessee study — the new one that just came out that Russ Whitehurst has championed has indicated no benefits — and possible negatives — in terms of effects on kids’ behavior. It’s very interesting because we’ve known for a long time that the more time young kids spend with other kids, you see increases in assertive or even aggressive behaviors… The question in that study about lack of effects on achievement has not attended well to issues of curriculum or classroom instructional quality.

[00:11:01] Question from the Audience (Paraphrased): Where is New Jersey?

[00:11:10] Robert Pianta: … [I]t’s not statewide. That’s one of the reasons [I have not included it here]. But it’s also because it’s an aberration… You have a court order basically driving a huge amount of investment. Abbot costs almost twice what every one of those other state programs cost… Its outcomes are positive, but the reason I wouldn’t put it in there is because I don’t consider it part of a bucket you [can] scale up easily… and get it right…

Impacts are larger for low income students

[00:12:06][I]n some sense what these scaled up investments are doing is moving the needle on pre-school readiness, assessed with reasonable standardized tests, at about .5–.8 of a standard deviation. Most of these are programs that serve poorer kids. Most of the impacts are larger for kids who are poorer. And… the evidence suggests you can [close] about half the gap… in a year. Then we know that most of kids then drop off during the summer or they go into kindergarten late.

We have data to show… that, in fact, the residual effects of getting good pre-k — one year of pre-k… actually lasts into kindergarten and accounts for differences in your kindergarten performance at the end of kindergarten regardless of the kind of kindergarten that you went to…

Head Start has few benefits

The Head Start evaluations are messy. They basically show… little impact short or long-term. You can see them, but they really are very hard to detect.

[00:13:39] Question from the Audience (Paraphrased): Of the 80% of kids that are in pre-k programs, is there a breakdown of which program they are in? e.g. Head Start vs. State programs.

[00:13:51] Robert Pianta: … You have a substantial number more kids in state funded pre-k (and growing) than you do in Head Start. Then there is subsidized childcare — subsidized childcare is tough to get a handle on… Overall it is very hard to identify by child or even by community the percentages of children enrolled in one or the other because… you have kids who are getting child care plus Head Start, or Head start plus state funded pre-k. So trying to get an actual… count becomes kind of tough…

Measuring benefits through 3rd grade

[00:14:34] Question from the Audience (Paraphrased): How far into the child’s education are the benefits seen?

[00:14:48.13] Robert Pianta: The Maryland data is on the 3rd grade Maryland tests, the North Carolina data is on the 3rd grade…; Oklahoma, Georgia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina are all in relation to the state standards tests that are started in 3rd grade…. These are mature programs that have been out awhile and you can now start tracking. D.C. is also seeing this. I’ve seen where there have been some trends reported in D.C. where the curve is bending a little bit. I think that’s attributable to Pre-K.

Good Pre-K is expensive

Ok. So what do we know about … impact.

So, I think I mentioned this; we have to really interpret the return on investment with care. One of my biggest worries, actually, in this is I think the evidence is that you can do Pre-K [but] we’re doing it modestly well at best. We’re getting some impact. We can do it better, and I’ll talk to you a little bit about that later, but we’re going out with promises to the public that spend more money and this will solve your problems. And we go out with the Abcedarian study and we go out with the Perry study and we say give us this money and it will return ten dollars, fifteen dollars on every dollar we spend. That is — to me that’s really vastly overstating what might be able to expect from these studies.

Rand did a study in preparation for — this was a couple of years ago where California was going to make a big investment in universal Pre-K; and this was a Rob Reiner led initiative and they looked like they had everything lined up on this. They were going out with the return on investment and Rand did a study of the return on investment and it was coming in [at] … $1.70 to two bucks back on your investment. [T]hat might not be bad — if we could invest at that rate we’d probably do it, right? But it’s not $20…. So… there is some validity to this, but these have got to be really good programs.

Measuring benefits through 3rd grade

[00:14:34] Question from the Audience (Paraphrased): How far into the child’s education are the benefits seen?

[00:14:48.13] Robert Pianta: The Maryland data is on the 3rd grade Maryland tests, the North Carolina data is on the 3rd grade…; Oklahoma, Georgia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina are all in relation to the state standards tests that are started in 3rd grade… These are mature programs that have been out awhile and you can now start tracking. D.C. is also seeing this. I’ve seen where there have been some trends reported in D.C. where the curve is bending a little bit. I think that’s attributable to pre-k.

Good pre-k is expensive

Ok. So what do we know about … impact.

Pianta Slide05

So, I think I mentioned this; we have to really interpret the return on investment with care. One of my biggest worries, actually,.. [is that] the evidence is that you can do pre-k, [but that] we’re doing it modestly well. We’re getting some impact. We can do it better, and I’ll talk to you a little bit about that later, but too often we’re going out with promises to the public … [to] spend more money and [promising] this will solve society’s problems. And we go out with the Abcedarian study and we go out with the Perry study and we say spend X amount of money and it will return ten dollars, fifteen dollars on every dollar we spend. That is — to me that’s really overstating what we might be able to expect from these investments.

RAND did a study a couple of years ago when California was going to make a big investment in universal pre-k; and this was a Rob Reiner led initiative and they looked like they had everything lined up. The RAND study of the return on investment was coming in [at] … about two dollars back on every dollar invested. [T]hat might not be bad — if we could invest at that rate we’d probably do it, right? But it’s not $20… So… there is some validity to a significant return on investment, but these have got to be good programs.

A good curriculum and good teachers count

So,… it’s very clear that the more educational the program is the more benefits we’re going to see. By that I mean… a real curriculum. A real attention to the qualities of teacher’s interactions with kids when they are implementing that curriculum, and a full day program, and at best a full year program for these kids so that you don’t have the summer drop off. So I think the question is not whether dollars should flow, but what should dollars be flowing to…

How do you use the dollars most effectively?

Ok. So I’ve talked a little bit about this. There is some reality to this fact that this non-system does narrow the gap… How do you use dollars and policy to drive the existing infrastructure? So we have a lot of costs in teachers. We have a lot of costs in classrooms. We’re busing kids…. How do we marshal those costs and drive forward a much more educationally intense [program]?

Our hypothesis is that to really make a difference, to actually make meaningful differences and substantial differences in closing the gap, you need full-time, two-year, twelve-month exposure to an educationally intensive program.

[00:19:41] David Steiner: So that means three- and four-year-olds?

[00:19:45] Robert Pianta: Three- and four-year-olds, yes — if we’re serious about the way early education tilts the playing field for poor kids — and for society that… has to respond to those disparities throughout their K-12 career. That’s where we would be spending our time and funds.

Is poor Pre-K better than no Pre-K?

[00:20:06] Question from the Audience (Paraphrased): Do you feel that in some cases some pre-k is better than no pre-k?

[00:20:41] Robert Pianta: Yes. Some pre-k actually is better than no pre-k… We’re talking about a weak effect, ok. But pre-k is safe… For many of these kids who would otherwise be in really bad childcare situations or at home, or not even supervised [pre-k would be better]… Too often not a lot better, but better, and kids do learn a little bit.

Again, it’s probably a little bit better because these kids are safer, but in terms of the education benefit, I’m not sure I could make that argument.

Won’t it be hard to do the right thing?

00:22:05] Question from the Audience (Paraphrased): Isn’t some of what you are looking for impractical in some states?

[00:22:13.] Robert Pianta: … We’re serving a lot of kids right now with the existing programs. Too often these programs do not talk to each other. They are not organized in a way that is focused around the delivery of educationally beneficial services I just described. They are organized in various pieces and components… –All of them have their own independent bureaucracy associated with them… A lot of Head Start dollars go to maintaining a large infrastructure that floats out of Washington toward those programs.

So, I think a lot of economists would look at this and say, there are 27 billion dollars being spent on preschool, [and] if you divide by the number of poor kids in the country, can you deliver a $10,000 program to every one of those kids? And the answer comes pretty close to Yes. So, I’m not being Pollyannish about how hard it is to get from here to there, but the idea that we should back away from that goal just because there may not be enough money… or there may not be curriculum that could work, or all these other —

[00:23:48] Question from the Audience (Paraphrased): Or trained teachers?

[00:23:48] Robert Pianta: Yes… Ok, we’ll get there. All right.

Structural aspects of quality don’t matter enough

So what do we know about Quality?

Pianta Slide07

We’ve talked to governors and mayors — mayors always love to talk about quality. There are the structural aspects of quality. That’s the stuff that’s mostly embedded in policy… I could show you study after study that demonstrates that there is literally no evidence that a teacher with a Master’s degree in early childhood education produces better learning for three- or four-year-olds than a teacher with a child development associate’s degree (CDA) — which is less than an associate’s degree…

I don’t know that we’ve attacked this particularly sensibly. So we’ve got almost a billion dollars for Race to the Top’s Early Learning Challenge grants to build state quality rating and improvement systems to improve quality, most of these being the structural features of quality, like teacher degrees, teacher/student ratios, systems of aggregating data… [W]e published [a paper] in Science that took 14 states’ quality rating and improvement system algorithms and measured nine or ten features of quality… Those features are supposed to denote those aspects of programs that are related to children’s outcomes. None of them predict children’s outcomes unless there are assessments of what the teacher is doing with the kids in the classroom.

A rigorous curriculum – and good implementation — matters

So, it’s abundantly clear that this is the space we’ve got to spend our time and effort on. All of these people, all of these classrooms that are currently serving and enrolling lots and lots of kids — if we want to get where we want to go it’s got to be focused on rigorous curriculum and implementation of it through teacher-child interactions.

The importance of teacher-child interactions

Let me give you a little bit of a hint as to the landscape of what we’re talking about. So we go into classrooms — 10,000 classrooms that serve three-year-olds up to third graders. So this is a big national sample. We rate classrooms on features of teacher-child interaction.

Pianta Slide06

We go in and the low end gets rated a one and the high end gets rated a seven; we call this the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS)

Those dimensions of teacher-child interaction fall into three buckets. What is the teacher doing to provide emotional support — warmth, engagement? Second, how is the teacher running the classroom? Is time wasted or is time well spent? Is there some structure? And, third, what kind of engagement does the teacher have with the kid that drives language development, that drives concept development and understanding? That’s a two on the scale of instructional support.

If I were then to look at the correlation between these three buckets and student learning, I would see correlations… But there is no correlation between these classrooms and any student learning… Until classrooms get to about a three on instructional support, for example,… So we’ve got a big [gap to fill].

Factors that most influence school readiness

[00:28:07] Robert Pianta: Ok. [The next slide] shows standardized tests of student’s school readiness.

Pianta Slide08

These are the indicators of school readiness. Each check represents a significant association between that feature of quality. Emotional Support. Instructional Support. And this is the Early Childhood Environment Readiness Scale; another observational scale, but it basically goes in and looks more at the kind of physical environment in the classroom. So you can see here how important instructional support is for learning in all of those school readiness domains…

[There is another] version of this slide that has structural features. Ratio. Teacher Credentials. Number of Kids in the Classroom. Family Engagement. Again, the kind of things that are ticked off on most of these policy designs. There would be no check marks whatsoever. No checkmarks. So again, the kind of parameters that are shaping policy and investment, and program design are not the kinds of things that are penetrating into the classroom in a way that is… driving children’s learning…

What policies and practices will have the most impact?

[00:29:58.23] Robert Pianta: So, if we were to focus on improving the impacts, what would we show?

Pianta Slide10

This is what we know from… the last decade of research on efforts to improve early childhood education outcomes for kids…

One of the things we know is that… if you train teachers in knowledge of child development… in areas of literacy, math, and social development, kids’ learning goes up. We just did an experiment where we trained pre-k teachers in knowledge about early literacy. What’s a phoneme? What’s a syllable? These sorts of things… Most programs in early child education… don’t reflect contemporary knowledge in child development… And when teachers learned this knowledge, the literacy scores of their children were greater.

How to improve teacher-child interactions

We’ve also built… four ways of improving teacher-child interactions that we have tested in experiments. One way is just simply show teachers, particularly teachers in training, video clips of effective interactions… If they just see effective interactions, they get better at it, and we see gains on kids’ literacy scores.

Second, coach teachers around their own interactions. We stream the video in. We have a way of coaching teachers we call My Teaching Partner. They get feedback on their video and we see increases in their interactions and we see increases… in literacy, language development, and self-regulation.

Third, we built a college course on being able to train teachers in interactions. Interactions improved as a result of the college course and we turned that college course into a MOOC. And we’re able to scale this online…

Finally, clearly skills training in curricula [is important].

Pianta Slide09

There are at least four or five proven effective scaled up curricula in the area of early literacy; in math, the Building Blocks curriculum is going to be used in New York City — really a very, very good curriculum… Focused and effective.

We have the ingredients. How do we assemble them?

So again, the ingredients are there. How do we assemble them? Unfortunately,… if you were to travel to any of the existing early childhood education programs, for the most part you would see those evidence-based, educationally focused, proven effective curriculum to be the least prevalent…

I started by talking about the fact we don’t have any assessments at kindergarten entry, so we don’t have a system that’s pointing toward the kind of outcomes that kids needs. So,… this issue of program design really matters…

[00:34:30][Right now] we have a lot of kids, in a lot of classrooms, with a lot of adults. The adults are marginally trained and supported… And we have a new, contemporary generation of curricula, teacher training, skills training, that actually could be applied to that system to move it ahead. To me, that’s where the policies really need to be driving. Not necessarily opening up many, many more classrooms for more kids…

So the issue is sort of how do we re-deploy this existing infrastructure and cost toward a more proven and effective model?…

What New York can do: the questions that need to be asked

[00:35:24.19] So, let me just throw out a couple ideas about New York,… where, like elsewhere, you’ve got lots of money for a non-system with modest impacts.

Pianta Slide11

What are your standards for that spending?… What’s the accountability framework? Are there going to be assessments of kids’ school readiness outcomes? Are they going to be legitimate assessments? Or are they just going to be teacher reports of how the kids are doing in September?

I would ask lots of question about specific outcomes and benchmarks. These features of quality really matter. And again as I said, those that are most often the focus of policy will matter the least… People will talk about teachers with degrees… There is a mandate for them to go get a bachelor’s degree. A mandate. How do they get that?… What’s the quality of that degree, and is it really going to be tied to… classroom learning? So I think this is an area for lots of potential innovation where we might actually be thinking about why aren’t we paying teachers or credentialing teachers… on the basis of competencies that they might display. Or their participation and demonstration of progress on professional development and competency benchmarks? We’ve got those benchmarks.

Pre-K gives us a chance to make needed improvements

This is an opportunity — actually, I think early childhood is a part of the education sector space that you could do far more innovation around teacher credentialing and teacher licensure and teacher evaluation than you can in K-12.

There is less attention and pressure from unions, for example. I know there are in some states, but it’s a much more open territory for innovation… Big opportunity for innovation. Are you going to spend on universal or are you going to spend on targeted?… [T]he evidence is stronger that targeted programs are the ones that matter the most for the kids that are being served and they are the ones that produce the greater return on investment for the public dollar being spent. The argument for universal pre-k has something to do with creating kind of a broader-based program that enables — and I don’t mean that in a negative way — that enables the middle class to have a stake in the continuation of programs that provide services for poor kids. That could be a very effective way of strengthening those core early educational opportunities for vulnerable children who really can benefit from them, but we have to make sure the programs deliver.

Incentives to take kids out of Head Start

And then this issue of what about Head Start? I’m reviewing policy that’s coming out of the Texas policy shops… and they are going to set up a system — we can argue about whether they have the right measures of quality — but there is a proposal for a system of gold standard pre-k programs and a method to incent parents who might otherwise enroll their child in Head Start and enroll them in those programs… I’ve not seen anything like that yet, but it really is the most overt indication that policy makers are, at the state level, questioning the value of Head Start and are trying to reroute dollars accordingly… This could be a disruptive force in early education.


Again, wherever the dollars or children go, the critical question is about the strength and effectiveness of the program and the actual experiences in classrooms with teachers that foster learning and development. This is the real crux of the matter. We have a tremendous opportunity to actually apply the contemporary knowledge and practice that we know can work for young children.

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