Naneida Lazarte Alcalá is a Research Manager with the Oklahoma Department of Human Services. She holds a Ph.D. in Economics from Oklahoma State University. Krista Schumacher is a Senior Researcher with the Oklahoma Department of Human Services. She is working on a Ph.D. in Educational Research and Evaluation from Oklahoma State University. Both are members of Scholars Strategy Network.
Considerable research points to the dire consequences of starting school unprepared to learn. A combination of experiences and environments from the moment of birth shape a child’s likelihood of entering school developmentally ready and succeeding in the long term. Circumstances such as poverty, low maternal education, single-parent families, limited English skills, and abuse and neglect place children at extreme risk of starting kindergarten without the appropriate cognitive, social-emotional and behavioral skills necessary for learning.
Too often the burden of bridging the developmental gap between where children should be and where they actually are is placed squarely on schools. However, studies using data from the Kids Integrated Data System, which matches data on individual children across the Philadelphia school district with the city’s human services, health, and housing agencies, found that differences in student performance between schools was attributable more to the concentration of adverse early experiences among children than to school resources. Although school quality matters in terms of student supports that can be provided, schools cannot be held accountable for the skills, or lack thereof, children possess when they first enter a kindergarten classroom. This is a problem that must be addressed at the societal level.
A large body of evidence shows that many children who begin school unready to learn may never catch up. They are more likely than their peers to be retained in grade school, drop out before graduation, depend on welfare assistance, or even engage in criminal activity. This is particularly troubling for Oklahoma given that we exceed the nation in the prevalence of many school readiness risk factors.
Significant investments have been made across the country in quality early education and child care programs, which have been shown to counter the detrimental effects of adverse early experiences. Limited funding, however, makes it impossible to reach every child, and simply identifying areas of greatest risk is inadequate for effectively allocating scant resources. What must be known is where access to quality programs fails to meet the needs of children in high risk areas.
A recent report by the Oklahoma Department of Human Services (DHS) does just this. The Oklahoma School Readiness Reach-by-Risk Report 2014 shows that more than one-fourth of the state’s children under age 6 live in counties where the risk for starting school already behind exceeds the rest of the state, yet opportunities for quality early learning and child care are insufficient. Moreover, nearly one-third of the state’s 77 counties have high rates of children experiencing four or more risk factors for slowed development. This is of extreme concern as research shows exposure to multiple risk factors greatly increases the likelihood of developmental delays.
The report found that while enrollment rates in early education programs overall (pre-kindergarten, Head Start and Early Head Start) tend to increase with risk levels, this is not true for all counties. Moderately high risk counties have the lowest rates of enrollment in Early Head Start, which serves income-eligible infants to two-year-olds and is available in only about half the state.
Availability of highly rated child care is also insufficient, with providers with the top quality ratings able to care for just under half of children with working parents. For other child care indicators, such as proportion of providers that accept child care subsidies, the report shows no significant differences among counties of varying risk levels. In other words, higher risk counties have no greater access to quality care and subsidized enrollments than lower risk counties. Although findings show that across the state most subsidized care is provided in high-quality homes and centers, not all families who are eligible access child care subsidy benefits despite their availability.
Parenting education programs are another important resource for supporting children’s development. Studies repeatedly show that such programs, often in the form of home visitations, succeed in improving school readiness and reducing the likelihood of child maltreatment. Unfortunately, data restrictions prevent a clear picture of whether these efforts are reaching children most in need.
Analyzing the reach of early childhood programs in the context of risk for starting school unprepared to learn greatly informs policy and resource allocation decisions. Until the state adopts an integrated early childhood data system, whereby individual children can be tracked across various state agencies to identify the most salient risk factors and the most effective interventions, using data at the county level is an important step in identifying where to more efficiently invest scarce resources. DHS plans to publish annual updates to the risk and reach report, and the technical and logistical efforts undertaken to collect data across agencies and programs can greatly inform data integration goals. By regularly monitoring risk in the context of program reach, we are more likely to reduce the number of Oklahoma children left behind before they even start kindergarten.
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