SD Research Roundup: Preschool Segregation, part 1

A first at the School Diversity Notebook, I’m excited to feature one of my own projects in a research roundup. In October 2016, the Center for Education and Civil Rights (CECR) released a report on racial segregation trends in public preschool at the national and state levels. During my postdoc at CECR last year, we wrote an update to that report, based on the most recent available data. That report will be officially released on Thursday in the newsletter for the National Coalition on School Diversity

Coincidentally, our report is the fourth in just the last two months that addresses some aspect of racial segregation in preschool. And, the increased research attention comes amid increased public attention to preschool expansion, fueled largely by preschool access/expansion proposals from Presidential candidates and historic expansion efforts in places as politically different as New York City and Alabama. With so much attention lately, I had to split this roundup into two parts – this post briefly summarizes the research that came out earlier this fall, and part 2 dives into the important findings and recommendations from our report. 

Urban Institute: Segregated from the Start

As described in a previous post, the Urban Institute compared preschool segregation to K-12 segregation. In addition to the K-12 comparison, it’s different from ours in that it included preschool programs of all kinds, so: public programs as well as private and home-based programs. They use the “dissimilarity index” which captures the share of Black or Latinx students who would need to change schools in order to achieve perfect integration. Their main finding: 

  • “Early childhood education is more segregated than any other school level.” The dissimilarity index of early childhood education is 0.71, meaning that 71% of Black or Latinx students would need to change schools for the early childhood education system to become fully integrated.
  • This is compared to dissimilarity indices for elementary school (0.63), middle school (0.62) and high school (0.59) that are lower nonetheless still quite high on their own. 

They recommend increased attention to/regulation of unlisted home-based programs, which are the most segregated of any preschool context, with a dissimilarity index of 0.81.

The Century Foundation: Creating Integrated Early Childhood Education in New York City

Like most things in New York City, its early education system is a complex network of service providers with confusing barriers to entry. Notably, all four-year-olds in the city are eligible for free preschool under the Pre-K For All plan, and the city is expanding public options for three-year-olds with the goal of having a universal system in place across the city by 2021, known as 3-K For All. The Century Foundation report outlines the contours of this system and identifies challenges and opportunities for integration. A few key findings:

  • “Roughly 45% of children in pre-K and 72% of children in 3-K are enrolled in programs at public district or charter schools or pre-K centers run by DOE.” and “The other 55% of children in pre-K and 28% of children in 3-K are enrolled in programs run by community-based organizations.
  • As outlined here, “in half of the 1,000 community-based pre-K centers, 70% or more of students came from a single racial group. Racial imbalances were less stark at school-based centers, where only 32% of programs were racially uniform.”
  • See full results in the graph below, which counts the percentage of students in programs that are programs that have high levels of enrollment from the same racial group. Often, environments with 70% or more of children from the same background are considered “segregated” as drawn from social science research on inter-group contact.

The barrier identified in the report is also an opportunity when flipped on its head. In addition to students who attend public programs, many NYC 3- and 4-year-olds attend private preschools, and, at present, there is no easy way for a single provider to serve both private pay students and students on public programs. Instead, students are typically separated by the funding stream that got them to preschool. 

As a response, the report’s recommendations emphasize the importance of “blended” or “braided” funding models that allow early childhood education providers to seat private pay students alongside students who receive public support. This is especially important for community-based preschool sites- of 1,000 community-based early education providers, only 60 had contracts for both funding streams in the 2018-19 school year. Without direct policy support, individual providers have to navigate this complex system on their own in order to figure out how to make this work, as described in an op-ed written by the report’s lead author and one of the few early education providers that utilizes a braided model. 

Education Trust: Young Learners, Missed Opportunities 

In our report, we talk about preschool access, quality and integration as distinct, though closely related, aspects of preschool policy. A recent Ed Trust report similarly looks at the overlap of these three critical factors. In particular, their report provides a national scan of Black and Latinx students’ access to high quality state preschool programs. Since they focus on state programs, their report doesn’t include most Head Start programs (which federally funded). And, since many states don’t report racially disaggregated preschool data, only 26 were included in this study. Nonetheless, the headline finding is concerning:

  •  “Only 1% of Latino children and 4% of Black children in the 26 states we analyzed are enrolled in high-quality state preschool programs.”

To get these numbers, they calculated the “the percentage of Black or Latino 3- and 4-year-olds enrolled in a state preschool program” and then calculated the percentage that were enrolled in “high quality” programs, defined as meeting at least 9 of 10 quality benchmarks identified by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER). As outlined in this Ed Week article, 9 of 10 may seem like a high bar, but NIEER considers these benchmarks to be a minimum required for quality, not a ceiling of ideal performance. 

The authors offer a detailed list of recommendations, many of which fall under this overarching argument: 

  • “States should engage in meaningful dialogue with Black and Latino communities to identify current barriers to access and find solutions.”

Specific recommendations include: publishing data on racial equity in an easily-accessible format; expanding programs in historically underserved communities; making more efforts to reach out to Black and Latino families, both to inform them of their options, but also to get feedback on how to improve access; and, simplifying the enrollment process. 

In the interest of space, I left out the parts of these reports that talk about the importance of racial integration in preschool, including the research on its unique contributions to program quality. But, this is critically important for the public conversation, and I’ll have more space for this in part 2. As candidates for the presidency propose national-level preschool expansion and, more importantly, states and cities implement such programs, we should be encouraged but careful. As we describe in our (forthcoming) report: “If policy were to expand preschool access in the context of the current system, additional children will enter a segregated environment that robs early education of its fullest potential.”

One thought on “SD Research Roundup: Preschool Segregation, part 1

  1. Pingback: SD Research Roundup: Preschool Segregation, part 2 | School Diversity Notebook

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