Early Education for All Still a Work in Progress
The following article was published in the July 2011 issue of OCD's newsletter Developments. To download a PDF of the issue, click here.

Significant progress has been made across Pennsylvania over the past 10 years to create an infrastructure to prepare young children to enter school ready to learn and succeed. Incentives for childcare providers to improve the quality of their programs, higher childcare standards, and an increase in early education funding are among the steps taken to improve Pennsylvania’s once dismal standing as one of the least supportive states in terms of preschool education.

A recent state report suggests, however, that more work needs to be done to address gaps in reaching children who could benefit the most from quality early education opportunities.

About 35 percent of Pennsylvania’s 737,202 children under the age of 5 years participate in state-funded programs that promote quality early education, such as Keystone STARS, Head Start, Early Intervention, and Pre-K Counts programs, according to the 2009-2010 Reach and Risk Report by the state Office of Child Development and Early Learning (OCDEL).

At the same time, more than half of the young children in the state experience at least one of the factors the state identifies as putting them at risk of failing in school, such as low birth weight, low maternal education, and living in an economically low-resource family.

In Allegheny County, where nearly 54 percent of children experience at least one risk factor for school failure, more than 39 percent are enrolled in state-supported quality early education programs.

The annual report is intended to help identify communities at risk, determine how many children are being reached with quality early learning programs that can help lessen the risk of school failure, and better inform the allocation of resources.

As part of the report, each Pennsylvania county was assigned a numerical risk level based on 10 family and educational risk indicators. Based on the methodology, each county was ranked in one of four categories. The most positive ranking is that of a "low risk" county in terms of school failure. The report also ranks counties as “moderate-low risk,” “moderate-high risk” and “high risk” of school failure.

Those rankings suggest the seven-county Pittsburgh metropolitan statistical area (MSA) fares well when compared with the rest of the state. In five counties, the report considers children to be at low risk or moderate-low risk of school failure, including those in Allegheny County, the region’s most densely populated.

Decade of Progress

Pennsylvania has made significant progress in recognizing the critical role early education plays in children’s school success and in creating an infrastructure for quality early learning opportunities, including higher standards for child care providers and others. Only 10 years earlier, for example, Pennsylvania was among the worst states in terms of support for pre-kindergarten education. Today, more state funds are allocated for early education and in Western Pennsylvania early learning initiatives are also attracting strong private sector support.

Developments over the past two decades underscore the importance of providing children with quality early education opportunities. Advances in brain research, for example, reveal that much of the brain’s development occurs very early in a child’s life and that stimulation early in life and supportive relationships greatly influence that development. At the same time, more families began enrolling young children in childcare and preschool as family economics and welfare-to-work reforms led more mothers to seek employment.

Quality early education emerged as one of the most important ways to help children reach their potential and succeed in school. Such opportunities are especially important for children who face conditions that make them at risk of doing poorly in the classroom.

Children At Risk

In its report, OCDEL measures factors in each county that tend to put a child at risk of failing in school.

The most pervasive risk factor is being raised in an economically low-resource family. This indicator includes children under age 5 living in families with incomes below the federal poverty level as well as children of families with incomes up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level. OCDEL included the higher income bracket in response to research that suggests many families with incomes up to 300 percent of federal poverty level cannot afford quality early education and their children tend to be at risk of school failure.

Other risk factors considered in the report include low birth weight, a mother not receiving adequate prenatal care, poor student performance in the school the child attends, low maternal educational attainment, and so-called “toxic stress” factors, such as exposure to violence, and physical and emotional abuse and neglect.

In the Pittsburgh MSA, Butler County was the only county given the most positive ranking of “low risk” during the 2009-2010 fiscal year. About 39 percent of children in Butler County under age 5 live in households with an annual income of up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level—a much smaller share than the 58 percent of children living in similar households statewide. Also in Butler County, 14.7 percent of children were born to mothers who did not receive early prenatal care compared to 20.4 percent statewide and 7 percent of mothers have less than a high school education compared to the statewide average of 16 percent.

In Fayette County, the only county in the Pittsburgh MSA to receive the least positive ranking of “high risk,” 76 percent of children live in households with incomes up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level and 20 percent of mothers of children under age 5 have less than a high school education. Both indicators are well above statewide averages. Also, nearly 29 percent of third graders scored below proficient in the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment reading test compared to the statewide average of 22 percent.

Reach of Programs

Programs that show promise in lessening such risks have gained support in Pennsylvania, which only a decade earlier was among the states that provided little funding for preschool and other early learning opportunities.

One example of progress is Keystone STARS. The initiative seeks to raise the quality of childcare in neighborhoods across the state by offering providers training and other assistance to improve their ability to promote early learning and by giving them financial incentives to do so. It has become so popular among providers that there is often a waiting list for the training and other support?that is offered free of charge.

“There’s been tremendous improvement in early education,” said Laurie Mulvey, director of the University of Pittsburgh Office of Child Development Division of Service Demonstrations. “We have a system that supports programs to become better and programs want to do better.”

In fact, Keystone STARS was?the state-funded early childhood?initiative that reached the greatest?number of young children. Some?4,420 childcare providers across?all 67 Pennsylvania counties were?in the Keystone STARS system as?of June 2010. They reached an estimated 109,554 children under age 5—more than 15 percent of the children under age 5 in the state. About 4 percent of children statewide were enrolled in STAR 3 and STAR 4 sites that achieved the highest quality levels.

Second in terms of reach was Early Intervention, which served 9 percent of children under age 5 in the state. Early Intervention serves children from birth to age 5 with disabilities/developmental delays to help promote development and enable them to succeed in any early education setting. Head Start state and federal programs reached 35,558 children across all 67 counties or about 5 percent of the children under age 5 in Pennsylvania. Head Start offers free, comprehensive early learning services to children and families most at risk of academic failure.

Several other state-supported programs promote early learning. Pennsylvania Pre-K Counts, for example, offers high-quality pre-kindergarten opportunities to 3 and 4 year-old children at risk of school failure due to low income, language or special needs. In fiscal 2009-2010, the program reached nearly 12,000 children in 62 counties, about 4 percent of the state’s population of children under 5 years of age.

For the first time, OCDEL reported preschool child outcomes for a sample of children in three programs: Pre-K Counts, Head Start Supplemental Assistance Program, and Keystone STARS levels 3 and 4. At three points during the year, assessments were taken of children’s skills, knowledge, behavior, and accomplishments in seven domains, including language and literacy, mathematical thinking, scientific thinking, and personal and social development. Significant increases in the percentage of children who were assessed as proficient were reported in all domains, across all of the programs.


In the past decade, the state and region have made considerable progress toward creating an infrastructure of programs, standards and evaluation on which to further build a network of support for quality early childhood education. The recent OCDEL report suggests that much work remains to be done to extend the reach of that network to include a greater number of the children who can most benefit from early learning opportunities.

Maintaining a robust, high-quality network of early education services itself is an ongoing challenge. Take, for example, Keystone STARS, which in only a few years has emerged as the early education program that reaches the most young children in the state. “It’s a constant struggle to keep quality standards, accountability, monitoring, training, and technical assistance in place,” said Mulvey. “It’s not a one-time-fix. You’re never done. You’ll still have turnover in teachers. There are always new providers. There is always room for growth.”

Another challenge is funding. In early 2011, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett’s 2001-2012 budget proposal included cuts that would eliminate the state’s Accountability Block Grant that many school districts rely on, at least in part, to fund their kindergarten programs. In May, budget talks in the state General Assembly were continuing, leaving the fate of the block grant program unclear.

Building on the gains children make in an improved early education system is yet another challenge. Outcome data for a select number of early education programs in Pennsylvania suggest they hold the potential to help young children make considerable gains in the skills and knowledge they will need to succeed in school. But preparing young children to enter school ready to learn does not guarantee their long-term success. That is influenced by several factors, not the least of which is the quality of education they receive once they enter school. “The probability is greater today that a kindergarten teacher will get a child who is ready for school,” says Raymond Firth, director of the Division of Policy Initiatives at University of Pittsburgh’s Office of Child Development. “But if they then go into a school that is not that good, they are going to slip backward.”