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.
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
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).
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.
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.
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
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
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
Decade of Progress
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
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.
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.
report, OCDEL measures factors in each county that tend to put a child at risk
of failing in school.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”