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“Yesterday was cloudy. Today is sunny. Tomorrow will be…” Thoughts from the first Joint Subcommittee on VPI Reform

Posted:  -  By: Emily Griffey

A typical morning routine in a preschool classroom involves assessing current weather conditions through a review of the days of the week, grammar and syntax. “Yesterday was cloudy. Today is sunny….” The first meeting of the Joint Subcommittee on VPI Reform felt to me like a check on the current condition of VPI.

On Thursday, June 11th nine of the 10 legislators appointed to the Joint Subcommittee on VPI listened to a variety of presentations related to preschool in Virginia and had the chance to weigh in with their thoughts and questions (all but Sen Hanger, who was attending to other business. Despite his absence, both he and Del Landes were appointed co-chairs of the subcommittee). Presentations covered the 2007 JLARC study of VPI, eligibility practices in other states, longitudinal data from Virginia and the federal preschool development grant. More detail on the presentations and slides are available here. This meeting provided a great opportunity for legislators to analyze and discuss preschool in Virginia. Sen Stosch and the committee staff outlined the Subcommittee’s plans for another meeting in August, a Sept/Oct meeting for discussion of recommendations, and invited feedback from stakeholders outside of these full subcommittee meetings.

As for the detail of the meeting, the weather report on VPI, some points shared cast a cloud over VPI, but there were some rays of sunshine and certainly some bright spots. I’ll offer my thoughts on the information that was shared this week and hopes for other information in the future.

Cloudy moments

–        Lack of context– Committee staff and JLARC staff gave substantive presentations on changes in budget language and funding levels of VPI and relevant findings and updates from the 2007 JLARC study. The level of detail and history was helpful, but it did miss an opportunity to give more context around the philosophy behind the creation of VPI and the brain research and economic research supporting investments in early learning.

–        Longitudinal Data Study– It’s always an exciting opportunity to unpack the latest research findings on Virginia’s efforts. However, after the presentation on the analysis of Virginia’s longitudinal data system, I found myself in a familiar place upon hearing the results of analytic, non-experimental research. A place where cloudy data, complicated methodology and small effect sizes paint a confusing picture of the impact of VPI and raise further questions. The VA University Research Consortium on Early Childhood (4-Virginia Consortium) found that participation in VPI did appear to have an impact on on-time promotion through 8th grade but did not have a significant effect on SOL scores at that point. While it is concerning to hear a mixed outcome, we have also heard examples and evidence from the front lines, teachers and administrators, that point to the positive impact VPI has on their students. We should maintain an analytic focus on the impact of our efforts on children’s outcomes, but also understand the challenges that can exist when using two tricky research variables, standardized testing and children.

–        Research related to teacher preparation and practice– There was also some cloudiness and confusion about research on impact of preschool teachers’ degree levels and competencies. Currently our state policy ties the use of education funds only to licensed teachers. This hampers expansion in private settings and clouds the picture of what preparation is needed to teach preschool- a general college degree or specialized instruction in early learning techniques. It also places emphasis on pre-service foundation for a teacher rather than on-going mentoring or coaching, best practices in professional development.

Rays of sunlight

Despite cloudy conditions at times, there were a couple bright rays of sunlight pointing to opportunities for further clarity and consensus around VPI.

–        Need to provide additional technical assistance, oversight and monitoring capacity at state level– Although the 2007 JLARC study recommended ramping up VDOE’s capacity to provide technical assistance and oversight to localities on VPI, our state has actually moved the opposite direction cutting staff support to provide even period site visits to local programs. The need for additional capacity for monitoring and TA was highlighted on multiple fronts- as NIEER quality standard Virginia is lacking, a missed opportunity for consistency in eligibility criteria and a necessary component to improve classroom quality and promote mixed delivery. I hope the Governor and legislators will consider how to ramp up meaningful technical assistance capacity as a “no brainer”.

–        Research on pre-k eligibility policies– Despite much controversy around the factors used in VPI eligibility, the discussion of what other states were doing for their preschool eligibility criteria was actually quite straight forward. Dr. Lori Conners-Tadros of CEELO (and resident of Alexandria) shared her scan of eligibility criteria that most often provided some consistency with local flexibility. In line with national research on the effects of participation in a mixed-income classroom setting on at-risk student performance, several other states had set eligibility criteria that prioritized enrollment of the lowest income children, but set aside slots or tiered access based on other family risk factors such as parents’ education level, English language learner status and other potential hardships.

Hot topics that were not addressed

There were a couple of issues NOT discussed at this meeting that I think would have turned the temperature up on this discussion. If addressed I think they could have stirred some heated debate as well as pointed out ways that Virginia could change policy to ensure that VPI is more effective and targeted.

–        Collaboration with other preschool programs– In practice at the local level many VPI programs collaborate with Head Start, Title I, Special Education or other education programs. These collaborations take place through a variety of models at the local level with some examples of strong partnerships and outcomes and other examples tinged with competition and frustration. Virginia should consider options to encourage strong partnerships to ensure better access to preschool and quality and consistency across programs. Examples of best practices should be shared and this committee could weigh in on how the state can promote collaboration.

–        Aligning similar interests and resources among state agencies– Similarly to the idea the VPI does not act as an island at the local level, it is not a stand alone effort at the state level either. Discussions of VPI policy should also bring into context the role of access to quality child care programs, especially for the low-income working parents that also qualify for child care assistance. Aligning our state investments to ensure access and promote quality improvements should be a key interest of this subcommittee.

Will tomorrow be a sunny day?

I’m attempting a weather analogy here, but I am no meteorologist! Without that background, I would offer that there is always a chance of sun. There are a few opportunities for the Jt Subcommittee to consider that could make that more likely.

–        Review models from other states and Virginia of supporting mixed delivery and collaboration– There are at least 10 localities in Virginia that currently use private providers for VPI programs and many, many more that blend programs and encourage collaboration. I hope legislators will seek some examples of what is working at the local level.

–        Seek the perspective of local administrators and decision makers on VPI- Much of VPI policy and practice is determined at the local level. School board members, superintendants and other local decision makers could offer a broader perspective on the challenges they face and their ideas to improve VPI.

–        Updates from the Commonwealth Council on Childhood Success– The VPI Work Group of the Commonwealth Council wrestled with many of the issues legislators are considering and made some consensus recommendations for the Governor and Lt. Governor to consider.

Other opportunities

–        Sen Howell mentioned that she serves on the Southern Regional Education Board which is making some recommendations around improving preschool in Southern states that she would like shared with the Jt. Subcommittee.

–        Sen Stosch suggested that the committee, would be open to receiving feedback from other groups. Voices and the EC Policy Network can be helpful in coordinating feedback and highlighting key points.

–        There is a strong history of support for VPI from both the grasstops and the grassroots. There must be a wide variety of supporters testifying to the benefits of VPI.

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