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An evaluation of the Massachusetts Universal Pre-Kindergarten Pilot (UPK) Program carried out for the state's Department of Early Education and Care (EEC) has found that grant monies went to the program areas most likely to lead to meaningful differences for children — high-quality curricula, systematic assessment, and staff support through professional development and compensation. The vast majority of grantees reported quality improvements in all allowable expenditure categories, and in most cases reported "substantial improvement in quality." Overall, grantee attitudes about the Massachusetts UPK Program were extremely positive and responses indicate that the UPK pilot initiative is successful in its implementation and achievement of its initial goal of promoting high quality early childhood education.
In Fiscal Year 2007, the state budget included funding to pilot the UPK program with the goal of ensuring that all children in the state have access to quality preschool. All types of providers are included in the UPK program, including child care centers, Head Start centers, public school district programs, and family child care. EEC adopted the strategy of providing grants to eligible sites to spend in areas hypothesized to link to quality and, ultimately, to child outcomes.
EEC also funded this external evaluation of the implementation and early outcomes of its pilot grant program for UPK. The evaluation focused on three primary questions about the grants:
The sample for the evaluation are the grantees who received grants for the first two years of the Pilot Initiative — a total of 125 program sites including 81 child care centers, 5 public school district prekindergarten programs, and 39 family child care homes. The data came from telephone and in-person interviews with respondents at both the agency level and site level (teachers and family child care providers) who received funds.
Grantees were given guidance on areas in which to use their grant funds, but funds were released late in the first year, giving grantees only two months to spend their awards. As a result, in the first year the largest proportion (46 percent) was used where funds could be expended quickly, specifically educational materials and resources such as books, mathematics materials, and gross motor equipment. The other area where a substantial proportion of funds were spent was staff compensation (24 percent). Given more time to plan for the second year grantees allocated their funds differently. Expenditures for materials and curricula dropped to 28 percent, while those for staff increased, including both staff compensation (31 percent) and professional development activities (16 percent).
The center-based programs and the family child care providers allocated their grant funds somewhat differently — in the second year, half of the center-based programs allocated grant funds to staff and just over a quarter were used to buy materials or curricula. For the family child care homes, 40 percent of grant funds were used for materials and curricula and 40 percent for staff expenditures. Notable was the spending by public school programs on extending the classroom day. This was not an area of expenditure for child care centers and family child care homes, which typically provide full-day care. Also, only the public school programs spent more than 10 percent of their grants to purchase assessments.
The majority of grantees reported improvements in the quality of their programs in the areas where funds were allocated. The one exception was staff expenditures, where grantees reported some improvement in their ability to hire or compensate staff adequately but also felt that their programs were not able to finance their staffing needs sufficiently. When asked how they would spend additional funds if they were to become available most grantees indicated they would invest in staff. Staff compensation was identified as the area of greatest need by 50 percent of family child care providers, 60 percent of public school programs, and 70 percent of child care centers. Professional development was also cited as an area of need for 48 percent of child care centers and 60 percent of family child care providers, although not for public school programs. In general, family child care providers identified more areas of need, including comprehensive services (possibly because homes are serving a high proportion of at-risk children) and material resources.
The evaluation also highlighted aspects of the UPK program that merit additional consideration, including raising parent awareness of UPK and its benefits, potential shifts in the targeting of funds, addressing widespread concern about staff compensation, training around child assessment and use of curricula, and developing strategies for raising quality in specific types of early childhood care settings, including those not ready to participate in UPK programs.
Massachusetts Universal Pre-Kindergarten (UPK) Pilot Program: FY08 Evaluation
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