Purdue Efforts To Improve PreK Offerings On Military Bases Could Have Universal Applications

Apr 24, 2015

Credit SPL / https://www.flickr.com/photos/skokiepl/

More than 500,000 children ages five and younger have parents on active military duty for the United States.

The Department of Defense wants to make sure they have access to quality early childhood education.

Purdue is helping the DoD identify any gaps in services and develop a universal curriculum for all of its preschool programs.

The Department of Defense maintains the largest employer-sponsored child care system in the world.

Purdue’s Department of Human Development and Family Studies, which is home to the Military Family Research Institute, has been charged with two projects to help improve early childhood education in these facilities.

Professor Douglas Powell is leading a five-year project to develop a universal curriculum for all DoD preschool programs.

“The Department of Defense wants a curriculum that is implemented in all settings, in all installations," says Powell. "So when children move they’re not experiencing a totally new set of expectations and there’s greater continuity in their school experiences.”

Powell says Purdue faculty, along with partners in other institutions, are visiting DoD child care centers throughout the country and interviewing military and civilian experts in early childhood education and care and military culture. Powell says the curriculum also pays particular attention to children’s social and emotional development.

“Research now shows us that your ability to regulate your feelings, your actions, your thoughts, your reactions to things, that that’s very predictive of long-term success," says Powell. "You can look at preschool self-regulation and predict college completion.”

Powell says the DoD would like the curriculum to be available to any interested early childhood program. It’ll be distributed free of charge through the Virtual Lab School, a web site at Ohio State University that DoD sponsors. And if it works for DoD schools, the curriculum might also work for traditional public schools.

Ashlyn Nelson studies education policy at Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs. She says while other attempts at standardized curriculums, such as the Common Core, have met resistance, that doesn’t mean it’s not possible. She says the main reason the United States hasn’t had a national curriculum is that K-12 education is considered the domain of the states. And she says the Common Core quickly became politicized.

“I think the institutional situation you have with the military is in sharp contrast to that," says Nelson. "People in the military are very familiar with hierarchical decision-making and they view themselves as almost like a separate sector in some ways. And I think many families would appreciate the fact that if they moved to a different part of the country that their kid could just pick up right where they let off and not have any gaps in the curriculum.”

Nelson says the city of Boston has implemented an evidence-based curriculum in all of its public preschools that appears to be successful – but at significant cost.

“Every kid who’s in a public preschool in all of Boston is doing the same thing on the same day regardless of what classroom they’re in," says Nelson. "It’s a very expensive program to put in place. I think it costs about $19,000 per kid to implement. The teachers are highly trained and highly educated. They make $90,000 per year. That probably wouldn’t be the case on a base.”

And implementing such a program could prove even more difficult at the roughly 50 overseas U.S. military bases.

Purdue Human Development and Family Studies professor James Elicker says while the Department of Defense provides half-day preschool for all 4-year-olds on domestic military installations at little or no cost, the same is not true for facilities abroad.

He says the availability of early childhood opportunities on overseas bases is much more limited, and families must pay for those programs.

Elicker says the DoD has been able to take advantage of the publicly-funded preschool programs now offered by many states in the United States, but there hasn’t been a comparable expansion of those services for kids who live on bases overseas.

“Military families really have a lot of stressors to deal with and kids are affected by those stressors," says Elicker. "Moving a lot is one, having a parent who is deployed for long periods of time is another. So it’s especially important to have really high quality, supportive early childhood programs to support those kids and families.”

Elicker says the DoD sees this as a gap in service and is turning to Purdue to develop a roadmap to identify deficiencies and recommend how to fix them.

“Their purpose in awarding this grant to Purdue was to have us have some expert input on just what’s needed," says Elicker. "How much additional preschool would be needed in order to serve all of those 4-year-olds that are on those bases, and what would be the important quality factors to consider, and what would it cost?”

Elicker says the one-year project is just getting underway -- and the only thing his team knows for sure is that there aren’t enough preschool programs available.

He says his team plans to visit sites and conduct about 125 interviews with education leaders at overseas bases, including school administrators and staff working at child development centers there.