Author: Becky Chariton

A Living Wage for Early Childhood Educators

The COVID-19 pandemic reminded us that, in addition to building a foundation for our children’s futures, early care and education (ECE) programs provide foundational support to the economy. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation found that issues related to affordability and access to care led state economies to lose over $1 billion each year, even prior to the pandemic! They estimate a loss of $3.47 billion in RFA’s home state, Pennsylvania. When families miss work or delay returning to the workforce because they can’t find childcare, we all lose out.

Even though it is fundamental to our economy and a crucial investment in our children’s futures, ECE has been persistently underfunded and ECE educators have been denied a living wage. In a 2018 report, the Center for American Progress explained how funding and tuition is spent in ECE and why crucial early childhood educators are still paid so little. According to the Center for the Study of Childcare Employment and the Economic Policy Institute, early childhood teachers with a bachelor’s degree are paid 22% less than teachers in the K-8 system. In Pennsylvania, early childhood teachers are over 13 times more likely to be in poverty than K-8 teachers. (For more information about early childhood educator compensation and pay inequities, see the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment’s Early Childhood Workforce Index, and be sure to check out their clear policy recommendations.)

It is promising to see increased momentum around support for ECE and investments in children’s futures recently. The funds from the federal American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 have already helped and will continue to help save the sector. The proposed American Families Plan could expand access to high-quality preschool for three- and four-year-olds and make sure that families do not pay more than 7% of their income on early childhood education. The plan would also mandate that all employees in participating preschool programs will earn at least $15 per hour, and that their pay would be on par with kindergarten teachers with the same credentials.

As proposed, the American Families Plan would greatly increase the compensation of early childhood educators. In a recent evaluation, RFA collected perspectives from Philadelphia pre-K teachers about what would help support their continued work in the profession. We capture teacher’s views on the most essential areas of support in a set of illustrated findings, which highlight the importance of adequate pay for early childhood teacher retention. Denying ECE educators a living wage affects their well-being and the well-being of their families. Insufficient compensation also poses challenges for providing quality ECE and plays a role in the high turnover rate for early childhood educators.

Improving compensation for early childhood educators could support a healthy, stable workforce so that they can do the most important work: care for and shape the minds of our youngest children. The proposed $15 minimum wage for early childhood educators is an important first step. However, raising wages for all ECE workers will not necessarily address the current racial wage gaps. African American early educators earn $0.78 less per hour than White early educators on average. Policymakers must ensure that ECE workers are paid sufficiently and equitably.

Rachel Comly

Pennsylvania’s Voluntary Student Retention Due to COVID-19 Learning Disruptions

Author: Mary Eddins

Typically, decisions to retain a student, or have them repeat a grade, are grounded in a student’s academic progress, a developmental delay, or a lack of motivation. This school year, however, Pennsylvania has added a new reason—COVID-19 learning loss.

Governor Tom Wolf recently signed Act 66 of 2021 into law as an effort to make up for instructional time lost due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Act 66 permits students who were in enrolled in the 2020-21 school year to repeat their grade level or be retained, even if students met grade promotion requirements. The timeline to make this decision is short, however, as parents/guardians and students (if 18 or older) only have until Thursday, July 15th to elect to have their child or themselves repeat a grade level for the upcoming school year. 

A full FAQ about Act 66 can be found on the PDE’s website here, including a notification form that families can use and a description of the process.  Below are a few important details:

  • This law applies to students in a PA school district, school district, intermediate unit, career and technical education center, charter school, cyber charter school, regional charter school, nonpublic school, approved private schools, and chartered schools for the deaf and blind. 
  • Students with disabilities who turned age 21 during the 2020-21 school year, or between the end of the 2020-21 school year and the beginning of the 2021-22 school year, are permitted to attend a school entity during the 2021-22 school year and receive services as outlined on their most recent Individualized Education Program (IEP)./li>
  • Students can not repeat preschool.
  • PDE’s Bureau of Special Education recommends all decisions made for students with disabilities be made in conjunction with the IEP team and after a review of data. (Note the time constraints of informing schools by July 15th likely make this recommendation from the Bureau impractical for many families, an issue recently reported on by Keystone Crossroads).

To help families who may be wrestling with a decision about retention, this blog discusses similar initiatives in other states and provides a short review of research findings about the possible pros and cons of grade retention. 

1. Other state approaches to grade retention after the 2020-21 school year

PA’s law to expand student retention is not entirely unique, although it does appear to give the broadest flexibility for parents/guardians and students to opt into repeating last year’s grade level if they choose. States that recently reported taking or considering a similar approach include:

State Approach to Optional Retention
Florida Parents of public-school students in kindergarten through fifth grade were able to request that children be retained in their current grade levels for the 2021-2022 school year. Parents were asked to submit requests by June 30th but principals can still consider requests after deadline. School leadership is required to discuss request with parents and could decide to create a customized one-year education plan for students instead of retention.
Kentucky Senate Bill 128 was signed into law in March and created the Supplemental School Year Program. This program allows any K-12 student enrolled during the 2020-2021 school year to use the 2021-2022 school year as a supplemental year to retake or supplement courses the student already has taken, but is not intended to simply repeat or gain an additional year to take new courses. A key difference with Kentucky’s approach is that while students had until May 1 to submit a request to their local board of education, and the local board had until June 1 to decide whether to accept all or no requests. Some districts chose not to accept requests because of supplemental intervention already planned like Newport School District.
Ohio A measure was introduced in Ohio but only for 12th grade students to repeat the year if they choose.


In other related news, in the aftermath of COVID-19, 3rd grade reading retention laws have been at the center of the retention conversations across the U.S. For example, Florida and Mississippi, where state laws typically mandate retention of students who fail reading assessments, decided that students will not be held back this year and lawmakers in Michigan are still debating the same issue (Edweek). Other states, however, are continuing or planning to implement 3rd grade reading retention laws. For example, Alabama’s Governor just vetoed Senate Bill 94, which would have delayed the promotion portion of the Alabama Literacy Act for two years. The policy is now set to resume at the end of the 2021-22 school year or next spring. Tennessee moved quickly to pass a similar law for third-grade students in response to COVID-related learning interruptions, which will take effect in 2022-23 school year.


2. Research and Resources for Consideration

RFA conducted a quick scan of literature to determine what we know about retention to date. Retention has been a long-debated topic in the field and research is, not surprisingly, mixed and nuanced. For example, retention criteria and the services students who were retained received varied across studies; less research has been conducted for young learners, who may have had the greatest challenges adjusting to virtual and hybrid options amidst the pandemic. 

Even with the limitations, the findings from the research below may be helpful to those weighing potential pros/cons of retention as well as determining key questions to ask district leadership before submitting a request through Act 66.

Key findings from RFA’s scan of literature are as follows:

  • Most research raises concerns about retention:
    • Students who are retained are more likely to drop out of school eventually. 
    • 2012 review from the University of Denver’s Marscio Institute for Early Learning and Literacy found 18 out of 21 reports showed neutral or negative effects of retention. Some of the negative effectives cited for early retention include lower achievement, high school drop-out, and dramatically reduced college attendance. The review also found ”sufficient data to conclude that retention in the absence of well-funded, guaranteed, and high-dosage interventions is ineffective or harmful.”
    • Grade retention can lead to higher rates of student misbehavior in the short term.
    • 2018 study from RAND shows NYC grade retention policies had little influence on student misbehavior or absenteeism, but students who were retained averaged fewer credits in high school. This study also found that students retained in middle school were more likely to drop out near the end of high school than their promoted peers. However, retention in elementary school did not impact high school graduation or drop out rates, aligning with the finding from CEELO’s scan (linked below) that age matters.
    • Retention is costly. Retention means a retained student is in public school for an entire additional school year. The Brookings Institute calculated in 2012 that retaining 2.3% of public-school students in the U.S. cost more than $12 billion annually. That estimate excluded costs for additional remedial services and earnings forgone by retained students delayed entry into the workforce.
    • The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) cites evidence that students of color are at greater risk of being retained, regardless of school characteristics, and cautions that retaining students due to COVID-19 learning loss could “exacerbate existing inequities in academic achievement and educational opportunities” as students of color and students from low-income households were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.
  • Some research has shown promise, or, at least, circumstantial nuance regarding the impact of grade retention. 
    • In 2017, research out of Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education used administrative data to study the causal effect of third grade retention under Florida’s test-based promotion policy on student outcomes through high school. The study found students retained in third grade under Florida’s policy:
      1. Experienced “substantial short-term gains in both math and reading achievement.”
      2. Were less likely to be retained later in their educational journeys.
      3. Took fewer remedial courses in high school and improved their grade point averages.

      The research also found no negative impact on graduation.

    • 2015 fact sheet from the Center for Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes (CEELO) concluded age seems to matter as students retained in sixth grade are more likely to complete high school than students who are retained in eighth grade. And, retention has a positive short-term effect on achievement for third graders but not sixth graders. 
    • Research has shown that retention does not always have a negative impact on student social and emotional development. CEELO’s scanfound short term social and emotional effects on retained students were mixed, but in the long-term retained students scored lower on personal adjustment measures than promoted students. University of Denver’s factsheet reported two studies showing a modest benefit of retention on behavior, teacher- and peer-liking. The National Association of School Psychologists, however, strongly advocates against retention and citesresearch showing retained students experience lower self-esteem than promoted peers and that students consider retention a stressful life event.

    In general, studies about retention involved students who were struggling academically under relatively normal school circumstances. We were not able to find a study that examined outcomes for students retained due to a year of lost or reduced instruction, as the case may be for students who are electively retained under Act 66. 

    As families weigh possible retention for their students, it may help to consider the following questions:

    • What is my child’s or my school’s overall approach to supporting students in reviewing or revisiting concepts from the 2020-21 school year?
    • What interventions or supplemental programming will be offered to me or my child if they repeat their 2020-21 grade level? Will mental health supports be offered for students retained? How do these interventions and supplemental programs compare to those they would have access to if promoted to next grade level?
    • What alternatives exist for reviewing material from last school year at my or my child’s school?
    • What will be the impact be on my child’s school if many families elect for retention? Are there sufficient teachers and resources to adequately serve all the students choosing retention? Will students experience reduced educational opportunities in other areas due accommodations of high numbers of retained students?

Save the Date: ACER Virtual Town Hall #2

Identifying Allegheny County’s Students Experiencing Homelessness in the COVID Age

Come join Research for Action team members, local education stakeholders, and community members for coffee and conversation at the first Allegheny County Education Research (ACER) Project Town Hall.

Date: July 1st

Time: 1:00p

Location: Zoom

Pre-Registration Required



Our second town hall will highlight RFA’s recent data analysis on Allegheny County’s identification rates of students experiencing homelessness and feature school community members’ leading efforts to fully identify these students in the region.


Learn more about ACER and RFA at

A Common Definition, a Common Understanding

Losing a family’s housing or being kicked out of one’s home is a traumatic experience, and often follows other traumas such as domestic violence, loss of income, or a medical disaster. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, too many families are having to choose between paying the rent or mortgage and paying for hospital bills, Internet connectivity, and other basic necessities. For students experiencing homelessness, the difficulties presented by their housing status become serious barriers to enrolling in, attending, and succeeding in school. Research has shown that graduating from high school is the number one factor in whether an individual will experience homelessness in the future.

When students are identified by their schools as eligible for homeless assistance services, they are legally entitled to numerous school supports including transportation, credit recovery, and provision of supplies – which could be critical in supporting students to overcome barriers presented by their housing status and providing a road to graduation. Yet research has repeatedly shown that there is likely under-identification of students experiencing homelessness, including recent work from RFA focusing on Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, and Allegheny County. So why is it so difficult for schools to identify all students experiencing homelessness?

Part of the challenge comes from divergent definitions of homelessness at the federal level. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and its subsidiary programs consider individuals to be category 1 homeless (eligible for most services) only if they are sleeping in a shelter or place not meant for habitation. On the other hand, the U.S. and state Departments of Education, as well as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, follow a more broad definition considering children and youth to be homeless if they meet the HUD definition, as well as those staying temporarily in someone else’s residence due to a lack of housing and paying night-by-night to stay in a hotel or motel. Although repeated attempts have been made to align the HUD definition to the DOE and HHS definition, they have not been successful and divergent definitions remain.

Due to the transient and hidden nature of homelessness among those staying temporarily doubled-up or in a hotel, these groups are the hardest to identify. Families in these circumstances often have no social worker checking in and there is no database that might be used to cross-match with student records. And because of the different homeless definitions, families are often unaware that they may be eligible to receive additional school supports. These difficulties compound with the fact that families and youth may not want to self-identify as living in any homeless setting, for fear of stigmatization or penalization.

In the U.S. overall, over three-fourths of students identified as homeless were living in doubled up settings – and research shows that these students face mental health challenges, hunger, depression, and educational challenges far beyond the experiences of their housed peers, even those who are low income. Doubled-up living situations are often a precursor to additional bouts of homelessness in a shelter or an uninhabitable location, by which time students would have already experienced multiple transitions, extended absences from school, and possibly other traumas associated with living in temporary settings.

When communities resist the broader definition of homelessness, they exclude the majority of students experiencing homelessness, who are deeply in need of educational supports. A common homelessness definition is needed to achieve a common understanding of how to identify, support, and serve those students who are struggling with housing instability to succeed in school, graduate, and break the cycle of homelessness.


Anna Shaw-Amoah

The State of Higher Education Finance During the COVID-19 Pandemic

This past year COVID-19 has completely changed the way education looks. Funding and programming shifted, and states, students, and professors made major adjustments as a response. Some states were forced to make budget cuts, which impacted programs and policies students rely on. Others were able to maintain funding because of federal stimulus funds. What changes did states make to ensure underserved students & the institutions that serve them remained supported during the pandemic?

Our latest project with the Gates Foundation, State Responses to COVID-19 – Implications for Outcomes-Based Funding and Promise programs, examines how funding for Higher Education programs and policies, like Promise programs and Student Success Funding (SSF), changed due to the pandemic. Our researchers conducted a 50-state policy scan to determine how Promise programs and SSF policies shifted in response to COVID-19. Their findings are presented in these briefs:

Overall, most states adjusted to keep Promise programs intact, while about half of states with SSF suspended the use of the formula. A few key findings can be found below:

  • Though most Promise programs (15 out of 26) adjusted the details of their policy in response to COVID-19, all 26 statewide Promise programs remain intact.
  • Of the 15 Promise programs that made changes, we found 11 programs adjusted eligibility requirements, with many relaxing requirements to maintain access and others imposing additional eligibility requirements in response to budget cuts.
  • Within states with SSF models 13 out of 30 paused the formula or held institutions harmless.
  • Eight states increased the amount of money allocated through its SSF model in FY21, compared to FY20.
  • In contrast, Arkansas, Kentucky, and New Mexico decreased funding allocated through the SSF model in their respective states.

The effects of the pandemic on SSF and Promise programs has been varied. Building upon RFA’s prior research on outcomes-based funding and Promise programs RFA continues to monitor the effects of the pandemic on higher education funding and programming. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) provided relief to those in need and of the $2.2 trillion, $14 billion was given to the Office of Postsecondary Education as the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF). Thanks to adjustments made by states to policies and programs, and the relief funds provided by the Biden administration, Higher Education institutions have been able to continue supporting and protecting their students.


Kasey Meehan & Virginia Hunter

RFA’s Statement on the Death of Daunte Wright

Research for Action condemns the death of Daunte Wright at the hands of Minneapolis police.

This is yet another moment of injustice for communities of color and especially Black communities. We acknowledge the pain that these continued police-involved shootings cause and will continue to speak out against them.

RFA is dedicated to being an antiracist organization and will continue to find ways to use our work to create equity and opportunity for underserved students.