Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children
Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children

“What does it take to get preschool right?” NPR asks in this article.

Answers can be found in a new report from The Learning Policy Institute (LPI) called, “The Road to High-Quality Early Learning: Lessons from the States.”

The institute “conducts and communicates independent, high-quality research to improve education policy and practice.”

“Although many studies show that high-quality preschool returns $7 to $10 for every dollar invested, the research shows that it is not so easy to create high-quality preschool at scale, and not all programs reap these benefits,” Linda Darling-Hammond, president and CEO of the LPI says in a press release. “This study looks deeply at how governments can design and implement programs that pay off for their children and their state.”

NPR says the report “helps balance the preschool debate by highlighting a handful of states that appear to be getting pre-K right: Michigan, West Virginia, Washington and North Carolina.”

“Despite their differences, these states share a common commitment to advancing foundational elements of a quality preschool education,” a research brief explains.

The report’s findings are based on “in-depth interviews (between 30 and 46 in each state) with stakeholders at both the state and local levels, including legislators, governors and their staffs, state program administrators, researchers, local program administrators, teachers, parents, early education advocates, business leaders, philanthropists, and journalists.”

In each state, researchers looked at how programs were designed and which children they reached as well as at political leadership, use of quality rating systems, funding, next steps that the states plan to take, and key lessons.

Summing up some observations, the report notes:

“Michigan has maintained bipartisan support for the expansion of high-quality prekindergarten that is targeted for poor children.” The state has also “restructured program administration… and made program improvement strategies routine.”

NPR adds:

– Michigan’s class size is capped at 18

– 80 percent of children attend full-day programs

– teacher/child ratios must be 1:8 or better

– lead teachers must have “a state teaching certificate with an early childhood education or early childhood-general and special education endorsement; or a bachelor’s in early childhood education or child development with a specialization in preschool teaching,” and

– early childhood specialists “with an M.A. and five or more years of relevant experience” visit classrooms and coach teachers

“West Virginia has, over the course of a decade and with backing from both parties, made preschool available to all 4-year-olds, paying for the program with general school aid dollars. It offers communities considerable autonomy in program design and evaluation, and requires collaboration across private providers, schools, and Head Start.”

In addition, NPR says:

– class size is capped at 20

– 93 percent of classrooms are full-day

– teacher-child ratios must be 1-to-10 or better

– “all lead teachers must have either: a state teaching license with early education or preschool special needs endorsement; a professional teaching certificate with early childhood, preschool education, or preschool special needs endorsement; or a bachelor’s in child development, early childhood, or occupational development with early childhood emphasis,” and

– teachers are required to meet with parents in person twice a year

Washington has focused “on the state’s most vulnerable children, adopting the Head Start model of providing them with extensive wraparound services by enlisting doctors, nurses, and social workers who provide health care and social services.” In addition, recent bipartisan legislation “expands access to good early learning—it blurs the difference between home-based child care and the highly rated preschool program, relying on intensive coaching and rigorous quality standards to bolster child care.”

NPR says:

– class size is capped at 20

– 81 percent of programs are part-day

-teacher-child ratios must be 1-to-10 or better

– all lead teachers “must have either: a state teaching certificate with an endorsement in early education; a teaching degree; or an associate degree with 30 credits in early education”

– classes are required to have a coach, and “coaches and teachers are encouraged to meet once a week,” and

– children receive extensive wraparound services, “including health, dental and vision screenings as well as health care referrals”

And in North Carolina, “early education efforts initially focused on infants and toddlers, later adding pre-kindergarten. Now it offers a ‘one-stop shop’ at the local level,” featuring “an array of birth-to-5 services for families. The state pioneered the development of a quality rating system” and teachers can “build their skills through training and salary supplements.”

NPR adds:

– class size is capped at 18

– 100 percent of children attend full-day programs

– teacher-child ratios must be 1-to-9 or better

– lead teachers “must have either: a bachelor’s in early childhood education, child development or a related field, as well as a birth-through-kindergarten teaching license or a preschool add-on teaching license”

– teachers are provided with rigorous coaching, and

– all children receive health assessments when they begin their programs

Understanding the variety of approaches is essential, because, as the report says, “there is no single roadmap to excellence, the experiences of these states provide important insights into how best to leverage resources and develop the policies and practices to improve and expand early learning opportunities.”

These insights are:

– prioritize quality and continuous improvement

– invest in training and coaching

– coordinate the administration of birth-through-grade-3 programs

– strategically combine multiple funding sources to increase access and improve quality, and

– create broad-based coalitions and support

“Delivering top-quality early education is a complex undertaking,” the report says, “and none of these states is ready to declare, ‘Mission accomplished!’ It will take time and effort—as well as public investment—before the goal of delivering seamless, high-quality support for young children can be fully realized. But these four states are heading in that direction, and their experiences and lessons provide valuable guideposts for policymakers nationwide committed to providing high-quality preschool for all.”