What does high-quality pre-K look like?
It depends on where you look, according to a new report from the think tank New America.
“Since publicly funded pre-K programs are guided by varying intents, regulations, and funding approaches, there is little continuity in early learning. There are uneven standards for program quality, variable hours of coverage, incongruent eligibility requirements, and competing demands for accountability.”
Despite this “uneven” practice, the research does provide clear answers of what quality looks like.
To get a sharp picture of quality, New America’s report — “Indispensable Policies & Practices for High-Quality Pre-K: Research & Pre-K Standards Review” — “synthesizes recent meta-analyses and other studies” and “analyzes existing pre-K quality standards.”
Six themes emerged from this process:
1 Curriculum, Instruction, & Assessment
Meeting the needs of young learners requires: “a complex cycle of curriculum, instruction, and assessment practices. Together, each of these elements contributes to creating a strong framework for fostering each child’s learning and development.”
“Learning gains for young children are realized when instruction promotes critical thinking and problem solving, and fosters engaging, learning focused and warm, responsive interaction.”
2 Family Engagement
“…an extensive body of research suggests that meaningful family engagement in early learning programs supports school readiness and later academic success.”
The goal is for programs to institutionalize family engagement policies and practices, because, as the report explains, “While some of the existing pre-K quality standards offer strong support for family engagement, others provide little to no guidance.”
The perilous mix of “Low funding levels and high costs put services that support learning and well-being out of reach for many families with young children.”
“No single federal, state, or local funding source alone is enough… Programs must maximize public and private sector investments by combining funds… Strategies such as “blending,” “braiding,” or “stacking” allow programs to integrate existing funding streams to broaden their impact.”
The most effective programs “negotiate regulatory differences among funding streams” and “create partnerships between funding agencies” to improve quality.
4 P–3 Alignment
What makes a high-quality preschool experience last? Ensuring that it’s aligned with K-to-3 learning goals.
“Alignment of efforts… creates the conditions for a seamless and effective pathway of learning for all children.”
Despite the importance of alignment, requirements for specific “P–3 alignment are relatively limited across existing pre-K quality standards.”
5 Program Improvement
“Ongoing program evaluation and quality rating and improvement systems (QRIS) are two processes that help programs reinforce quality standards and support continuous improvement.”
“As of 2015, about half of states and localities explicitly included indicators of continuous quality improvement activities in the QRIS rating process.” That leaves plenty of room for the other half of the states to improve.
6 Workforce Support
To do their work well, early educators need to have “specialized knowledge and skills, such as strategies for effective instruction and positive behavioral supports.”
“Research suggests that comprehensive preparation, training, and support for teachers is linked to high program quality and positive effects on child outcomes.”
And as pre-K programs expand, the workforce also needs well-trained leaders in all preschool settings, including elementary schools, child care centers, and Head Start programs. “Yet, support for leadership development through preparation programs, professional development, or public policy has not kept pace with the need.”
Here in Massachusetts, these six aspects of quality are embedded in a bill that Strategies for Children supports called, An Act Ensuring High-Quality Early Education.
As we’ve blogged, this bill “builds off of the state’s successful preschool pilot program known as PEG – the Preschool Expansion Grant,” a federally funded initiative that “has annually supported 850 4-year-olds so that they can attend high-quality preschool in Boston, Lawrence, Lowell, Springfield, and Holyoke.”
In addition to expanding pre-K access, the bill calls for developmentally appropriate instruction, family engagement, investing in the workforce, prioritizing access in school districts with larger percentages of high-needs students, and supplying adequate funding.
Improving quality is essential. As New America says, “If pre-K is to gain equal footing with other grades in public education, the early childhood field will have to come to a consensus on the key components fundamental to building high-quality pre-K.”