When It Comes to Making Preschool Work, Quality is Key

Published on
October 29, 2013

In my last post, I wrote about a new report that combed through a half-century of research on preschool and concluded that quality preschool programs give kids a whole array of lasting advantages.

But when NYU education professor Hirokazu Yoshikawa, one of the report’s lead authors, and his colleagues make claims about the benefits of early education, they almost always preface “preschool” with the modifier “high-quality.” The quality of the preschool program is absolutely critical to its success, they say.

So what then, according to the research, makes the difference between a “high-quality” preschool experience and a mediocre one?

See Also: New Report Distills Decades of Preschool Research

Talented, caring instructors who undergo ongoing professional development, for one. That means motivated teachers who are gifted at creating stimulating, warm, safe environments. They know how to gently draw kids out into extended conversations, and they know how to focus on specific skill sets, such as vocabulary or early math. Early child researchers often talk about the importance of the “serve and return” dynamic to young brain development – that’s the ongoing back-and-forth interaction between a child and an attentive, supportive adult.

Such interactions not only teach kids social skills and new words, they also can work against the baleful effects of toxic stress and poverty, according to Yoshikawa. “We know that extreme and severe adversity and stress can get under the skin and result in, if experienced chronically in early childhood, lifelong consequences for disease, for school success, for learning, and for productivity,” he said at a recent forum.

And it’s not just the kids’ budding brains that merit focus: Producing good teachers requires intense and ongoing professional development, with a mentor or coach meeting with a teacher – twice a month or more, the report recommends. But developing good, motivated teachers will also require better pay. According to Bureau of Labor statistics, median pay for a preschool teacher in 2010 was just under $26,000, compared to more than $51,000 for kindergarten and elementary teachers.

Many of the traits the report praises – gifted teachers, ongoing mentoring, better pay, child monitoring, small class sizes – are very much ideals, realized to an extent in a few places, such as Boston and Tulsa, but not widespread. As the report notes, most programs have a ways to go to meet their potential: “Importantly, in existing large-scale studies, only a minority of preschool programs are observed to provide excellent quality and levels of instructional support are especially low,” the authors’ write.

Preschool Improves Life Outcomes

Even if preschool is an investment that repays the original investment many times over in the form of more skilled workers, reduced crime and so forth, high-quality public programs require large investments up front. Funneling more tax dollars to public preschool inevitably leads critics to question the value of such programs. And this is one area where the research can get a little tricky.

One of the sticky points in the research on preschool and early education has to do with what researchers call “convergence.” That is, the tendency for test scores of students who attended preschool and those who didn’t to converge during the elementary school years. Preschoolers’ early academic edge tends to wane, at least as measured by standardized tests on basic subjects such as reading and math.

Why bother with preschool at all then? It increasingly appears as though preschool’s biggest gains come in the form of social, emotional and behavioral skills. According to the report’s authors, recent research shows that:

[E]ven when the difference in test scores declines to zero, children who have attended preschool go on to show positive effects on important adolescent and young adult outcomes, such as high school graduation, reduced teen pregnancy, years of education completed, earnings, and reduced crime.

It isn’t immediately clear why those non-academic gains in what might very broadly be called “life skills” persist well after preschool, even when some academic gains don’t, and standardized tests don’t do a very good job measuring these broader social and behavioral characteristics. It’s an area of inquiry that researchers are still puzzling out.

The Action Is at the State Level

Universal preschool and early-childhood education advocates are hoping the report helps kick-start state and federal policies aimed at expanding high-quality preschool programs. In April, President Obama’s new budget proposed a “Preschool for All” program that includes free preschool for 4-year-olds, new Early Head Start-Child Care grants and expanded home-visiting programs for low-income families. The plan proposes paying for the program with a new tobacco tax.

But that effort remains stalled in Congress. “Whether we’re going to see bills anytime soon, I think is probably unlikely,” Laura Bornfreund, senior policy analyst at the New American Foundation, said this month at a foundation panel discussion.

There are, however, far more encouraging signs at the state level, which some argue is a better incubator for academic experimentation anyway. Albert Wat, senior policy analyst for the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, points to significant early-education investments by governors in states such as Alabama, Minnesota, Michigan, and Colorado as particularly promising.

Connecticut and Oregon have made significant early-education reforms as well. Similarly, Hawaii’s governor Neil Abercrombie created an early learning office and has proposed expanding state-funded preschool programs. “The theme here is these are folks trying to promote more coordination within the birth-to-5 system, including pre-K,” Wat said during last week’s discussion.

While early-education proponents in Congress are mostly Democrats, a number of Republicans have taken leading roles at the state level.

One of the messages of last week’s report is that effective, large-scale public preschool programs shouldn’t be regarded as outliers or special cases. Deborah Phillips said decades of research convincingly shows that high-quality preschool programs for 4-year-olds produce real gains, even when operated at larger scales.

“This is evidence you can generalize from – true of the Boston program, true of the Tulsa program – to the country as a whole,” Phillips said during a panel discussion. “If states want to do this, it is feasible, it is practical.”

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