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Preschool Matters Today

Grading State Pre-K on the Curve: Is the Best Good Enough?


September 14, 2016
Quality and CurriculumState & Local
by Jim Squires

Each spring when NIEER releases The State of Preschool Yearbook there is a rush to compare one state to another. States ranking high in access, resources and quality are pleased while others are disappointed their preschool efforts fall short. This is especially true when states look at the number of benchmarks for minimum acceptable quality standards attained; only 7 programs achieved all 10 benchmarks in 2015. If this is as far as policymakers, administrators, and the public examine the annual preschool report, however, they are missing a bigger picture.

The annual report contains a wealth of information–and many hidden stories– particularly in the recently published Appendix A which offers state-by-state details on many important and interesting aspects of states’ preschool programs. New in this year’s report is a focus on supports for the preschool teacher workforce and Dual Language Learners. At a glance, this new resource reveals that across the 57 programs operating in 43 states and DC:

  • Access vs. participation: Twelve states offer pre-K in every county or district and another 12 have a presence in at least 90 percent of their jurisdictions. Yet few children (nationwide only 29% of 4-year-olds and 5% of 3-year-olds) are actually able to participate. Only 8 states serve more than half of their 4-year-olds and two states at least one quarter of 3-year-olds (DC and VT).
  • Dual Enrollment: Thirteen states were able to report the number of children dually enrolled in state pre-K and Head Start programs. And thirty states were able to report the number of children enrolled in state pre-K and receiving special education services.
  • Language: 32 states were unable to report the number of pre-K children served whose home language is other than English. Eleven states (CA, DC, IL, KY, ME, NM, OK, OR, WA, WV, WI) broke down the percent of children served by home languages, enabling more precise decisions for program improvement to be made.
  • Other Child Characteristics: For the first time, the Yearbook reported enrollment information by children’s race/ethnicity and eligibility for free and/or reduced price lunch, provide a more detailed picture about who attends state-funded pre-K. Twenty-three states were able to report the number of children enrolled by their race/ethnicity. Twenty-nine states were able to report the number of children enrolled by eligibility for free and/or reduced price lunch.
  • Duration: 13 states require that a minimum of 5 hours of pre-K be offered each day, roughly the equivalent of a full-day kindergarten. Twenty states require five days of pre-K to be provided each week with the majority of states allowing schedules to be determined on a local basis.
  • Quality: Every state has early learning standards for children in place, and 18 have revised them since they were first introduced. Five states were in the process of revising their standards in 2015.
  • Teacher qualifications: 28 states require a minimum BA for all lead teachers, regardless of the setting in which they teach. There are a multitude of early childhood education licenses and endorsements offered and accepted by states, with little uniformity across states for such.
  • Funding: Eleven states indicated that federal Title I funds were used for pre-K purposes, yet only KY, NE, NV, NC, SC, and WV were able to report actual amounts. Ten states operate multiple pre-K programs. Within many of these states, there are multiple disparities in policies, practices, and resources.

One surprising finding is that only 20 states look at impact and child outcomes for all state-funded pre-K programs and 19 states have no history of an objective, external evaluation ever being conducted. While I don’t doubt that many great, impactful things are happening for children, it’s imperative for our profession to have answers to the “So what?” question. So what if a state is best in the nation by current NIEER measures? Is it the best states are capable of doing for children without resorting to qualifiers such as “within our means,” “given how far we’ve progressed,” or “in comparison to other states?”

Every child walking through the pre-K door should benefit every day, and while steps for intentionally improving classroom practices and impact are occurring, each state should not have to look beyond its borders to prove its point. Yet, if we rely on grading the impact of our nation’s pre-K using other states as our benchmarks in lieu of what research demonstrates to be true characteristics of excellence, we risk lulling ourselves into complacency by grading ourselves “on the curve” where even the best may not be good enough.

Jim Squires is a Senior Research Fellow at the National Institute for Early Education Research. He conducts research on national and state early education policy and practices, focusing on prekindergarten through third grade, and provides technical assistance to state leaders through the Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes (#CEELOorg)