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Preschool Matters Today

Cities are leading the way to innovation


March 3, 2017
W. Steven Barnett, Ph.D. and Ellen Frede, Ph.D.

High-quality early education is one of the best investments we can make with public dollars: an effective weapon against academic failure, high school dropout, crime and poverty and for a healthier, more academically, socially, and economically successful future. No wonder then, cities–with both high aspirations and stubborn problems–are taking up arms.

More than 50 years of research has demonstrated high-quality early education can benefit every child–advantaged or disadvantaged–though the largest benefits go to those facing the toughest challenges whether from poverty, the difficulty of mastering English when your parents speak another language, or atypical development. Children who attend high-quality pre-K are more likely to succeed in school and life in ways that lead to stronger communities.

Yet, access to high-quality early education remains very limited. Even many middle-income families can’t find or afford such an education before their children start kindergarten. That makes policies promoting access to high-quality, universal preschool a key element of any city’s overall strategy to promote current and future health.

A recently published report shows how the 40 largest US cities are doing on providing universal preschool, along with eight other key policies proven to improve lives. Funded by the de Beaumont Foundation, the CityHealth initiative for the first time provides an evidence-based analysis of how major cities are implementing policies helping communities thrive and residents lead healthier lives.

In CityHealth’s analysis, cities earned gold, silver, bronze, or no medal, based on the number and strength of policies in areas including preschool, affordable housing, complete streets, earned sick leave, alcohol sales, zoning and clean indoor air. New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Long Beach and Washington, D.C. were the only cities receiving gold medals for overall vigorous policies. Boston, New York, Baltimore, Charlotte, Nashville, Memphis, Oklahoma City and Washington, D.C. earned gold medals for access to universal preschool.

The benefits of high-quality preschool–for children, families, and society at large–only accrue if preschool education truly is high-quality. At its core, high quality is great teaching–teachers who understand the unique needs of each young child in their care and tailor their teaching to each individual child, day by day. Good preschool teachers don’t just focus on academics, but support each child’s physical, cognitive, social, emotional, and moral development in partnership with parents.

The foundation for this good teaching is a well-prepared teacher with a reasonably small class and strong supports in and out of the classroom including a continuous improvement system that ensures strong teaching practices. At the National Institute for Early Education Research, based at Rutgers University, we have established a list of ten benchmarks of pre-K quality standards used to assess the policies supporting quality in our annual State of Preschool Yearbook.  We applied these benchmarks to assess preschool programs for the CityHealth initiative. Our assessment also considered the percentage of all three- and four-year-olds enrolled, and pay equity between early childhood and K-12 education teachers. Children can’t benefit from preschool programs if they can’t get in, and even the most dedicated teachers won’t stay in the preschool classroom for long if they can’t make a living wage. Our analysis is based on data available about the city programs as of June 1, 2016.

In addition, high-quality pre-K programs require adequate funding and support by educational leadership. For cities, finding adequate funding is one of the most difficult challenges. While many city programs are creatively braiding funding from the state and federal levels, a select few have been able to create dedicated, sustained local funding for early education. The mechanisms used are as varied and creative as the far-flung cities that developed them. Cities from Boston to San Antonio to Seattle, among others, have found the will and a way to pay for high quality preschool, including dedicated sales and property taxes, social impact bond programs, family fees, and federal Title I dollars. New York City stands out among these for funding a high-quality, universal pre-K program and expanding it to scale in a dramatically short time. In Philadelphia, a recently passed “soda tax” will pay for expanding access to its pre-K program.

Each of these strategies requires political will from city leadership and the support of city residents. These forward-thinking communities know that investing in children is not just good for children and families but benefits everyone in their city both now from improving the labor market by helping parents support their young child’s learning while they work and, in the future, when former preschool attendees are themselves more productive. Other potential benefits in the mid-term include savings on schooling costs by reducing special education needs and grade repetition, along with rising property values as cities become more attractive to families with children.

Cities are leading the way to innovation in many important policy arenas related to healthy development. Let’s keep the momentum going.

Steven Barnett is Director of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University. His research includes studies of the economics of early care and education including costs and benefits, the long-term effects of preschool programs on children’s learning and development, and the distribution of educational opportunities.

Ellen Frede, a developmental psychologist specializing in early childhood education, has been a teacher, teacher educator, state pre-k policymaker and researcher. She currently focuses primarily on helping cities, states and national governments implement effective 0-8 systems with an emphasis on improving policy and practice for dual language learners.