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Preschool Matters Today

Keeping Pace in State PreK


October 3, 2017
Jim Squires, Ph.D.

As much as I loved my first car, a blue 1960 Nash Rambler station wagon, it became evident as newer, more efficient vehicles rolled off the assembly line, the once-innovative model had run its course. Initially reluctant to trade it in, I was pleasantly surprised when my newer Plymouth wagon allowed me to actually keep pace with traffic on the highway.

The NIEER State of Preschool yearbook can be viewed in much the same way.

As the Early Education Specialist for the Vermont Department of Education 15 years ago, I recall answering the first NIEER survey with pride and uncertainty. As I completed the lengthy paper survey (no online option at that time), I realized our state pre-K program had accomplished much, and the opportunity to be recognized nationally was appreciated and ultimately advantageous to building support for expanding the program through increased funding.

But responding to that survey also caused me to realize we lacked data or documentation for much happening in our state.

As the surveys continued, I sometimes was frustrated that I couldn’t automatically reply “same as prior year” and that I too often had to respond with “unknown.” Yet over time, we became more accountable on program details, and more adept at telling our story accurately–thanks to NIEER’s asking the right questions.

NIEER remains committed to asking the important questions, refining their “responsive survey” annually to keep pace with research and generate a realistic snapshot of state-funded preschool programs across the US. States already working on surveys for the next State of Preschool yearbook should find the process a bit less tedious as NIEER pre-populated as many responses as possible with previous year data. (So now respondents can automatically reply “same as prior year”!)

Survey responses provide the data used to assess how state policies compare to the NIEER’s 10 research-based quality standards. Last year, NIEER updated the quality standards benchmarks to reflect the latest early learning research on improving outcomes for children. NIEER published both the “current” and “new” sets of benchmark scores to acknowledge improvement over time while also providing guidance for enhancing programs. Next year, NIEER will again publish two sets of benchmarks, giving states the opportunity to update policies reflecting the new quality standards.

Before updating the quality standards benchmarks, NIEER worked for two years with members of the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education (NAECS-SDE) and national experts. The bar for quality was raised, and states acknowledged that the comprehensive, rigorous criteria were overdue and necessary to move programs in the right direction.

Increasingly state specialists and policymakers access the wealth of information available in the Yearbook, particularly Appendix A not to keep pace, but to move forward. When NIEER releases an interactive data functionality in a few months, users will possess new power to tailor data for research and reports specific to their state needs.

Credit for progress belongs to state early education leaders who have worked with NIEER throughout the entire process–survey refinement, re-defining quality, data collection and verification, and reporting–to make gains for children, families and communities possible. Embracing their professional responsibility despite the tediousness of completing surveys amid competing priorities, early education specialists are to be recognized and greatly appreciated for their unselfish commitment and contribution to advancing the ECE field.

Much like my nostalgic reflection of that old, sometimes faithful Nash Rambler, looking back at the first NIEER State of Preschool Yearbook shows just how far we’ve advanced as a profession for the benefit of children.

Dr. Squires, a senior research fellow at NIEER, conducts research on national early education policy and practices, focusing on prekindergarten through third grade with an emphasis on school readiness. His work at NIEER involves monitoring trends in early childhood policy, regulation, and funding across several target states; serving as a liaison to states to collect data for the annual State Preschool Yearbook; and providing technical assistance. He also serves on the leadership team for the Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes (CEELO).