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Seattle’s publicly-funded preschool program struggling to meet some quality benchmarks

February 13, 2018
Ann Dornfeld

When former Seattle Mayor Ed Murray pitched his $81 million subsidized preschool program to voters in 2014, this was his promise: high-quality, affordable early learning that would help bridge the opportunity gap between rich and poor, black and white.

Three years into its four-year pilot, that publicly-funded preschool program is showing mixed results. Outside evaluations in 2016 and 2017 found that the Seattle Preschool Program offered warm, loving care for young children, but the program fared poorly on measures of teaching quality.

As part of the pilot, outside evaluators visited SPP classrooms to conduct regular assessments of teaching and learning.  Evaluators gave the 32 classrooms they visited in the 2016-17 school year an average emotional support score of 6.29 on a scale of one to seven. That domain looks at how welcome teachers make children feel in class, and how well teachers foster healthy relationships with and between children.

But in the instructional support domain — which measures things like how well teachers develop children’s problem-solving, critical thinking and complex language abilities — the average classroom scored just 3.06 on the seven-point scale.

The assessments were conducted using one common measure of preschool teaching quality, the Classroom Assessment Scoring System. Similar quality gaps were seen both years on another measure of teaching quality, the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale, Third Edition.

These disparities illustrate the difficulty of launching — and quickly expanding — high-quality, publicly-funded preschool programs, said early-childhood education researcher Suzanne Bouffard. She recently authored the book “The Most Important Year: Pre-Kindergarten and the Future of Our Children,” which examined how publicly-funded preschools have fared across the country.