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Many Preschoolers Shut Out of High Quality Programs


November 1, 2006

The importance of young children entering kindergarten prepared to learn is not lost on most parents, and armed with that knowledge, more and more parents diligently search for high quality preschool education programs for their 3- and 4-year-olds. Yet the quality of the vast majority of preschool programs is mediocre at best, with many rated as poor, according to a national research report, released today.

The report pointed out that effective preschool programs found to produce large educational gains for children incorporate highly qualified teachers, small classes and adequate teacher-child radios. Thus, among the first questions parents should ask:

1. What are the education requirements for the teachers?
2. What is the teacher-child ratio?
3. What are the maximum class sizes?

“Minimum requirements for a high quality preschool program should include teachers with a bachelor’s degree and specialized training in early childhood education, class sizes no larger than 20, and staff-child ratios no larger than 1 to 10,” said Steve Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), which released the report.

“The knowledge and skill required to be an effective preschool teacher have increased as science has revealed more about the capacities of young children and how they learn best,” said Barnett. “Research shows that teachers with bachelor degrees have more positive interactions with children, provide richer language experiences and are less authoritarian, punitive and detached.”

The report, Increasing the Effectiveness of Preschool Programs by Debra J. Ackerman and Barnett, points out that attendance in some kind of preschool classroom is now the norm for 4-year-olds in many parts of the country, driven in large part by parents’ desire for enriched programs for their children.

“High quality preschool education has been proven to help children enjoy greater success in reading and math, experience less grade retention or placement in special education and higher high school graduation rates,” said Ackerman. “However, the current mix of preschools is far from uniform, leaving many parents frustrated in their search for a top-quality education for their children.”

The variability of current programs creates confusion about what exactly constitutes program effectiveness. The report identifies features common to successful programs that substantively contribute to children’s learning and development.

The report reviews the findings from a range of programs found to be highly effective. These include programs subject to long-term studies that found significant economic benefits far exceeding their costs and large impacts on children’s outcomes — the small-scale Carolina Abecedarian program and the Perry Preschool project, and the large-scale Child Parent Center Program, which operated in several Chicago neighborhoods.

Each program hired qualified teachers and paid them at public school levels, and employed smaller classes and teacher-child ratios of 1 to 8.5 or less, enabling teachers to intensively individualize their interactions with the children.

In addition, evaluations conducted of five state-funded preschool programs in Michigan, New Jersey, Oklahoma, South Carolina and West Virginia found that children who were enrolled in these programs experienced more growth in their vocabulary development and print awareness than those who were not enrolled. In the four states where early math skills were tested, program participants experienced more growth in those skills as well. Additional studies in New Jersey and Oklahoma further confirm these findings.

“Unfortunately these programs are not typical of all preschool programs,” said Ackerman. “Studies of other programs – both state funded and not – find more modest results.” Developing and sustaining highly effective preschool programs poses challenges even under the best of conditions, said Ackerman. Unfortunately, many preschool programs operate under less than optimal conditions, beginning with inadequate funding levels and inadequate standards for teacher qualifications, class size, supervision and support of effective teaching practices.

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The National Institute for Early Education Research (www.nieer.org), a unit of the Graduate School of Education, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, supports early childhood education policy by providing objective, nonpartisan information based on research. NIEER is supported through grants from The Pew Charitable Trusts and others.