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Overview

NIEER’s assessment of state capacity to provide effective preschool education on a large scale relies on “15 essential elements” of high-quality pre-K identified by Jim Minervino based on a research review and case studies. The Essential Elements are based on research into four large, public pre-k programs that each showed positive outcomes.

Minervino concluded that all of these elements must be present to a considerable extent for high-quality pre-K to be implemented at scale.

These Essential Elements differ from the NIEER State of Preschool quality standards benchmarks, which gauge whether a set of minimum policies are in place to support meaningful, persistent gains in learning and development.

The Essential Elements considers not only policies but also implementation and enabling environment, specifically political leadership and compelling vision, based on research into four publicly funded pre-k programs operating at a large scale that each showed evidence of positive outcomes. For details, click on the titles below. 

Essential Elements Topics

Enabling environment
Political will including support from political leadership and, more rarely, judicial mandates
A compelling vision and strong leadership from early learning leaders

Rigorous, articulated, early learning policies
Well-educated (BA & ECE expertise) and well-compensated teachers (K-12 pay parity)
Class size maximum of 22 children
Two (or more) adult teaching staff in each classroom; maximum teacher to student ratio of 1:11
At least a full school day is provided to ensure adequate dosage
Appropriate early learning standards for preschoolers
Effective curriculum that has systemic support
Strong supports for education of special needs children in inclusive settings
Strong supports for dual language learners

Strong Program Practices
High-quality teaching
Professional development (PD) to improve individual teacher performance
Child assessments that are appropriate and used to inform instruction
Data-driven decision-making and independent evaluation
Integrated systems of standards, curriculum, assessment, PD, and evaluation

Political Will

Political leadership and, more rarely, judicial mandates can provide the necessary political will to create, scale up, sustain, and adequately fund high-quality early education. To the extent possible, judgments are based on actions of the Governor and legislature–not just their statements. Increases in funding, quality standards and enrollment, and legislation passed are the strongest indicators. Other strong indicators of political include ballot initiatives and court orders. Also important, but carrying less weight, are actions and statements of business leaders, philanthropic institutions and advocates.

Compelling vision and Strong Leadership

Senior early learning leaders, particularly those in the state agency administering the program, articulate a strong vision and exert effective leadership to make that vision a reality. Components include a well-designed early learning system with high expectations and the ability to communicate and successfully advocate for this with internal and external audiences. In addition to qualitatively meeting these criteria, the size of the office of early learning staff and any regional and district level support was taken into consideration. Additional supports for leadership could come from outside the agency, for example, from higher education, or influencers such as business, foundations, and advocacy groups.

Education and Compensation

All lead teachers have at least a BA degree plus suitable credentials in early learning and are paid at same level as K-12 teachers.

Class Size

All classrooms have a maximum of 22 children in each classroom. This is not just required by policy but is also maintained in practice. We report each specific policy and acknowledge that small upward departures might make no discernible difference. However, reducing the number of children in the classroom may improve impacts significantly.

Two Adults per Classroom

All classrooms have a maximum of 11 children per teaching staff person.  This is not just required by policy but is also maintained in practice. We report each specific policy and acknowledge that small upward departures might make no discernible difference. However, reducing the number of children per staff substantially below 11 might improve impacts significantly. All classrooms are required to have at least two teaching staff, typically a lead teacher and an assistant.

Learning Time

Most children are served or offered a full school day preschool program.

Age-Appropriate Learning Standards

The state has comprehensive learning standards that are age and developmentally appropriate and the state strongly supports (e.g., materials, guidance, and professional development) their influence on practice.

System to Ensure Effective Curriculum

The state guides and supports the adoption and use of research-based curriculum aligned with the early learning standards, connected to a system of professional development, and implemented with high fidelity.

Support for Students with Special Needs

Programs provide strong supports for children with special needs including an emphasis on inclusion. Preschool special education is integrated into the continuous improvement process and other key components of the early learning system.

Support for Dual Language Learners (DLL)

Programs have a well-developed strategy for educating young DLL children that recognizes their unique needs and the importance of home language and culture. The state strongly supports the implementation of this strategy with guidance, materials, and professional development. Ideally, bilingual teachers lead classrooms where there is dominant language other than English. Bilingual paraprofessionals also may be part of strong system of supports.

High-Quality Teaching

Teachers have high expectations in a system with high expectations and teaching practice is good to excellent. This requires teachers who focus on intentional teaching that strongly supports achievement and socio-emotional development, as well as approaches to learning including curiosity, a lover of learning, persistence and strong sense of self-efficacy. The strongest evidence of high-quality teaching comes from representative samples directly observed using standardized measures (e.g., CLASS, ECERS-R). Strong structural features of programs are not by themselves enough to conclude that teaching is high quality. However, weak structural features are enough to conclude that high-quality teaching is not taking place.

Child Assessments

Child assessments are aligned with standards and are used to inform teaching with a focus on improving outcomes for children. Assessments inform administrators, teachers, and others who support teacher improvement. The state provides training and other supports provided to ensure teachers and program leaders can use assessments well.

Data-Driven Decision-Making and Independent Evaluation

Data are collected and regularly used at all levels from the teacher on up to inform decisions regarding practice and improvement. Independent evaluation has been conducted, preferably within the past 10 years. The state supports the use of data for decision-making by others and uses data to drive its decisions. Ideally, there is a state-supported continuous improvement system operating at all levels.

Professional Development

Professional development is most effective when sustained as part of a continuous improvement cycle with high expectations for teachers. Professional development is both formal and informal (e.g., peer mentoring). The state and other organizations within the system have adequate capacity to provide sufficient quality and quantity of professional development.

Integrated System

Law, regulation, and (or) the state’s activities align standards, curriculum, professional development, and assessment. The state has adequate capacity to support this through the office administering the program and interagency groups.