Quality Standards: Gains and Losses in Tough Times



In our annual report of state-funded preschool programs, we examine three key features of each state pre-K initiative: access, quality standards, and resources. Here we provide a big picture look at the one of these features, quality standards, in an effort to analyze the nation’s commitment to offering high-quality preschool experiences at the state level. (For an analysis of pre-K access, see part one of this series.)

One of the most important factors in predicting preschool education’s effectiveness is the educational quality of programs. Quality is linked to effects on children’s development and academic success over time as well as other outcomes that yield economic benefits to society as a whole. States should set minimum standards for each classroom in preschool programs to ensure that all children are served in educationally effective programs and should provide adequate funding to support these standards. While standards alone do not guarantee quality, it is unreasonable to expect preschool education programs to replicate the success of previous programs without having similar high standards. For this reason, The State of Preschool 2010 compares each state program’s standards against a checklist of 10 research-based quality standards benchmarks, each representing a different component of program quality. (A list of the benchmarks and a summary of the supporting research can be found beginning on page 22 here.)

While each benchmark helps define quality, they do not all carry equal weight in predicting program effectiveness nor do they encompass all possible aspects of program quality. Rather, these benchmarks are preconditions for quality that offer evidence of a state’s commitment to provide every child enrolled in state-funded pre-K programs with a high-quality and effective experience. Finally, it is important to consider that the quality benchmarks focus on the policy requirements of the preschool initiative rather than actual practice. Therefore, since these benchmarks represent minimum standards, some classrooms may exceed state-level policy requirements or conversely fail to meet state-level policy if programs do not adhere to requirements. In some states, classrooms failing to meet a benchmark may represent a very small proportion so that the practical difference statewide is minute.  However, for those children who miss out on a quality education, the difference may be enormous.

During the 2009-2010 program year, 25 states met seven or more benchmarks, and most states met at least five benchmarks. Four states – Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri, and West Virginia – each increased the number of benchmarks met by one, while two states – Nebraska and Ohio – both lost ground on benchmarks by reducing program monitoring due to budget cuts. In addition, new pilot programs in Alaska and Rhode Island each met all 10 benchmarks. For a complete summary of the benchmarks met by each state-funded preschool program during the 2009-2010 school year, see Table 5 of The State of Preschool 2010.

As seen below in Figure 2, the total number of quality standards benchmarks met by state preschool programs has risen and fallen since NIEER began tracking them in the 2001-2002 school year. Notably, in the 2009-2010 school year, the addition of two state-funded prekindergarten initiatives, which each achieved all 10 quality standards benchmarks, influenced the total number of benchmarks upwards. When not accounting for these two programs, four benchmarks decreased, two increased, and four stayed the same.  (Note, in addition to the changes in benchmarks explained above, the 2009-2010 school year saw the loss of one of Ohio’s state preschool programs, which accounts for the total number of some benchmarks decreasing.)

Other key findings regarding quality standards in the 2009-2010 school year include:

• Alabama, Alaska, North Carolina, Rhode Island, and one Louisiana program (NSECD) met all 10 benchmarks.

•  Twelve other states had programs that met nine out of 10 benchmarks – Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana LA4, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey Abbott, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Washington.

• Unlike the large increases seen in previous years, no program this year increased their quality standards benchmarks by more than one.

•  Only eight programs continued to meet fewer than half of the 10 benchmarks: California, Texas, and Vermont (both the EEI and Act 62 programs) met four; Arizona, Florida and Pennsylvania K4 & SBPK met three; and Ohio met only two benchmarks. However, more than 40 percent of all children enrolled in state-funded pre-K nationwide are in these seven states.

•  Two benchmarks are met by fewer than half of all 52 programs: only 16 programs require assistant teachers to have at least a CDA or equivalent credential, and 24 programs require at least one meal per day to be offered. In addition, 27 programs – only slight more than half – require teachers to have a bachelor’s degree.

•  Texas and Pennsylvania’s K4 program are the only programs to set no limits on maximum class sizes and staff-child ratios. California and Maine limit staff-child ratios, but not class size. Arizona, Maine, Ohio, and Wisconsin 4K set limits for class size and/or staff-child ratio, but these limits are not stringent enough to meet the benchmarks.

Despite mostly forward progress, standards continue to vary a great deal from state to state. For example, children in Georgia and Alabama have access to programs that meet nine and 10 of the NIEER quality standards benchmarks, respectively. But in the neighboring state of Florida, children attend programs that must meet only three benchmarks. For children in states with lower quality programs, they are potentially missing out on the most meaningful early education experiences.  In our experience, program standards are much less likely to change year to year than are either access or funding, perhaps due to how they are legislatively established.  While this is sometimes a silver lining—most programs did not see standards relaxed in response to the recession—states have also not made big improvements in this area over the years.  At a time when all stakeholders are sensitive to the fiscal constraints on programs, it is unlikely to see a significant push in this area in the next few years.  For the sake of the more than one million children in state-funded pre-K, we hope we are wrong.

– Jen Fitzgerald, Public Information Officer, NIEER
– Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER


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  2. Shahidullah Sharif on

    It is to me, should be all of us, very significant concern that quality standard in early childhood intervention have to be strongly maintained. But, some time I see in some case, policy makers, directors are concern towards quantity of early childhood intervention rather than quality. Specially, it is happened in some developing and under developed country. My question is that without quality early childhood intervention coverage, is there any rationale to implement Early Childhood program for children?

    • Exactly–no point in making the investment unless the quality is high enough to significantly boost child development.