Hamre: Universal Pre-K Isn’t Enough — the Programs Must Be of High Quality. Here Are Some Ways to Make That Happen

(Allison Shelley / The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action)

Even before the outbreak of COVID-19 and resulting mass closures, high-quality child care was in short supply. Between 2018 and 2019, half of states actually saw a decline in the number of child care centers.

This is among the reasons why results from recent elections, in which voters turned out in droves to back pre-K investments, were exciting for the early childhood education community. In Colorado, a new nicotine tax will fund free preschool for about 67,000 4-year-olds statewide. In Oregon, voters in Portland’s Multnomah County passed a measure backing universal preschool. And President Joe Biden has made access to free preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds a cornerstone of his domestic policy proposals.

From tax credits to employer incentives, such investments could mark an overdue and unprecedented step toward universal pre-K. But history tells us that such proposals may be met with stiff policy and political headwinds in Washington. Because while the benefits of pre-K are widely accepted, policymakers know access alone is insufficient to make good on the promise of early childhood education. In fact, it can make matters worse.

Policymakers on the right will worry about the economic returns on significant early childhood investments, as there are no guarantees of access to high-quality programs. For policymakers on the left, the appeal of such investments may be tempered by well-founded equity concerns, as Black children are more likely to enroll in a low-quality early childhood education site than their white peers. This means that a rise in access, without a concomitant focus on quality, could exacerbate achievement gaps by perpetuating a system of haves and have-nots.

The goods news: The increased sophistication in assessing quality early care and learning programs has heightened understanding of the practices and teacher-child interactions that contribute to better outcomes for kids. And states like Louisiana, which is fast becoming a national model, are paving the way for significant new federal investments by proving that quality and access at scale don’t have to be at odds.

Rather than focusing on the sort of assessment-based accountability that is commonplace in upper grades, Louisiana rooted its approach to access to quality early care and education in the nationally recognized Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS) tool, which evaluates emotional support, classroom organization and instructional support. It examines, for example, how well adults foster warm, positive environments, respond to students’ academic and emotional needs, model language use and facilitate engaging learning activities.

Over 200 research studies have demonstrated that children in classrooms with more effective teacher-student interactions, as measured by CLASS, have improved literacy and math outcomes, as well as increased social and cognitive skills. Another recent study showed that students with access to these interactions in early childhood had stronger reading outcomes in third grade than peers who didn’t and that access to more years of high-quality interactions helped close the achievement gap.

The impact of high-quality adult-child interactions extends beyond typical educational outcomes, even showing up in basic physiological responses. Research has found a decrease in cortisol levels among students in classrooms with higher emotional support metrics, meaning they feel less stress than their peers in less emotionally supportive learning environments. This is especially important today, as students navigate mounting anxiety in response to COVID-19 and other traumatic experiences.

For many years, these critical interactions seemed too hard to measure well at scale so we relied on measures of quality such as teachers’ education levels. We now know we can measure these interactions well at a broad scale, enabling more effective accountability systems and targeted professional learning to help educators improve interactions. This moves the education system closer to its broad goal of giving every family access to high-quality early learning environments.

Over the last decade, Louisiana has used such insights to create a common accountability system for all publicly funded early childhood education sites, including child care, Head Start and state pre-K. In the same way K-12 public schools receive a report card and letter grade each year, every publicly funded child care site receives an annual performance profile, which includes a rating based on multiple classroom observations. These observations, guided by the CLASS tool, are conducted twice a year to provide local networks with meaningful data for improvement. Professional development is then aligned to the skills needed to increase quality in classrooms.

As a result of this shift, since 2016-17, the Bayou State has tripled the number of sites with the highest performance rating on the state’s scale and reduced the number of sites with the lowest performance rating by more than 50 percent. This means that at the individual classroom level, teachers in every corner of the state know more about how best to interact with children to support their growth and development.

That shift has not gone unnoticed among Louisiana lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Not only has the state changed the narrative that early childhood education is simply babysitting, it has dedicated funding — the first in a decade — to continue to build on its efforts to expand access and quality early childhood care and education.

The work in Louisiana suggests a pathway for real action. The state is well on its way to providing equitable educational experiences from birth — ensuring that all children, in all out-of-home settings, are greeted each day by educators who not only care for them, but have a demonstrated ability to provide the responsive and cognitively stimulating interactions that they need to reach their full potential.

As we navigate a global pandemic that has thrust the importance of early childhood education further into the spotlight, and as more states and counties invest in early care and learning, federal policymakers should take note.

All families should be able to expect that all early care and education programs will provide the same high-quality experience, instead of being forced to compromise quality for convenience.

Policymakers should take the first step toward building back stronger by emphasizing quality at scale for every child in every early care and learning program. The investment is worth it.

Dr. Bridget Hamre is co-founder and CEO of Teachstone and research associate professor of the University of Virginia’s Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning (CASTL).

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