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Here's What High Quality Preschool Looks Like in Real Life

Four state preschool programs profiled in a Learning Policy Institute report released today provide examples of what high-quality preschool (or the fight to achieve high-quality) looks like in real life.

Washington state, North Carolina, Michigan and West Virginia all have programs that have been judged effective by outside evaluators. Still, they are not perfect. And while the report by the California-based education think tank offers several conclusions about what makes high-quality preschool programs possible, it is the individual profiles that provide the most interesting data points. 

For example, Michigan offers preschool programming to families with annual incomes up to 250 percent of the poverty level (that's $60,750 for a family of four). While not universal, that opens the program to more children than many other targeted programs do. Michigan also sends 80 percent of participants to full-day programs, which have been shown to have stronger positive effects on learning. 

Michigan's program has also been shown to have an impact on graduation rates. In 2012, outside researchers found that 57.3 percent of Michigan state preschool participants graduated on time. That doesn't sound too impressive on its own. But compared to the graduation rate of non-participants, only 42.5 percent of whom graduate on time, it was notable.

West Virginia has pushed quickly to make its program universal. In the 2014-15 school year, the state enrolled about 75 percent of its 4-year-old population, a much higher percentage than most states. By that measure, West Virginia looks a lot more like another, much richer, small rural state: Vermont.

West Virginia has also included its preschool program, which serves 3- and 4-year-olds, in the state's K-12 school aid funding formula, a step big states like California are loath to take. However, most of the largest state preschool programs, like Oklahoma's, have taken similar measures.

Meanwhile, Washington state appears to have quietly beaten the "fade-out" challenge, where preschool participants stop showing a marked improvement in math and reading compared to peers who did not attend state preschool. In fifth grade, Washington state preschool participants were still showing gains equivalent to a 7 percent boost in reading and a 6 percent increase in math scores. The state spends about $7,000 per child, all of whom are from families earning less than 110 percent of the federal poverty limit, for its half-day program.

North Carolina has put much of its focus on improving quality. In the first group of programs to participate in the quality improvement initiative, classrooms scoring high on the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale (ECERS), a common evaluation tool for preschool classrooms, increased from 13 percent in 1994 to 41 percent in 2002. The program also reduced the gap in average 3rd grade test scores between children eligible for free or reduced-price lunches and their peers from more affluent families.

Perhaps most interesting is that few of the numbers here are earth-shattering. For North Carolina to have 41 percent of participating classrooms at "high" in 2002, after eight years of work on improving quality, somewhat dampens expectations of the silver bullet effect preschool is supposed to have on children. Ditto for Michigan's program producing a 57 percent graduation rate. Still, the progress appears to be both measurable and steady.

That all of this takes time to get right could, to my mind, be a sixth conclusion taken from this detailed report.

Read the whole report, including the first five conclusions.

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