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Many Large City Pre-K Programs Fail to Meet Quality Benchmarks, Study Finds

More large cities are taking the lead when it comes to providing pre-K programs, but a new study finds that less than half of the 40 largest cities in the country meet a research organization's quality benchmarks for these programs. And, only 60 percent offer a pre-K program that reaches more than 30 percent of the 4-year-old population. 

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The "Pre-K in American Cities" study was conducted by CityHealth, an initiative of the de Beaumont Foundation and Kaiser Permanente that provides city leaders with policy solutions to improve health, and the National Institute for Early Education Research, or NIEER, which is based at Rutgers University. 

"Everyone gets how important pre-K is as that critical building block for setting up kids to be successful in life," said Shelley Hearne, the president of CityHealth. "It's an important and expensive investment, and it's an investment that has an extraordinary return on education outcomes, health outcomes, [and] society benefits."

CityHealth and NIEER have worked together for the past two years to evaluate access to high-quality pre-K programs in large cities around the country. CityHealth then awards the cities a gold, silver, or bronze medal on pre-K depending on how many of the 10 NIEER quality benchmarks the city meets and whether the city enrolls at least 30 percent of 4-year-olds.  

The NIEER benchmarks include things such as a bachelor's degree requirement for head teachers, a 1:10 or better teacher-child ratio, and the inclusion of health screenings.

Gold, Silver, and Bronze Rankings 

This year CityHealth awarded gold medals to Boston; Charlotte, N.C.; Nashville, Tenn.; New York City and San Antonio, Texas, for the quality and accessibility of their pre-K programs. Eight cities, including Chicago and Detroit, earned silver medals for programs that mandate quality. Twenty cities, including Atlanta and Austin, Texas, received bronze medals for meeting CityHealth's access criteria. The remaining seven cities, including Columbus, Ohio, and Las Vegas, were not awarded a medal. 

The study found that only 24 of the 40 largest cities offered a pre-K program that reached more than 30 percent of the 4-year-old population.

Ellen Frede, the senior co-director of NIEER and co-leader of the team behind the study, calls a lack of access to pre-K programs a critical problem and says evidence shows this could cause the positive effects of pre-K to diminish over time.  

"Having a critical mass of children who have attended a high-quality pre-K program in your kindergarten and in your 1stgrade requires the schools to change practices, but when you only have a handful of children who went to a high-quality pre-K you tend to focus your resources on the children who didn't, so we don't end up building on the promise of the pre-K," said Frede. 

Low Pay, Little Training 

When it comes to teacher pay and training, the study found that city programs still have a ways to go to meet NIEER benchmarks. Only 63 percent require lead teachers to have a bachelor's degree with specialized training in teaching young children, and only 15 percent require that all teaching staff receive ongoing professional development. 

NIEER benchmarks also call for early-childhood educators to be paid comparably to K-12 teachers, and only 38 percent of the rated city programs met that requirement.

Frede argues that a big difference in pay among early-childhood teachers and their K-12 counterparts doesn't make sense when you look at the content they're teaching.

"It's the pedagogy, and it's the understanding of how children learn and develop, and how that that varies across children and what is the best pedagogy to use for different children," said Frede. "Those are the kinds of things that a teacher whether they're a 3rdgrade teacher or a teacher of 3 year olds needs to know and understand, and that's why having  good preparation is important and continued professional development is important."

When it comes to supporting students' healthy development, the study finds most city-based pre-K programs are not meeting the mark. Only 9 of 40 provide vision, hearing, health and developmental screenings and referrals. 

"What we do know in medicine, so many of the illnesses or conditions that a child could face, the earlier you catch it the better chances you have to correct, prevent and let them have that thriving, productive life that we hope for all of our kids," said Hearne.

Image by Getty 

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled the name of Ellen Frede, the senior co-director of NIEER.



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