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An Evolving Debate on Pre-K Quality?

Over the past 10 years, the universal pre-kindergarten movement has made tremendous strides: Annual state spending has grown at a roughly 10% annual rate since 2001, roughly doubling to some $5 billion today. The number of children served in state pre-k has nearly doubled as well: from less than 700,000 in 2001 to more than 1.2 million today. These are tremendous accomplishments, and while the current state budget shortfalls pose some threats to recent gains, they are unlikely to completely, or even substantially, undo them.

But just as much as the UPK movement has focused on expanding access to pre-k, it has also advanced a particular concept of pre-kindergarten quality, focused on mandating certain quality standards for pre-k environments (such as small class sizes and adult:child ratios) and on professionalizing the early childhood workforce (for example, by requiring pre-k teachers to have a bachelor's degree and, increasingly, certification). It's a largely structural and input-focused concept of quality, perhaps best reflected in the National Institute for Early Education Research's 10 quality standards used to rate the quality of state pre-k programs.

I've always had some discomfort with this concept of pre-kindergarten quality. Initially, my discomfort stemmed largely from an apparent disconnect between the quality improvement efforts of UPK advocates and major reform currents echoing through the K-12 education world--most notably UPK advocates' push more formalized credentialing of pre-k teachers, in the K-12 model, at the very time K-12 reformers (of all stripes) were raising serious critiques of the existent model of teacher preparation and credentialling. At times, the UPK movement seemed intent on extending certain features of the K-12 system down into Pre-K--teacher certification, universal access, increased funding, increased regulation of inputs--without acknowledging that those same sets of conditions had failed to ensure quality or outcomes in K-12.

Don't get me wrong--given the low-quality that currently exists in many early childhood settings, raising input and regulatory standards is in many cases necessary to ensure a basic threshold of program quality and avoid harm to children. But at best, the statutory and regulatory requirements on which the UPK debate has focused for the last decade represent a necessary but not sufficient minimum--they do not themselves ensure good learning experiences for children. And at worst, the emphasis on bachelor's degrees, class sizes, and other structural features may serve as a distraction from more central issues of instructional quality, leading policymakers to devote scarce resources to quality improvement strategies that are less cost-effective than alternatives.

These concerns are underscored by developments over the past several years. On the one hand, an important 2007 study found limited correlations between pre-kindergarten teacher's educational credentials and observed classroom quality or child outcomes, raising questions about the established orthodoxy in the field. At the same time, new models--most notably the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS)--have emerged that offer valid and reliable measures of pre-k instructional quality based on what teachers actually do in the classroom--and are correlated with student learning outcomes. And there is also evidence that certain types of professional development are effective in improving the skills and effectiveness of pre-k teachers, whether or not they have a bachelor's degree--such as high-quality coaching linked to CLASS and the combination of professional development, coaching, and progress monitoring provided through the Texas Early Education Model.

But despite these developments, the older, structural concept of pre-k quality has remained dominant in early childhood policy debates.

I'm starting to see evidence, though, that this is changing. Partly, that's happening in response to the emergence of models like CLASS and TEEM. CLASS is currently being implemented nationwide as a quality measure in Head Start programs--and there is wide demand from elsewhere in the early childhood sector. TEEM is currently implemented in Texas early childhood settings serving 80,000 children. A recently released paper by Bruce Fuller and John Gasko does an excellent job of laying out some of these developments and the case for a new approach to improving quality teaching in pre-k.

At the same time, the economy is putting the crunch on state budgets--cutting off the funding increases that have fueled investment in structural quality initiatives over the past decade, and putting pressure on policymakers to find cost-effective ways to improve instructional quality in pre-k with modest investments. Finally, one of the major forces behind the dominant concept of UPK quality, the Pew Charitable Trusts, is in the process of getting out of the pre-k business, shifting its focus to children's dental care and home visiting programs. All these factors suggest the likelihood of an evolving debate in pre-k, one less focused on structures and inputs, and more focused on the core of "how do we achieve quality early learning experiences for young children" (and, in particular, how do we improve instructional quality in pre-k settings).

Ultimately, I think that's a more productive line of debate. Given the incredible work currently going on in the pre-k space around instructional and classroom quality, there's a real potential, that if the field gets this right, early childhood could become a model for K-12 and the broader education field in terms of thinking about improving instructional quality--rather than looking to K-12 as a model in the way UPK advocates have for the past decade.

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