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Secretary John King: Improve the Quality of Early Education, Not Just Access

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There's been a lot of talk about expanding access to preschool programs—but more must be done to ensure those programs are high quality, Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. plans to say in a speech at the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education Wednesday.

"Access to a low-quality program is no access at all," King plans to say, according to remarks distributed ahead of his 4 p.m. speech. (You can watch it here.) "It's a false promise. It's a missed opportunity. Well-off parents can pay to send their children to programs of the highest quality. If we don't provide children of lower- and middle-income families with access to quality programs, our work is doing nothing to reduce inequity in our society."

King planned to give a shout-out to two the Obama administration's Race to the Top Early Learning grants, which he planned to say have kept quality in mind. That program and other efforts have encouraged states to use a "quality rating tool" so parents can better understand whether the programs they are selecting will benefit their children, King planned to say. The number of states using a quality rating tool jumped from 17 to 40 during the administration's tenure, King planned to say.

King planned to note that research consistently shows that there are big and lasting benefits to preschool. But he planned to point to one study out of Vanderbilt University that looked at the long-term effects of Tennessee's voluntary pre-kindergarten program. That study found that by grade 3, kids who had participated in the program were more likely to have negative feelings about school than those that hadn't. Read more on the Vanderbilt study from my colleague, Christina Samuels, here

"As you can imagine, this is troubling news to people like me, who believe in the power of publicly funded preschool to change lives," King planned to say.

But, he planned to say, there may be lessons in this study.

"We can't ignore it," he planned to say. "It may point to implementation or oversight issues--or what happens to kids between kindergarten and the third grade--but we don't really know, and we need to continue asking questions. Personally, I think it's a powerful reminder of the importance of not just access, but quality, and knowing which indicators of quality matter most."

So how can early childhood programs improve quality? Making sure teachers are warm, nurturing, and can help students build their language skills, as well as making sure the environment is diverse and exposes children to peers from all different backgrounds, King planned to say. What's more, early-childhood education teachers need to be paid adequately, so that they don't need to take on a second job to make ends meet, King planned to say.

Early-childhood education is an area that both presidential candidates have said they want to address. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton wants to partner with states to move towards universal pre-kindergarten. And Republican nominee Donald Trump wants to offer paid maternity leave to mothers who don't have it through their employer, as well as expand tax credits to help parents cover the cost of childcare. More here

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