What Are Characteristics of Quality Pre-K Programs?

Continuing in our series about the Brookings Institute Report “The Current State of Scientific Knowledge on Pre-Kindergarten Effects,” today we’re looking at Chapters 3 through 5. These chapters, taken together, address a set of related questions:

  1. Given that studies already show that low-income and minority children are less likely to be ready for kindergarten than other children, do pre-k programs close the gap between these different groups, and if so, to what extent?
  2. Do specific types of pre-k curricula provide more benefits than others?
  3. Finally, what other program characteristics drive positive outcomes?

A few key findings emerge that are of importance to educators, policy makers and parents alike.

  • First, it appears that academic skills-based curricula—i.e., programs that stress reading and math, rather than “whole child” curricula that “encourage[e] children to interact independently with the equipment, materials and other children in the classroom environment”— have more positive, significant effects on pre-k children’s school readiness.
  • Second, the bulk of studies reviewed in this chapter indicate that, regardless of race and ethnicity, low-income and economically disadvantaged children appear to gain greater benefits from pre-k programs than do their more advantaged peers.
  • Finally, across all programs examined, studies found two elements that improved child outcomes: 1) providing consistent professional development for teachers, and 2) assessing children’s progress to ensure each child receives the necessary instruction. Teacher responsiveness—listening and engagement, and a positive classroom environment—also are tied to greater school readiness. That said, educators and policy makers still need a practical system to capture and evaluate factors that drive pre-k program quality.

Particularly for lower-income parents, then, it seems clear that pre-k programs can give children valuable help for school readiness, particularly if the programs focus on literacy and numeracy skills. Parents should look for programs that engage in “serve-and-response” types of interaction that boost student engagement, and the programs themselves should encourage this type of activity in the classroom to offer their students the greatest potential benefit.

Tips for Parents

How can parents put this information into action?

  • Ask questions about potential Pre-K programs. Not all programs are created equally. One key question: What is your mix of curriculum? Do you focus on “whole child” or do you stress reading and math?
  • Lower-income parents are key. Many obstacles exist for lower-income parents, especially in finding programs for their children. But the programs matter and finding help—while challenging—pays off.
  • Teacher development and child progress reports help. Many programs might highlight teacher experience. Of course, that’s useful. But also important: How does the pre-k program help its teachers continue learning? How do they promote teacher development? As well, does the program offer regular progress reports for your child? The reports help keep everyone engaged.

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