How Well Do States Meet the “15 Essentials” of High-Quality Pre-K Programs?

pre-k programs

Earlier this year, the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University published “Implementing 15 Essential Elements for High-Quality Pre-K: An Updated Scan of State Policies.” The report updates a 2016 review of state pre-k programs in which NIEER uses a framework, designed by Jim Minervino, founder and CEO of Ready on Day One, of 15 elements that are essential for high-quality pre-k to be implemented at scale. Ready on Day One is a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation-supported nonprofit that focuses on kindergarten preparedness.

As described in the report, “The Essential Elements are based on research into four publicly funded pre-k programs operating at a large scale that each showed evidence of positive outcomes.” They include:

  • Enabling environment
    • Political will including support from political leadership and, more rarely, judicial mandates
    • A compelling vision and strong leadership from early learning leaders
  • Rigorous, articulated, early learning policies
    • Well-educated (BA & ECE expertise) and well-compensated teachers (K-12 pay parity)
    • Class size maximum of 22 children
    • Two (or more) adult teaching staff in each classroom; maximum teacher to student ratio of 1:11
    • At least a full school day is provided to ensure adequate dosage
    • Appropriate early learning standards for preschoolers
    • Effective curriculum that has systemic support
    • Strong supports for education of special needs children in inclusive settings
    • Strong supports for dual language learners
  • Strong Program Practices
    • High-quality teaching
    • Professional development (PD) to improve individual teacher performance
    • Child assessments that are appropriate and used to inform instruction
    • Data-driven decision-making and independent evaluation
    • Integrated systems of standards, curriculum, assessment, PD, and evaluation

NIEER researchers evaluated whether the publicly-funded programs in each state (59 in total, because some states have more than one program) fully met, partially met, or failed to meet each of the 15 elements. For example, under “A compelling vision and strong leadership from early learning leaders,” the researchers would choose one of these designations:

  • Fully Met: Highly competent and active state office of early learning (or similar agency) that has articulated a vision of quality through regulation, guidance, technical assistance, materials, and other support, including from higher education.
  • Partially Met: Either the number of staff is far too limited to provide adequate direction and support to the system, or the ability of state administrators to lead is limited, perhaps by agency policy, authority of ECE specialist (i.e. hierarchy in the system), or politics.
  • Not Met: There is a weak early childhood office that is unable to lead or regular turn-over in leadership or positions. Limited and fragmented authority would be one reason this could occur. Some may have only one or two staff.

Overall, state programs met 6 of the 15 elements on average. Eight states or state programs fully met 10 of the 15, and one—Alabama’s First Class Program—met 14 of the 15. However, at the other end of the scale, 13 states or state programs fully met fewer than five of the elements.

In summary, “Most states have early learning standards in place to guide quality pre-k programs, and most meet the goal of having two adults in each pre-K classroom. Political will for high-quality pre-K appears to be growing, along with more states providing pre-K teachers pay parity with K-12 public school teachers. [However,] the most challenging element for programs to meet was length of day–almost 60 percent of pre-k programs offer only a part-day program.” Moreover, “[a]bout 75% of state pre-K programs lack a well-developed strategy for educating young dual language learners.”

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