Pre-K in 40 Large American Cities: Improvement? Yes. More Needed? Yes.

best cities for pre-k

The CityHealth organization and the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at the Graduate School of Education, Rutgers University have just released an evaluation of pre-K programs in 40 cities across the country.

CityHealth is an initiative of the de Beaumont Foundation and Kaiser Permanente that “provides leaders with a package of evidence-based policy solutions that will help millions of people live longer, better lives in vibrant, prosperous communities,” while NIEER conducts and publishes original research on early childhood education policy.

The title of their report, “Pre-K in American Cities: Quality and Access Grow, but Cities are Missing Opportunities to Create Lasting Benefits for their Youngest Learners” neatly summarizes its findings: that while cities have been expanding the availability of publicly-funded pre-K to young learners, many of them are failing to meet the benchmarks of high-quality pre-K that should be met for these investments to bear fruit.

What Features Do Best Cities for Pre-K Have?

The 40 cities (listed below) are evaluated based on features that NIEER has found to be commonly held among among effective, high-quality pre-K programs. These features include:

  • Learning goals: Comprehensive early learning and development standards to guide teaching and assessment
  • Curriculum supports: Guidance for choosing and using content-rich curriculum
  • Teacher education level: Lead teachers required to have a bachelor’s degree
  • Teacher specialized training: Lead teacher has specialized training for teaching pre-K
  • Assistant teacher education: Assistant teacher has a formalized entry-level credential such as the Child Development Associates
  • Professional development: Ongoing training for teachers and assistant teachers
  • Maximum class size: Maximum number of children per classroom is 20
  • Teacher-child ratio: Ratio of teachers to children is 1:10 or better
  • Health screening and referral: Screenings for vision, hearing, health, and development concerns, along with referrals to needed services
  • Continuous quality improvement system: System to assess program quality used to guide improvement

The evaluation also notes whether the program offers salary equity between pre-K teachers and K-12 teachers; enrollment levels; whether the jurisdiction has a local funding stream; and if that funding is used for expanding access or quality.

The report highlights the following findings:

  1. Only 60 percent of the cities have programs that reach more than 30 percent of the four-year-old population.
  2. Just 23 cities meet the quality benchmark for class size of one teacher and one teaching assistant for every 20 children.
  3. While most programs have specialized educational requirements for pre-K teachers, only 6 of the 40 cities require that teachers receive ongoing training, and only 15 require that pre-K teachers be paid comparably with those in the K-12 system.
  4. Only 9 cities require that children who are enrolled in pre-K receive vision, hearing, health, and developmental screenings and referrals.
  5. 25 cities have “a coordinated system to monitor program implementation and use that information to improve Pre-K practices.”

Historically, cities (and, presumably, employers) have funded child care programs to enable parents of small children to work, with educational quality being a secondary consideration. Cities now are expressly funding child care and pre-K programs to improve children’s school readiness and educational and health outcomes in a variety of ways, using general or targeted funds, and extending the programs either to the general population or to lower-income families.

Access Remains “Highly Unequal”

Clearly, this is a positive step. Nonetheless, in the country as a whole, “access to quality Pre-K remains highly unequal, with low-income and minority children having the least access,” and even in this sample of 40 cities, there is great variability on the delivery of high-quality programs: for example, while Washington, DC reaches nearly all of the 3- and 4-year olds in the city, its program meets only 3 of the 10 NIEER quality benchmarks, while Albuquerque, NM, which has a “low” level of enrollment, meets 9 of the 10. CityHealth and NIEER conclude the report with the recommendation that these cities continue to strive toward meeting all of the benchmarks while others design programs using these criteria as well.

The cities include Albuquerque, NM; Atlanta, GA; Austin, TX; Baltimore, MD; Boston, MA; Charlotte, NC; Chicago, IL; Columbus, OH; Dallas, TX; Denver, CO; Detroit, MI; El Paso, TX; Fort Worth, TX; Fresno, CA; Houston, TX; Indianapolis, IN; Jacksonville, FL; Kansas City, MO; Las Vegas, NV; Long Beach, CA; Los Angeles, CA; Louisville, KY; Memphis, TN; Mesa, AZ; Milwaukee, WI; Nashville, TN; New York City, NY; Oklahoma City, OK; Philadelphia, PA; Phoenix, AZ; Portland, OR; Sacramento, CA; San Antonio, TX; San Diego, CA; San Francisco, CA; San Jose, CA; Seattle, WA; Tucson, AZ; Virginia Beach, VA; and Washington, DC.

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