Since 2002, the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) has published yearbooks on the state of preschool education. These reports examine state-funded pre-kindergarten education programs that meet specific criteria outlined by NIEER; besides being state-funded and directed, for example, the programs must serve at least 1 percent of the three- or four-year-old population within that state. This excludes children who participate in federally funded Head Start and special-education pre-K programs. The most recent report, chock-full of interesting data points on the national and state landscapes, focuses on three areas: enrollment, funding, and quality.

Across the nation, nearly 1.5 million children attended state-funded preschools during the 2015–16 school year. That number includes almost 5 percent of three-year-olds and a third of four-year-olds. Total enrollment rose by more than 40,000 children over the previous year, with D.C. serving the highest percentage of both three- and four-year-olds. Seven states don’t offer any state-funded programs that fit NIEER’s criteria: Idaho, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming.

Total state pre-K spending totaled nearly $7.4 billion, up by more than half a billion (adjusted for inflation) from the previous year. The average state spending per child was $4,976. D.C. spends the most per child at $16,812, while Mississippi spends the least—less than $2,000. Eighteen states benefited from nearly $210 million in federal Preschool Development Grants (PDG), intended to help states build their capacity to provide high-quality programs and to expand access for high-need communities. NIEER estimates that these funds supported more than 30,000 children via new seats or quality improvements, with approximately 19,000 of those children served by state preschool programs.

NIEER uses ten quality benchmarks to rate state preschool programs. These ten benchmarks include requiring site visits at least once every five years, the use of comprehensive early learning standards, and a minimum of fifteen hours of teacher in-service a year. For years, those benchmarks were almost entirely about inputs, which NIEER declared were sound proxies for program quality. This year, they’ve taken a positive step with several revised benchmarks meant to focus more specifically on classroom practices that research has shown to boost children’s outcomes, such as the continuous improvement of teachers. Thus one revision changes the site visit benchmark into a requirement for a continuous quality improvement system that includes structured classroom observations and ongoing coaching and feedback for teachers.

For the sake of continuity, the report grades states on both the previous and the revised benchmarks, with many states faring worse on the latter, a development that NIERR believes reflects its increased rigor. Alabama and Rhode Island, however, pulled off perfect scores on both the old and new benchmarks, while Arizona and Indiana were in the rear with a dismal 3 out of 10 on the previous benchmarks and an even worse 1 out of 10 on the revised set.

The authors conclude with a call for a more detailed look at classroom quality. Specifically, they recommend a nationally representative study of pre-K classrooms in state and locally funded preschools as well as child care centers and Head Start programs with a focus on the quality of experiences provided to children. Although this move toward measuring quality should be celebrated, it’s also important to remember that the best types of measurements will focus on outcomes; namely, how well each program prepares students for kindergarten.

SOURCE: W. Steven Barnett et al., “The State of Preschool 2016,” National Institute for Early Education Research (May 2017).

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Jessica Poiner - Fordham

Jessica Poiner is a 2011 Teach For America corps member who worked as a high school English teacher in Memphis, Tennessee. While in Memphis, she taught for Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District. A native of Ohio, Jessica holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Baldwin-Wallace University. 

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