Every word matters in a State of the Union address, and the words “high-quality” in President Obama’s preschool proposal are no exception. To arrive at the $7 returned on every dollar spent on pre-K – the figure Obama used in his speech last night* -- states and the federal government would need to offer preschool programs that are good enough to make a real, lasting difference for young children.
What ingredients are necessary to ensure that a program can be labeled “high-quality”? Most people agree, for example, that the ratio of children to staff members is very important. No one with any understanding of child development would say that an early learning program is high quality if it requires one teacher, by herself, to handle a classroom of 25 4-year-olds. That’s why the Office of Head Start and accrediting programs like the National Association for the Education of Young Children set specific adult-to-child ratios that preschools have to meet. Other indicators range from the credentials of teachers to comprehensive programs that include a focus on health and family engagement, alongside getting academically ready for kindergarten.
In the past several years, however, researchers have pushed the conversation on quality even further, with a focus on the quality of the interactions between teachers and children. New observation tools are now making it possible to determine whether a teacher is good at providing feedback to children, elaborating on concepts students are grappling with, fostering their vocabulary and ability to express themselves and think critically, and a host of other indicators of good teaching. The Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS), for example, is being used in Head Start programs across the country to help teachers elevate their teaching – and eventually will be part of the re-competition system to sort good programs from bad. (For more examples of tools and additional information about how they can be used in professional development and the evaluation of programs, see Watching Teachers Work: Using Observation Tools to Promote Effective Teaching in the Early Years and Early Grades.
Could a new push for universal pre-K include incentives to use tools like these? Will it emphasize the need for professionalizing the pre-K workforce so that teachers are given the time and financial support to learn from these tools and participate in coaching sessions that will help them get better? The current state of affairs has left us with varying definitions of quality across states, and varying definitions within school districts and community-based organizations that run pre-K programs. We expect to know more about Obama’s plans for expanding pre-K in the coming days, and we hope hope we’ll be gleaning details on how the Administration would define quality.
Don’t miss our earlier post today: Question 1 on Obama’s Pre-K Plan: How Will it Be Financed? And see today's post on our sister blog, Higher Ed Watch, about the College Scorecard that Obama mentioned in last night's speech.
* Note that the $7 figure is less than what Obama mentioned a few years ago when he talked about a return of $10 per child enrolled. For more background on why it’s important to focus on quality when we talk about these “return on investment” statistics, see our 2009 post, The Trouble with Touting the $10 to $1 Benefit-to-Cost Ratio for Pre-K.