By the time a child starts elementary school, their bodies and brains have already gone through a vital period of growth and development that lay the groundwork for later learning and health in their adult years. Because the first five years of life are highly impressionable, whether negatively by adverse childhood experiences or positively by high-quality early childhood education (ECE), the choice is obvious – access to high-quality programs before school entry is for the good of the child, their family and the country. Multiple stakeholders are invested in designing, implementing and scaling up high-quality early learning, including pre-K programs. By working toward the creation of safe environments for children to learn, parents are better positioned to enter and remain in the workforce, leading to financial stability. In recognition of the growing body of research and documented voter support, efforts towards achieving this on a large scale have picked up at the local, state and federal level. Because the quality of pre-K programs factor heavily into achieving positive child outcomes, promoting affordable access to high-quality pre-K programs is essential. In turn, unpacking the term ‘quality’ is key in elevating and scaling up programs that work.

A new report from the New America Foundation, funded by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Buffett Early Childhood Fund, Heising-Simons Foundation, and George Kaiser Family Foundation, highlights and describes the components of high-quality early learning programs, which range from elements at the classroom, local, state and federal level. Over the years, research has pointed to the positive results associated with children who have the opportunity to attend high-quality early learning and care programs before school entry. These outcomes are apparent across social, health, and cognitive measures for the individual child, in addition to financial security and stability for families and a return on investment for society across multiple measures. New America’s report, ‘Indispensable Policies and Practices for High-Quality Pre-K’ identifies priority elements of quality that are characteristic of early learning and care programs that lead to positive child outcomes. In addition to naming these core themes, the report lays out what research has shown to be best practice. A subsequent state scan, referring to NAEYC Accreditation Program Standards, Preschool Development Grant requirements, Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS), and the ‘Essential Elements of High-Quality Pre-K’ outlined by the Gates Foundation, sheds light on progress towards integrating these priorities into their early childhood infrastructure.

  1. Curriculum, instruction and assessment The first of six elements featured in the report is the purposeful connection of curriculum, instruction and assessment. Each implemented to fidelity on their own play a crucial role within an adaptive system comprised of a high-quality, research-based curricula, individualized and responsive instruction, and strategic, ongoing assessment.
  1. Family engagement Engaging families early and often in early childhood education programs is another priority characteristic of high-quality pre-K programs. Parents are their child’s first and best teacher. Partnering with families through meaningful family engagement in early learning and care programs can support quality interactions between children and their family members. By proactively and regularly inviting families to inform goal setting for their children, in addition to home-based and school-based involvement, children’s pre-literacy skills have been shown to improve. The Head Start Program Performance Standards (HSPPS) specify requirements for partnering with families as a key tenant of the program, but in particular Head Start emphasizes this as a child transitions out of Head Start. Built upon the family engagement piece of Head Start, family engagement at Educare – a network of programs developed by the Ounce of Prevention Fund – offers a “continuum of supports from an interdisciplinary team that includes classroom teachers, family support specialists, and health, mental health, and language consultants.”
  1. Funding High-quality pre-K programs are able to implement evidence-based best practices in the early learning field because they are equipped with the necessary funding. Without it, the other five indispensable policies and practices for high-quality pre-K are inevitably compromised and quality suffers as a result. A well-funded continuum of high-quality early learning and care can improve outcomes for vulnerable young children by ensuring they are set up for success in school and in life. However, the cost of quality early learning and care can rival that of housing, and varies from state to state. No single funding source, whether local, state or federal, can fund the eligible pre-K population on its own. The funding landscape is varied, and has adapted to incorporate blended and braided funding capabilities in order to maximize the number of eligible children served. Though Congress has a track record of increasing funding for early learning in the face of limited federal resources, and state funding for pre-K has increased significantly, the gap remains unbridged between service availability and the population of eligible children. In addition to increasing spending allocations for these critical programs during the annual appropriations process, other financial incentives include bonuses tied to quality levels and tax credits linked to quality ratings.
  1. P-3 Alignment The report made it clear that high-quality pre-K doesn’t operate in a silo, nor does its outcomes. Rather, high-quality pre-K should be part of a larger continuum of learning that is responsive to the early years of child development and forward-looking in supporting college- and career-readiness. Meaningfully bridging high-quality pre-K to high-quality early elementary through aligned standards, curricula, and assessment practices enables children to maintain and expand upon the gains they make in ECE. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) explicitly elevates early learning throughout the law and provides multiple opportunities for states and districts to use ESSA funding to support their pre-K initiatives, bridging pre-K to early elementary. By promoting vertical alignment, children benefit from smooth transitions, improved academic achievement and higher educational attainment.
  1. Program Improvement Similar to ongoing monitoring of children’s progress to inform subsequent instruction and progress towards the child’s goals, ongoing program evaluation can yield insight into program effectiveness and efficiency for the purpose of bettering progress towards program level goals. A wide range of monitoring and evaluation approaches can support program improvement across implementation and impact. Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS) articulate a common approach to assess, improve and assign quality levels to individual programs. Though several quality indicators are common across the board, indicators do vary from state to state, and states are at different stages of QRIS development and implementation. Continuous quality improvement is an indicator included in at least half of states and localities currently implementing a QRIS. Many states offer incentives for demonstrable quality improvement, such as free or discounted trainings, teacher scholarships and incentive payments for improvement.
  1. Workforce Support Teachers and the learning opportunities they facilitate with children in the classroom heavily dictate program quality. As a result, teacher preparation and access to ongoing support can ensure that teachers are equipped with the specialized knowledge and skills that are needed to implement effective, developmentally appropriate, instruction. In addition to supporting teachers, supporting school and program leadership with specialized training on early childhood education would ensure that administrators are better equipped to serve as instructional leaders. Within the context of a mixed-delivery system, early learning leaders work in diverse settings and range from elementary school principals, Head Start directors, and child care center administrators.

To read the full report, click here.