Apr 05 2016

Uncovering the Building Blocks of Preschool Quality

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This post was first published on April 5, 2016 by The Huffington Post.

Like all parents, I want the best learning opportunities possible for my son who is approaching two. I know the right mix of preschool experiences have the potential to ignite his love of learning at an early age, exposing him to a wealth of experiences that uniquely define what it means to be human: laughing while singing songs with friends, feeling a scaly snake slide past his fingers, or smelling fresh compost just added to the classroom garden. The long-term rewards of quality early education continue to collect an impressive basket of evidence. And an overwhelming majority of voters continue to call out the importance of quality preschool, even if the issue isn’t getting much air-time yet in the 2016 presidential election.

But how will we know whether a preschool is of high quality while we are trying to evaluate the best fit for my son?

This is a common question for parents across the country: how do you know a preschool is high quality? It’s also a question I pursued with a team of researchers at the Learning Policy Institute. The answer is presented in the brief “The Building Blocks of High-Quality Early Childhood Education Programs.” We investigated the question of preschool quality to help inform conversations in California, a state grappling with how to improve current early education programs for three and four year olds, while addressing a growing unmet need for more preschool seats. California is home to the largest public preschool system in the country, with over 1 million low-income working families with children and 40 percent of Head Start children learning English as a second language. A top-notch preschool can provide a powerful remedy for limiting the negative effects of childhood poverty and can support the early success of English learners.

Our paper summarizes the research on programs demonstrating positive results for early education, identifying important elements of quality. The 10 building blocks of quality include:

  • Comprehensive early learning standards and curricula.
  • Appropriate child assessments for social-emotional, academic and physical development.
  • Professional knowledge and skill, including lead teachers with bachelor’s degrees.
  • Ongoing support for teachers, which includes on-site coaching and mentoring.
  • Support for diverse learners, including English learners and students with special needs.
  • Meaningful family engagement, such as incorporating parents as role models.
  • Sufficient time, with best results from full-day, year-round programs.
  • Appropriate class size and student-teacher ratio.
  • Comprehensive program assessments.
  • Quality rating and improvement systems.

All of these quality features can come across as complicated educationese or “insider education language.” As Camille Maben, Executive Director of the state agency First 5 California, also explained at a recent gathering, “We know now that quality works in all kinds of different ways. One size truly does not fit all.” In other words, the quality building blocks can be constructed in different ways, depending on the needs of local children and families. There isn’t one blueprint for early childhood quality to follow.

Yet the elements of program quality can be boiled down to one common denominator: the quality of the interactions between adults and children in a preschool setting. These interactions can take many forms, such as an educator helping a child resolve a conflict over a game of tag, or a conversation around how long a q-tip tower can stand upright. Meaningful child-adult interactions also require gifted teachers with the knowledge and skills to provide engaging experiences and classroom environments to support children’s learning.

As a new parent, I’m quickly beginning to realize that educators who have the ability to make learning fun in a trusting environment have not only mastered the science of learning, but also the art of quality instruction. Educators aren’t a quick fix or a silver bullet to a high quality preschool program, but they can provide a linchpin for meaningful learning for kids like my son. They sit at the center of a number of the building blocks in early education quality, all of which must be working in concert for a preschool program to be of high quality. The task for parents and policymakers alike, who share a vested interest in improving the overall quality of early education programs, is significant. Thankfully the mystery behind the building blocks of early childhood quality is becoming more and more clear, one block at a time.