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The Building Blocks of High-Quality Early Childhood Education Programs

Policy Brief: The Building Blocks of High-Quality Early Childhood Education Programs


This brief identifies important elements of high-quality early childhood education programs as indicated by research and professional standards. These include:

  • Early learning standards and curricula that address the whole child, are developmentally appropriate, and are effectively implemented.
  • Assessments that consider children’s academic, social-emotional, and physical progress and contribute to instructional and program planning.
  • Well-prepared teachers who provide engaging interactions and classroom environments that support learning.
  • Ongoing support for teachers, including coaching and mentoring.
  • Support for English learners and students with special needs.
  • Meaningful family engagement.
  • Sufficient learning time.
  • Small class sizes with low student-teacher ratios.
  • Program assessments that measure structural quality and classroom interactions.
  • A well-implemented state quality rating and improvement system.

These high-quality building blocks should be the foundation of any early childhood education system.

When it comes to early childhood education programs, quality is critical. High-quality preschool gives children a strong start on the path that leads to college or a career. Research shows that all children benefit from high-quality preschool, with low-income children and English learners benefiting the most.Hirokazu Yoshiwaka et al., Investing in Our Future: The Evidence Base on Preschool Education, Foundation for Child Development, 2013. A substantial number of studies demonstrate the benefits of high-quality pre-k programs. These include long-term research on Perry Preschool, the Abecedarian Project, and the Chicago Child-Parent Centers, as well as ongoing studies of the preschool programs in Tulsa and Boston and New Jersey’s Abbott Preschool Program, among others. Economists also have shown the benefits of early education investments, which generate approximately $7 for every dollar invested.Sneha Elango, et al., Early Childhood Education (working paper #21766, National Bureau of Economic Research, 2015); Timothy Bartik, From Preschool to Prosperity: The Economic Payoff to Early Childhood Education, 2014. However, the potential of preschool can only be realized if programs are of high quality.

This brief summarizes the substantial body of research on programs demonstrating positive results, as well as the professional standards for early education, identifying important elements of quality. It focuses on factors that contribute to meaningful teacher-child interactions. These findings are important for the nation. Of the country’s 8.1 million preschool-aged children, nearly four million live in or near poverty.Population data from the National Center for Education Statistics, “Percentage of 3-, 4-, and 5-year-old children enrolled in preprimary programs,” Digest of Educational Statistics, 2014. Income data from the National Center for Children in Poverty, “Basic Facts about Low-Income Children: Children Under 6 Years, 2013,” Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, 2015. Low-income children are most likely to benefit from high-quality pre-k, pointing to the need to improve the overall quality of early learning programs.Yoshikowa et al., Investing in Our Future, 2.

The Building Blocks of Quality

Comprehensive early learning standards and curricula
High-quality programs have curricula that are based on comprehensive early learning standards, address the whole child, are developmentally appropriate, and are effectively implemented.

According to professional standards, high-quality pre-k programs are based on early learning standards that address multiple domains of development—academic, social-emotional, and physical—to ensure children are growing in all the ways that enable them to be healthy and ready for school.National Education Goals Panel, Reconsidering Children’s Early Development and Learning: Toward Common Views and Vocabulary (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1955). They also implement developmentally appropriate curricula, which emphasize guided learning opportunities that are language-rich and hands-on.US Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families Office of Head Start, prepared by the National Center for Quality Teaching and Learning, Preschool Curriculum Consumer Report, 2015; National Association for the Education of Young Children, Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8, 2009. Research finds that students who are engaged with content in deep ways while developing conceptual understanding are better able to develop skills in specific areas, such as math or language development.Yoshikawa et al., Investing in Our Future. However, a curriculum must be well implemented if it is to be effective. Strong preservice teacher preparation and in-class coaching for teachers increase the likelihood that curricula will be used effectively.Nikki Aikens and Lauren Akers, Background Review of Existing Literature on Coaching (Washington, DC: Mathematica Policy Research, 2011).

Appropriate child assessments
High-quality early childhood education programs assess the whole child.

The National Research Council stresses the importance of using well-planned and effective assessments of children in early learning classrooms in order to improve instruction and program planning. These assessments should encompass the whole child—academic, social-emotional, and physical—and should be part of a coherent system of educational, medical, and family support services.Catherine E. Snow and Susan B. Van Hemel and the Committee on Developmental Outcomes and Assessments for Young Children, Early Childhood Assessment: Why, What, and How (Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2008). For example, many states have adopted the research-backed Teaching Strategies GOLD assessment, which prompts teachers to collect observational data ranging from children’s physical and social-emotional development to their literacy and math skills.Do-Hong Kim, Richard G. Lambert, and Diane C. Burts, “Evidence of the Validity of Teaching Strategies GOLD® Assessment Tool for English Language Learners and Children with Disabilities,” Early Education and Development 24 (2013): 574–595, doi: 10.1080/10409289.2012.701500; Teaching Strategies, Teaching Strategies GOLD Assessment System: A Technical Summary, 2013. These data can be used to track children’s progress over time and plan instruction tailored to students’ strengths and needs.

Professional knowledge and skill
Strong programs ensure that staff know how to support children’s learning and development.

Nearly all programs with a track record of success, including the public preschool programs in Tulsa, Boston, New Jersey, and Michigan, require their lead teachers, who not only instruct children but manage the classroom, to have a bachelor’s degree with a specialization in early childhood education.Pamela Kelley and Gregori Camilli, The Impact of Teacher Education on Outcomes in Center-Based Early Childhood Education Programs: A Meta-analysis (working paper, NIEER, New Brunswick, NJ 2007), 5–7. Studies have found that teachers’ specialized knowledge about child development and instruction for young children is particularly important.Marisa Bueno, Linda Darling-Hammond, and Danielle Gonzales, Preparing Teachers for Pre-K: What Policymakers Should Know and Be Able to Do (Washington, DC: Pre-K Now, 2008). Both the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council recommend that states align qualifications for educators of children from birth to age eight, with all lead teachers having a bachelor’s degree and specialization in early childhood.LaRue Allen and Bridget B. Kelly, eds. Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth through Age 8: A Unifying Foundation (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2015), 511–521. Well-prepared teachers have the knowledge and skills to provide engaging interactions and classroom environments to support children’s learning.

A strong teacher preparation pipeline can help ensure a sufficient supply of qualified teachers. When New Jersey expanded its preschool program, for example, it created multiple pathways to licensure, including more teacher preparation programs, a post-baccalaureate degree for teachers with bachelor’s degrees in other fields, and scholarships for current early educators to gain greater knowledge and skill. Retaining high-quality staff is also important. Increasing compensation for early learning providers can reduce turnover, as well as attract high-quality candidates. Teacher turnover in early education is high, with low compensation a primary factor in teachers’ decisions to leave.Marcy Whitebook and Laura Sakai, “Turnover Begets Turnover: An Examination of Jobs and Occupational Instability Among Childcare Center Staff,” Early Childhood Research Quarterly 18, no. 3 (2003): 273–293; Child Care Services Organization, Working in Early Care and Education in North Carolina: 2012 Workforce Study (Chapel Hill, NC: Author, 2012), 19–21.

Ongoing support for teachers
Coaching and mentoring can improve teaching quality.

Strong early education systems support teachers throughout their career by providing coaching and mentoring. While research is in the early stages, coaching appears to be linked to improved student-teacher interactions, less teacher burnout, and increased teacher retention in the field.Aikens and Akers, Background Review of Existing Literature on Coaching. One study in Washington State, for instance, showed that programs that offered coaching had significantly lower teacher turnover, as well as higher quality ratings.Kimberly Boller et al., Seeds to Success Modified Field Test: Findings from the Outcomes and Implementation Studies (Princeton, NJ: Mathematica Policy Research, 2010). Coaching is integral to many programs that show strong results. For example, both Boston’s and Michigan’s demonstrably effective public preschool programs employ county- or district-based coaches who work one-on-one with teachers and with entire staffs.

Support for diverse learners
High-quality early learning programs meet the needs of all students, including English learners and students with special needs.

Research is clear that preschool has positive academic effects for English learners, who make academic gains equal to or greater than those of other preschoolers.Katharine Magnuson, Claudia Lahaie, and Jane Waldfogel, “Preschool and School Readiness of Children of Immigrants,” Social Science Quarterly 87 (2006): 1241–1262, doi: 10.1111/j.1540-6237.2006.00426. Native Spanish speakers who participated in Tulsa’s preschool program or Head Start, for instance, progressed more in their language development by the end of kindergarten than non-English learners.Michael Puma et al., Head Start Impact Study: Final Report (Washington, DC: US Department of Health and Human Services, 2010); W. T. Gormley, “The Effects of Oklahoma’s Pre-K Program on Hispanic Children,” Social Science Quarterly 89 (2008): 916–936. One way to accelerate English learners’ development may be to provide some instruction in their home language. A study of pre-k programs in 11 states showed that native Spanish speakers’ reading and math scores improved more when they received more instruction in their native language, particularly when their teacher was caring and supportive.Margaret Burchinal et al., “Instruction in Spanish in Pre-kindergarten Classrooms and Child Outcomes for English Language Learners,” Early Childhood Research Quarterly 27 (2012): 188–197.

Many long-term studies show that preschool can reduce the likelihood that a student will need to participate in costly special education programs.Greg Duncan and Katherine Magnuson, “Investing in Preschool Programs,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 27, no. 2 (2013): 109–132. Emerging evidence also suggests that preschool may have particularly positive effects for students who have already been identified as having special needs. For example, a large study showed that three-year-olds with special needs who enrolled in Head Start had reduced inattentive behavior, fewer learning problems, and better teacher-child relationships by first grade than similar non-participants.Puma et al., Head Start Impact Study, 8-3. There is some evidence that inclusion programs, in which students with special needs learn alongside their peers, benefit students more than programs that pull them out of the classroom.US Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, The Scientific Base for the Benefits of Inclusion (Washington, DC: US Department of Health and Human Services, 2010): 3–4.

Meaningful family engagement
High-quality programs engage families in meaningful ways.

Positive family-program connections have been linked to greater academic motivation, grade promotion, and socio-emotional skills across all types of young children, including those from diverse ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds.Sandra L. Christenson, “Families and Schools: Rights, Responsibilities, Resources, and Relationships,” The Transition to Kindergarten, ed. Robert C. Pianta and Martha J. Cox (Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co., 2000), 143–177; P. Mantzicopoulos, “Flunking Kindergarten after Head Start: An Inquiry into the Contribution of Contextual and Individual Variables,” Journal of Educational Psychology 95, no. 2 (2003): 268–278; C. McWayne et al., “A Multivariate Examination of Parent Involvement and the Social and Academic Competencies of Urban Kindergarten Children,” Psychology in the Schools, 41, no. 3 (2004): 363–377. Research finds that high levels of family engagement often result from strong program-family partnerships characterized by trust, shared values, ongoing communication, mutual respect, and attention to the child’s well-being.Margaret Caspe, and M. Elena Lopez, Lessons from Family-Strengthening Interventions: Learning from Evidence-Based Practice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Family Research Project, 2006). For example, one study on the impact of program-family partnerships for Early Head Start showed program families were more likely to support their children’s development and literacy skills than families not in the program.Mathematica Policy Research, Inc., and Center for Children and Families at Teachers College, Columbia University, Building Their Futures: How Early Head Start Programs Are Enhancing the Lives of Infants and Toddlers in Low-Income Families, 2001. Professional standards promote acceptance of all families by incorporating parents as role models and by celebrating the cultures of all families. They also recommend working with families in ongoing, collaborative goal setting for children.Anne T. Henderson and Karen L. Mapp, A New Wave of Evidence: The Impact of School, Family, and Community Connections on Student Achievement (Austin, TX: National Center for Family & Community Connections with Schools Southwest Educational Development Laboratory, 2002); Linda Halgunseth, “Family Engagement, Diverse Families, and Early Childhood Education Programs: An Integrated Review of the Literature,” National Association for the Education of Young Children, 2009.

Sufficient time
Children benefit from more learning time, including year-round programs over multiple years.

Research shows that more daily instructional time can yield bigger benefits for children.Barbara Wasik and Emily Snell, Synthesis of Preschool Dosage: Unpacking How Quantity, Quality and Content Impacts Child Outcomes (white paper, Temple University, 2015), 4–5. While some part-day programs have shown strong results, most highly effective programs provide full-day preschool. Full-day preschool appears to be particularly effective for low-income children. An evaluation of the long-term impact of the Chicago Child-Parent Centers, for example, showed that children attending the program for a full day scored better on measures of social-emotional development, math and reading skills, and physical health than similar children attending the program part day.Arthur Reynolds et al. “Association of a Full-Day vs. Part-Day Preschool Intervention with School Readiness, Attendance, and Parent Involvement,” JAMA 312, no. 20 (2014): 2126–2134. An analysis of national Head Start data also suggests that children who enrolled in the program full day performed better in reading and math.Christopher R. Walters, “Inputs in the Production of Early Childhood Human Capital: Evidence from Head Start,” American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 7, no. 4 (2015): 76–102.

Attending preschool for more than one year can also benefit children. While children appear to reap the greatest benefit from their first year in a program, most studies find that children who attend preschool for two or three years do better than those who attend for one year.Wasik and Snell, “Synthesis of Preschool Dosage,” 6–7; Yoshikowa, Investing in Our Future, 5. A recent study of the Chicago Child-Parent Centers, for instance, showed that children who enrolled at age three and stayed for two years were less likely to need special education services and less likely to commit crimes later in life compared with children who started preschool at age four.Irma Arteaga et al., “One Year of Preschool or Two: Is It Important for Adult Outcomes?” Economics of Education Review, 40 (2014): 221-237.

Appropriate class size and teacher-student ratio
The most successful preschool programs have small class sizes and low teacher-student ratios.

Having fewer students in a classroom and more staff facilitates high-quality interactions between teachers and children. Although there is little research on the optimal number, a class size of 20 with a student-to-staff ratio of 10:1 is the largest acceptable by general professional standards.W. Steven Barnett, Karen Schulman, and Rima Shore, “Class Size: What’s the Best Fit?” (New Brunswick, NJ: National Institute for Early Education Research, 2004). Programs that have shown very strong child outcomes, including Perry Preschool and New Jersey’s Abbott Preschool Program, have class sizes with low student-to-staff ratios. Perry Preschool capped classes at 12 students, with two teachers per class. New Jersey’s Abbott Preschool Program allows for a maximum of 15 students per classroom, also with two staff members.

Comprehensive program assessments
Exemplary early childhood systems assess program quality in terms of both structure and classroom interactions.

Structural features and classroom interactions are important indicators of program quality. Traditionally, assessments of program quality primarily have relied on structural measures such as the National Institute for Early Education Research’s 10 benchmarks of quality, which include indicators like class size and teacher qualifications.W. Steven Barnett, The State of Preschool 2014, National Institute for Early Education Research, 2014. Recent research highlights the importance of also including measures of the quality of educational experiences, such as the nature of child-teacher interactions and the types of learning activities in which children engage.Terri Sabol et al., “Can Rating Pre-K Programs Predict Children’s Learning?” Science, 6148 (2013): 845-6. A review of the literature finds inconsistent evidence that structural quality features alone lead to improved child outcomes. However, a structural quality element such as small class size can facilitate learning when it is paired with high-quality teacher-child interactions, leading to improved outcomes for children.Martha Zaslow et al., Quality Dosage, Thresholds, and Features in Early Childhood Settings: A Review of the Literature, OPRE 2011-5 (Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, US Department of Health and Human Services, 2010).

Quality rating and improvement systems
Many states use a QRIS to improve the quality of early education programs.

A quality rating and improvement system (QRIS) establishes quality standards and supports continuous improvement efforts. It can provide the basis for states to build a well-supported system that includes the quality building blocks this brief describes. An emerging body of research examining the design and implementation of QRIS standards finds mixed evidence linking QRIS rating levels to child outcomes, and the degree to which a QRIS is well implemented appears to be a critical factor in achieving positive outcomes.Gretchen Kirby et al., “What Do Quality Rating Levels Mean? Examining the Implementation of QRIS Ratings to Inform Validation,” Early Childhood Research Quarterly 30 (2015): 291–305. These systems are designed to specify quality, provide a basis for program accountability, and support program improvement. That support can take the form of technical assistance, such as on-site coaching or consultation; financial incentives, like tiered child care subsidy reimbursement rates and quality improvement grants; and workforce supports, like wage subsidies or scholarships for teachers pursuing higher education.Aleksandra Holod et al., Moving Up the Ladder: How Do States Deliver Quality Improvement Supports Within Their Quality Rating and Improvement Systems?, 2015. Forty states are using a statewide quality rating and improvement system.QRIS, “Current Status of QRIS in States,” 2015.

Policy Implications

The research and professional standards presented in this brief identify elements of early education programs that contribute to strong academic and social-emotional outcomes for children. All states must determine a funding strategy for their early childhood programs. One cost model estimates that high-quality programming costs in the range of $8,521 per child with a class size of 20 to $10,375 per child with a class size of 15, if the program is a full-day, year-round, and led by a teacher with a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education.Barbara Gault, Anne W. Mitchell, and Eric Williams. Meaningful Investments in Pre-K: Estimating the Per-Child Costs of Quality Programs, Institute for Women’s Policy Research, 2008. The model also assumes that the teacher is paid at typical kindergarten-level wages; Figures have been converted from 2007 to 2015 dollars using the Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index Calculator. Early education programs typically combine funding from a variety of federal, state, and local sources. Additionally, the per-child cost of high-quality programs varies depending on specific program features and regional cost-of-living differences.

What Does High-Quality Teaching Look Like?

The High-Quality Early Learning Project, directed by Beverly Falk, Ed.D. and funded by the Foundation for Child Development, offers images of high-quality early learning at East Harlem’s Central Park East 1, a pre-k classroom in a New York City public school. In this collection of videos, pre-k teacher Yvonne Smith explains how she supports young children to be thinkers and questioners through active experiences, interdisciplinary connections, and responsiveness to children’s diverse backgrounds, interests, and abilities. For more information on the High-Quality Early Learning Project, visit

The Building Blocks of High-Quality Early Childhood Education Programs by Marjorie Wechsler, Hanna Melnick, Anna Maier, and Joseph Bishop is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Photo: Flickr (Holger Zscheyge)