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The Road to High-Quality Early Learning: Lessons From the States

The Road to High-Quality Early Learning: Lessons from the States

Early education has emerged as a critical issue for state policymakers, who during the 2015–16 fiscal year alone invested nearly $7 billion in programs for our country’s youngest learners.Education Commission of the States (2016). State pre-k funding for 2015–16 fiscal year: national trends in state preschool funding. Denver, CO: Education Commission of the States. Support for preschool is broad and diverse, present in large and small states, in those densely and sparsely populated, and in states led by both Republicans and Democrats. Although there is considerable research on the elements of high-quality preschool and its many benefits,Wechsler, M., Melnick, H., Maier, A., & Bishop, J. (2016). The building blocks of high-quality early childhood education programs. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute. there is little information available to policymakers about how to convert their visions of good early education into on-the-ground reality.

This report fills that gap by describing and analyzing how four states—Michigan, West Virginia, Washington, and North Carolina—have built high-quality early education systems. It is based on reviews of policy documents, studies, and data in each state, as well as observations of programs and interviews with 159 individuals, including policymakers, program administrators, providers, teachers, parents, advocates, and researchers. These states exemplify an array of promising practices that are designed to meet a state’s needs and to satisfy its priorities.

Despite their differences, these states share a common commitment to advancing foundational elements of a high-quality preschool education. To make engaging, age-appropriate programs a reality, each of the states relies on common overarching strategies: establishing standards for quality and systems that incentivize improvement; investing in knowledgeable and skilled educators; coordinating and aligning early education programs; seeking sufficient funding sources and mechanisms; and building broad-based support.

Lessons From the States

Although there is no single roadmap to excellence, the experiences of these states provide important insights into how best to leverage resources and develop the policies and practices to improve and expand early learning opportunities. These insights are as follows:

  1. Prioritize Quality and Continuous Improvement: Recognizing the critical role of program quality in achieving positive child outcomes, each of the states has invested in strategies to improve its early education programs. Key lessons include:
    • Define and use state quality standards that incorporate assessments of adult-child interactions, as well as structural factors, such as adult-child ratios and facility requirements.
    • Develop quality rating and improvement systems to support continuous improvement, reinforce quality standards, and provide a basis for program accountability.
    • Link funding to ratings as a tool for promoting quality.
    • Develop a strong local infrastructure to meet the needs of diverse communities.
  2. Invest in Training and Coaching: These four states place heavy emphasis on boosting the quality of preschool teachers, focusing both on their credentials and their interactions with students. Key lessons include:
    • Invest in strengthening teacher quality by providing specialized training.
    • Make training programs accessible to providers.
    • Encourage teacher advancement and retention through scholarships and salary supplements.
    • Provide coaching to improve program quality.
  3. Coordinate the Administration of Birth-Through-Grade-3 Programs: Pre-k historically has been kept entirely separate from k-12, but these four states are seeking to create a seamless educational experience for youngsters, aligning what is taught and how it is taught from preschool through elementary school. Key lessons include:
    • House all children’s services under one umbrella or create a children’s cabinet department that works across agencies.
    • Improve coordination across programs and systems by sharing data and aligning curriculums and assessments.
  4. Strategically Combine Multiple Funding Sources to Increase Access and Improve Quality: Adequate resources are essential to assuring high-quality early education. While these four states depend primarily on state dollars as the main revenue source for early education, they also take advantage of federal and local funding. Key lessons include:
    • Fund early education programs with dedicated state dollars combined, or braided with funding from Head Start and other federal programs (e.g., Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Early Head Start) to make the most efficient use of available resources and to expand access and quality.
    • Leverage short-term funds and public-private partnerships.
  5. Create Broad-Based Coalitions and Support: Launching a high-quality early education initiative—or building a bigger and better program—is hard work. These four states rely on broad-based support to advance their efforts. Key lessons include:
    • Bring together advocates, politicians, philanthropists, practitioners, and business leaders to work closely with policymakers at promoting high-quality, accessible early education.
    • Offer parents a choice of providers.
    • Cultivate champions.


These states, committed to public early education, are striving to make preschool better, understanding that quality is essential to realize preschool’s potential. Delivering top-quality early education is a complex undertaking, and none of these states is ready to declare, “Mission accomplished!” It will take time and effort—as well as public investment—before the goal of delivering seamless, high-quality support for young children can be fully realized. But these four states are heading in that direction, and their experiences and lessons provide valuable guideposts for policymakers nationwide who are committed to providing high-quality preschool for all.

The Road to High-Quality Early Learning: Lessons from the States by Marjorie Wechsler, David Kirp, Titilayo Tinubu Ali, Madelyn Gardner, Anna Maier, Hanna Melnick, and Patrick Shields is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.