Imagine a pre-K classroom. You might see a rug for reading time, shelves with books, blocks and art supplies, and rows of small cubbies. The walls are papered with student projects and child-height hooks for raincoats. Signs of curiosity, creativity, and exploration are everywhere.
But the most important feature of any pre-K classroom is the teacher surrounded by young children. We’ve long known that high-quality pre-K can help children enter kindergarten ready to learn—especially children from low-income families. We also know that the large majority of pre-K programs do a good job supporting the social and emotional needs of young children. Now, two papers highlight the central role teachers play in creating rich learning environments that produce lasting gains in student achievement—and the challenges we face in supporting high-quality instruction.
The most important feature of any pre-K classroom is the teacher surrounded by young children.
I interviewed early education practitioners and researchers and examined evaluations of pre-K programs from across the country. Those programs that achieved measureable outcomes that persisted into the early elementary grades—including pre-K programs in Boston, Maryland, New Jersey, and North Carolina—invest in teachers. They provide them with good instructional materials, ongoing feedback, and professional development. They set high standards for training and pay teachers like the professionals that they are. These programs do a lot of things well, but most of all, they focus relentlessly on improving the quality of instruction and outcomes for children.
This video from Boston Public Schools shows what high-quality instruction looks like in a pre-K classroom.
Sounds expensive, right? Although successful small-scale early learning programs from the 1960s and 1970s are cost-prohibitive to replicate at scale today, high-quality pre-K can be implemented in most states and cities at a sustainable cost of $8-10,000 per child per year (the range allows for differences in labor costs between urban and rural areas).
And states and cities are achieving dramatic results. In New Jersey, children in high-poverty areas have access to one or two years of high-quality pre-K, which produce significant gains in vocabulary, literacy, and mathematics. Researchers studied children who participated in the program through the fifth grade and found that long-term effects are equivalent to an increase of 10 percentage points in state test scores. In Boston, students tracked through third grade show math, literacy, and language skills considerably more advanced than those of same-age children who did not attend Boston Pre-K. In Maryland, high-quality pre-K has led to an increase kindergarten readiness of 33 percentage points in ten years.
These programs share a set of common characteristics that allow them to foster high-quality instruction, as well as support educators and young learners. They also benefit from an enabling political and policy environment. These “essential elements of high-quality pre-K” provide a valuable template for improving state and federal pre-K programs. A full list of the essential elements, as well as a literature review and cost analysis of high-quality pre-K is available in a new paper I've written: Lessons from Research and the Classroom: Implementing High-Quality Pre-K that Makes a Difference for Young Children.
Supporting high-quality instruction is a big challenge for the early learning field in part because of the fragmented nature of the pre-K workforce. Unlike the training and education requirements for K-12 teachers, these requirements for pre-K teachers are inconsistent. For example, more than nine in 10 K-12 teachers have a B.A., while just 45% of early childhood educators have a four-year degree. And, pre-K teachers are paid substantially less than K-12 teachers.
Investigating how these two personnel systems work is an important part of increasing pre-K quality and the topic of another new paper, Building a Skilled Teacher Workforce: Shared and Divergent Challenges in Early Care and Education and in Grades K-12, written by Marcy Whitebook, Ph.D.
This is an exciting time for early learning. We now know more than ever before about the important role high-quality pre-K can play in accelerating learning for young children. As states and cities look to expand pre-K, it’s essential to focus on supporting educators so that all children can enter school ready to learn and prepared to thrive in elementary school and beyond.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is committed to learning from partners and the educators and researchers who study high-quality programs. For more information about the Foundation's work in early learning, visit: Early Learning.