Laying a Solid Floor: What’s Important to Know about the NIEER Pre-K Benchmarks

As the need for pre-K gains attention across the country, the data collected by the National Institute for Early Education Research are often cited by state leaders when they describe their programs. We asked Steve Barnett, Board of Governors Professor and Director of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University, to provide his take on what these benchmarks mean and how they should be used.

What makes a high-quality state pre-K program? This is not an easy question to answer, in large part, because the answer depends on how elements of quality are implemented by schools and other early learning providers. The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) offers one tool for helping to determine quality by establishing the floor for standards that states should have in place. They are not the high bar some policymakers and advocates interpret them to be.

For more than a decade, NIEER has surveyed the states to report on their policies regarding preschool education. Our report focuses on enrollment, standards relating to quality, and funding. Of these the least understood seems to be the 10 quality standards “benchmarks” against which we score state policies. For example, some believe that NIEER has designated a state pre-K program as high quality because it meets nearly all of the benchmarks. This is incorrect. The benchmarks represent minimal standards to support quality. In conjunction with other policies and adequate funding they are evidence of a state’s commitment to quality, and some states can be justifiably proud of meeting all of the benchmarks together with other policies that support quality including adequate funding, but the benchmarks do not indicate high quality on their own.

From 50 years of research it is clear that preschool programs can give a substantial boost to learning and development, especially for economically disadvantaged young children. But big gains are possible only if programs are of high quality. And, the essence of high quality is great teachers who provide excellent teaching, teachers who know, reflect on, and teach each individual child. Yet, quality per se is difficult to regulate from the state level. Among the tools that states can use to leverage quality less directly are standards for program structure.

The structural features of programs that a state can regulate--learning standards, class size and ratio, teacher qualifications, hours of professional develop, frequency of monitoring, and the like--are preconditions for quality. Structural features are weakly related to actual quality because even though they facilitate and may even be necessary for quality, they are far from sufficient. For example, small classes enable a teacher to get to know each child well and to spend more time working with children one-on-one and in small groups. I once asked a teacher with nearly 30 preschoolers how he individualized his teaching. He waved his hands at the room and said, “You see my class? It’s not possible.”  Yet, even teachers with small classes can still choose to provide primarily whole group instruction that is not individualized or attuned to each child’s needs.

A further complication is that research rarely can provide the precision policymakers would like regarding cutoffs for standards. In setting the benchmarks for the State of Preschool we basically asked two questions. What were the features of the programs that produce large gains for children in rigorous studies? What is the weakest requirement that one could set and still hope to produce those large gains? Admittedly, this is not a high bar. However, it is a bar that few state-funded pre-K programs met in 2001 when we began.

From the very first State of Preschool Yearbook, NIEER tried to be quite clear about what the benchmarks do and do not mean: “These benchmarks do not represent a high standard of excellence, but are viewed as important minimums for an educationally effective preschool program…”. We added: “This checklist should not be interpreted as implying that these are the only aspects of a program that are important for quality.” NIEER also has emphasized that the 10 are not all equal so that simply adding them up does not provide a strong basis for comparing states even on these aspects of quality.

As we continue to survey states and publish the State of Preschool we will change the benchmarks to reflect new research and the evolution of state pre-K (though it will still be possible to calculate the old benchmarks to track change over time). We are in the process of considering major changes for the 2015-16 survey and report. In addition, we are examining the feasibility of introducing a fourth major element in the report: a more direct indicator of teacher-child interactions. This will not obviate the need for the benchmarks for standards--even if we had such measures for every state they also are less than perfect--but it will help focus attention on quality beyond the benchmarks. Stay tuned."


Steve Barnett is a Board of Governors Professor and Director of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University.