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States Have Improved Pre-K Quality Over the Past Decade

Yesterday, the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) released the latest version of it’s annual State of Preschool Yearbook. The Yearbook gives a helpful snapshot of national and state-level funding and enrollment in state-funded pre-K programs, but perhaps its most important information is included within the 10 quality standards it uses as a yardstick for every pre-K program. And because NIEER has been producing its quality standards for over a decade, now, it’s not hard to see where states are improving -- and where they haven’t made much progress at all.


We took a look at each of the 10 benchmarks with the charts above to get a sense of where states have made the most improvement. For the first time in NIEER’s recorded history, 100 percent of pre-K programs are covered by early learning standards that cover multiple domains, including: cognitive, language, and literacy skills; social-emotional development; and physical well-being. That can be chalked up, in large part, to federal policy -- the Bush administration’s Good Start, Grow Smart program required states to develop the standards, and applicants to the Obama administration’s Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge had to speak to their adoption.

There has also been huge improvement in the number of programs that offer visions, hearing, and health screenings and referrals for children, as well as referrals for social and support services for families. In 2002, just 52 percent of programs offered those screenings and referrals; today, nearly 70 percent do.

And a few of the benchmarks related to teacher training and classroom quality have grown almost as much. Fifty-seven percent of programs now require teachers to have a bachelor’s degree, compared with 45 percent in 2002. And nearly 80 percent are required to attend at least 15 hours per year of in-service training, compared with 64 percent in 2002. Eighty-five percent of states require specialized training in preschool education last year, compared with just three-quarters in 2002.

But not all states are improving so quickly on NIEER’s measures. Twenty-eight percent of states require assistant teachers to have at least a Child Development Associate (CDA) or equivalent credential; twenty-four percent did in 2002. And although ranking member Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) cited class size requirements in this morning’s Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions hearing as an example of over-regulation, it seems most states have always limited pre-K classes to 20 children or fewer. In 2002, 74 percent of programs set the limit at 20 kids, and today 85 percent do. That’s coupled with a maximum class size ratio of 1 teacher to 10 children, which 71 percent of programs had in place in 2002 and 87 percent do today.

A few other metrics have lost ground over the years. Whereas half of programs provided at least one meal per day to pre-K enrollees in 2002, 47 percent do today. And when NIEER began measuring in 2005 whether states conduct site visits of programs at least once every five years to ensure quality, 70 percent did; today, just 60 percent of state programs require those site visits.

Some of the NIEER quality metrics are more intrinsically essential than others to ensuring the quality of pre-K programs--and on some, the research is even mixed as to whether they’re necessary. Moreover, quality is typically best defined by a metric that’s harder to evaluate: the quality of teachers’ interactions with children. But overall, while it’s heartening to see that state pre-K programs are working to improve quality, it is concerning to see how uneven that progress has been across the benchmarks.