As California legislators consider a new approach to financing the state’s preschool programs, they need to develop a funding strategy that will ensure those programs are high quality, according to a recent research brief.
“Economists have shown the benefits of early education investments, which generate approximately $7 for every dollar invested,” according to the researchers. “However, the potential of preschool can only be realized if programs are of high quality.” These savings occur in part because of reduced costs for special education, better high school graduation rates and fewer incarcerations.
The researchers from the Learning Policy Institute, a nonprofit based in Palo Alto, reviewed a large number of studies of successful programs to develop 10 “building blocks” – such as teacher qualifications, comprehensive standards and parent engagement – that are necessary for a high-quality program. They presented their findings in the brief, “The Building Blocks of High-Quality Early Childhood Education Programs.”
The cost of a high-quality program can range from $8,521 per child for a class of 20 children to $10,375 per child for a class of 15 students enrolled in a full-day, year-round program led by a teacher with a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education, according to the brief. But often the federal government and local sources, such as school districts and foundations, share the costs with states.
Lead researcher Marjorie Wechsler said although it’s important to invest in quality, “we need to build the quality of the programs in place rather than abandon ones that aren’t meeting the standards. You don’t necessarily have to have all the components to show positive benefits.”
One of the most important building blocks involves continually building teachers’ skills, Wechsler said. Ongoing support and training of teachers to improve teacher-child interaction is “really critical,” she said.
Sufficient time in school is also important, according to the researchers. A study of the Chicago Child-Parent centers, referred to in the brief, showed that children attending full-day programs had bigger gains on measures of social-emotional development, math and reading skills, and physical health. The benefits were particularly strong for children from low-income families.
Although going to preschool for two years shows more benefits than attending for one, the biggest gains are made during the first year of preschool, according to the brief.
The 10 building blocks outlined by the researchers include:
- Comprehensive early learning standards and curricula.
- Appropriate child assessments for social-emotional, academic and physical development.
- Professional knowledge and skill, including lead teachers with bachelor’s degrees.
- Ongoing support for teachers, which includes on-site coaching and mentoring.
- Support for diverse learners, including English learners and students with special needs.
- Meaningful family engagement, such as incorporating parents as role models.
- Sufficient time, with best results from full-day, year-round programs.
- Appropriate class size and student-teacher ratio.
- Comprehensive program assessments.
- Quality rating and improvement systems.