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G. Ensure Quality

The benefits of pre-k education are impressive; however, they vary greatly depending on the quality of each program. Therefore, it is important for school board members to give thorough consideration to how they will gauge the quality of their programs. School board members are not expected to be experts in early education. However, they should recognize that there are substantial differences between pre-k and K–12 education. High-quality early education encompasses multiple aspects of children’s development—physical, social, emotional, and cognitive—and requires different processes and elements to ensure the same quality than often exist within K–12.


Some of the most commonly used quality measures are structural benchmarks that are easily determined by numbers and certifications. For example a staff-child ratio of one-to-ten or lower, class size of less than twenty, and a lead teacher with a bachelor’s degree and specialized training in early childhood education have been identified as common benchmarks after years of researching high-quality programs. Many state pre-k programs have adopted one or more of these measures.

The National Institute for Early Education Research has developed a rubric of ten quality indicators to help policymakers in assessing program quality. From long-term research such as the High/Scope Perry Preschool Study, the Abecedarian Project, and the Chicago Child-Parent Centers, they have identified the key characteristics of programs that have produced the strongest economic returns and other significant benefits.


School leaders should not rely solely on the structural aspects of a program to ensure that children will receive a high-quality learning experience. Research shows that what happens inside the classroom—the interactions between teachers and students, the teacher’s implementation of a curriculum, and the learning standards in place—plays a significant role in preparing children for later school success. These process components are important aspects in evaluating the overall quality of a program.

There is wide agreement in the field that it is important to have a set of guidelines to ensure that all aspects of learning are addressed, and that there is a balance of teacher- and child-initiated activities. Tools such as the such as the Early Childhood Education Rating Scale (ECERS) exist to evaluate the various interactions that go on in a classroom between staff and children, parents, and among the children themselves, as well as the interactions children have with the many materials and activities in the environment. Such processes are assessed primarily through observation and have been found in some cases to be more predictive of child outcomes than structural indicators (Whitebook, Howes, and Phillips 1995).


A vital element of any quality approach involves coordination between preschool staff and kindergarten and elementary school staff, and parents, about what is expected of children when they enter kindergarten. This also involves making certain there is a consistency in the curriculum and types of instruction that all children receive. Districts should consider the elements and strategies to put in place that will encourage communication and partnerships between preschool and kindergarten staff.

Many states have developed their own early learning standards for what preschool-aged children should know and be able to do. There are also national models such as the Head Start Outcomes Framework to help guide policymakers in decisions regarding age-appropriate instruction and assessment.

We gratefully acknowledge The Pew Charitable Trusts for its support of our work related to pre-kindergarten. The views expressed are those of the Center for Public Education and not necessarily those of The Pew Charitable Trusts.

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