RAND Study Points Out Challenges States Are Grappling with As They Expand High-Quality Preschool Programs

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August 23, 2005

States will need to overcome challenges if they are to successfully make high-quality pre-kindergarten programs universally available, according to a RAND Corporation report issued today.

The study says public pre-kindergarten programs being launched in several states have great potential, but face challenges including: making sure all children have equal access to educational services; finding enough well-trained teachers; and combining funds from different sources to support high-quality programs.

“The goals of expanding most programs are not only to serve more children, but to provide high-quality programs to all of the families that would like to have these services,” said Rachel Christina, a RAND researcher and lead author of the report. “It's the high-quality programs that have a lasting positive impact on children and benefit society at large.”

The report, titled “Going to Scale with High-Quality Early Education,” says that:

  • New preschool programs modeled on successful existing programs need to be closely monitored as they expand to ensure quality is maintained.
  • Training, professional development, and compensation of pre-K staff will be core concerns for states moving to large-scale public programs. There are currently not enough high-quality teachers available for expanded programs because of low salaries and limited training programs for pre-K staff.
  • The public needs to be educated to understand that the benefits of high-quality early childhood programs are not exclusively academic, and that strongly academic pre-K programs may not be the best approach. Fully preparing children for school should involve addressing a broad range of children's developmental and social needs.
  • To make expanded preschool programs accessible to all children and meet quality standards, close and collaborative relationships among public schools, community preschools and Head Start providers will be needed.
  • Officials should consider whether having pre-K efforts dominated by school districts might reduce access to the programs, particularly among minority families and others who are most in need for the services.
  • More high-quality data on large-scale pre-K programs are needed to inform the development of the field. Present efforts at evaluation need to be expanded and made more rigorous to support quality and program growth.

“The study encourages public investment in high-quality preschool, while pointing out the difficult issues that states are struggling with as programs move to a larger scale,” Christina said. “This report offers suggestions from existing state efforts for avoiding problems that could negatively affect program quality.”

Studies show that well-funded, well-designed early childhood education programs have long-term benefits for children. These include increased employment, reduced criminal activity, less dependence on social welfare assistance, and improved performance in school.

The RAND Education report was commissioned by The Early Childhood Funders' Collaborative and funded by The Heinz Endowments and The David and Lucile Packard Foundation as a part of their efforts to encourage the development of quality preschool programs nationally. The co-author was JoVictoria Nicholson-Goodman.

Researchers developed the report after reviewing past studies on the benefits of preschool education and interviewing state officials, policy advocates, and practitioner representatives in Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, Ohio, Oklahoma and Washington state.

Preschool education is an increasingly common experience, with about two-thirds of U.S. 4-year-olds in some type of program during 2001. But there are wide variations in enrollment rates based on factors such as a child's race, family income and parents' education.

The federal government supports preschool education targeted to disadvantaged children, primarily through the Head Start program that serves about 900,000 children. Thirty-six states provide additional support to make preschool available to disadvantaged children. Only Georgia and Oklahoma have preschool programs available to all 4-year-olds, although other states have signaled an interest in creating universal preschool.

Because funding for pre-K programs is scarce, most states combine their resources with funds from Head Start and other federal programs. But these various programs often have different eligibility and reporting requirements, creating administrative challenges for a unified effort.

Cobbling together funding also may lead states to narrow accountability systems, and has potentially negative implications for participation of the working poor in publicly funded pre-K programs, according to the report.

Without substantial, sustained funding, universal pre-K programs may fall short of reaching all children, researchers found. Some families may be unable to receive services because their neighborhoods do not have the classrooms or other resources needed to meet demand. Other families may be excluded because they do not meet income guidelines for subsidies.

RAND Education conducts research and analysis on topics including school reform, educational assessment and accountability, trends among teachers and teacher training.

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