A new “report card” on state-financed preschool programs concludes that states still have a long way to go to provide young children with high-quality educational experiences before they start kindergarten.
While the report issued last week by the National Institute for Early Education Research, in New Brunswick, N.J., doesn’t give states a grade or a score, it does compare them with other states on a number of measures. They include the percentage of 3- and 4-year-olds the states are serving, how well the states are meeting specific quality benchmarks, and how much they are spending per child.
Indicators of quality include the level of education of preschool teachers, curriculum standards, parent involvement, and whether a meal is served during the program hours.
For example, the first state listed in the report, Alabama, ranks 35th on the percentage of 4-year-olds served by the state’s prekindergarten program. And because the program doesn’t serve any 3-year- olds, it is tied for last place, along with many other states, on the percentage of 3-year-olds it serves.
Tracking Preschool Spending
|1.||New Jersey’s Abbot Program:||$10,088|
|SOURCE: National Institute for Early Education Research|
But in the category of resources—the amount of state money spent per child in the state—Alabama ranks 15th.
The purpose of the report, “The State of Preschool,” which will be updated annually, is to draw greater attention to states’ early-childhood efforts. Future data will be measured against this year’s baseline information.
“It’s a way to hold states accountable,” said W. Steven Barnett, the executive director of the institute, which is a project of the Pew Charitable Trusts, based in Philadelphia. “Our hope is that once states know someone is paying attention, then they’ll do a better job.”
Anne Mitchell, the founder of Early Childhood Policy Research, a consulting organization in Climax, N.Y., said she expects state policymakers and advocates to use the report to compare their policies with those in other states.
“Reports like this, issued regularly, can be benchmarks of progress and spur action,” she said.
In another effort funded by Pew, Education Week released a report two years ago, Quality Counts 2002: Building Blocks for Success, that also examined state efforts in early-childhood education.
As it is, the new report found that only three states met nine of the 10 quality benchmarks. They were Arkansas, Illinois, and New Jersey, through its Abbott program, a court-ordered effort stemming from a lawsuit over educational equity.
In Arkansas, the preschool program has focused its efforts on crafting standards, aligning the preschool program with the K-2 curriculum, and training preschool teachers to meet specific standards.
Plus, the legislature voted this month to put $40 million more into the state’s pre-K programs, according to Janie Huddleston, the director of the division of child care and early-childhood education in the state’s department of human services. “We feel like that is a tremendous step forward,” she said.
Ms. Huddleston noted that the state’s system of early- childhood education is administered by the department of human services, not the state department of education. That assignment of responsibility is important, she argued, because the program can focus on the total needs of families, not just the educational needs of the children. She recommended that other states adopt a similar structure.
States should “develop a map for the whole early child-care system—not just education, but social, emotional, mental health, family involvement,” Ms. Huddleston said. “I think that’s the key.”
Of the 43 state programs from which researchers were able to gather information, 19 met fewer than half of the 10 benchmarks.
“Several states are leading the way,” the report says, “but the rest must follow if all our children are to receive the early education they deserve.”
‘Laggard to a Leader’
Only two states, Georgia and Oklahoma, have approached what is considered “universal access,” according to the report. They are serving more than half the 4-year-olds in their states. And 4-year-olds still represent the vast majority of young children served by state preschool programs nationwide.
Georgia and Oklahoma are also highlighted in the report as examples of how programs can take children from diverse backgrounds—sometimes with extremely limited knowledge and skills—and prepare them for kindergarten.
Even so, 22 states still enroll fewer than 10 percent of 4-year-olds. Only Massachusetts and New Jersey, meanwhile, are serving more than 10 percent of 3-year- olds.
New Jersey is also cited as having “exemplary” policies for its Abbott preschool program, in which per-child spending—almost $11,000— rates among the highest in the nation. The report points to other states because of recent shifts in state preschool policies that it says may eventually hinder or help those states in providing preschool to more children. Ohio, for example, recently replaced state funds for a Head Start- like program with federal welfare dollars, a source that the report calls “potentially unstable.”
Meanwhile, the report says, a fairly small state initiative in Pennsylvania is scheduled to begin next fall with $175 million in block grants for school districts, which can spend the money on preschool or full-day kindergarten programs.
“If Pennsylvania provided funding specifically for a preschool program, it could change from a laggard to a leader with respect to both access and quality standards,” the report says.
Ten states do not provide any funding for preschool, but three of them— Alaska, Indiana, and New Hampshire—have supplemented the federal Head Start program.
Mr. Barnett of the National Institute for Early Education Research added that one of the results of conducting the study was learning how little information exists yet about programs serving preschoolers.
“There is a lot of information that is not available,” he said. “We shouldn’t have to guess how many 3- and 4-year-olds are served. If you don’t know how many you’re serving, then you don’t know how much you’re spending per child.”
Editorial Assistant Catherine A. Carroll contributed to this report.