Education Secretary Stumps for High-Quality Preschool in Speech

By Christina A. Samuels — November 04, 2016 2 min read
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Cross-posted from Politics K-12

By Alyson Klein

There’s been a lot of talk about expanding access to preschool programs—but more must be done to ensure those programs are high quality, Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. said in a speech at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education Wednesday.

“Access to a low-quality program is no access at all,” King said. “It’s a false promise. It’s a missed opportunity. Well-off parents can pay to send their children to programs of the highest quality. If we don’t provide children of lower- and middle-income families with access to quality programs, our work is doing nothing to reduce inequity in our society.”

King gave shout-out to the Obama administration’s Race to the Top Early Learning grants, which said have kept quality in mind. That program and other administration efforts have encouraged states to use a “quality rating tool” so parents can better understand whether the programs they are selecting will benefit their children, King said. The number of states using a quality rating tool jumped from 17 to 40 during the administration’s tenure.

King noted that research consistently shows that there are big and lasting benefits to preschool. But also brought up a study from Vanderbilt University that looked at the long-term effects of Tennessee’s state pre-kindergarten program. That study found that by grade 3, kids who had participated in the program were more likely to have negative feelings about school than those that hadn’t. The study also found that the early academic gains from preschool students faded by the time those children reached 3rd grade, compared to children who did not attend state preschool.

“As you can imagine, this is troubling news to people like me, who believe in the power of publicly funded preschool to change lives,” King said.

But there may be lessons in this study, he added.

“We can’t ignore it,” he said. “It may point to implementation or oversight issue—or what happens to kids between kindergarten and the 3rd grade—but we don’t really know, and we need to continue asking questions. Personally, I think it’s a powerful reminder of the importance of not just access, but quality, and knowing which indicators of quality matter most.”

So how can early childhood programs improve quality? Making sure teachers are warm, nurturing, and can help students build their language skills, as well as making sure the environment is diverse and exposes children to peers from all different backgrounds, King said. What’s more, early-childhood education teachers need to be paid adequately, so that they don’t need to take on a second job to make ends meet, King said.

Early-childhood education is an area that both presidential candidates have said they want to address. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton wants to partner with states to move towards universal pre-kindergarten. And Republican nominee Donald Trump wants to offer paid maternity leave to mothers who don’t have it through their employer, as well as expand tax credits to help parents cover the cost of childcare. More here.

Photo:U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. addressed University of Virginia students on Wednesday as part of the annual distinguished speaker series sponsored by the Curry School of Education.—Sanjay Suchak, University of Virginia.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.