Quality and Access Matter in PreschoolEarly Childhood
The President’s proposal to expand preschool is a bold investment in the future of our children and of our country. Too often, low-income children begin kindergarten far behind their wealthier peers but quality preschool can help level the playing field. Learning also begins long before a child enters kindergarten. If we want our children to succeed in school, we must provide quality early education as early as possible.
Fourteen years ago, New Jersey launched our high-quality preschools in some of our most disadvantaged communities. From our experiences in developing and implementing these high-quality preschools, our state can provide a recipe for success for federal preschool expansion – trained teachers, small classes, quality curriculum, and a partnership between school districts and private community-based preschools that expands access to more children.
Quality and duration of the preschool program matter, as demonstrated by the success of New Jersey’s full-day quality preschools. A recent study by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) shows that students who attended our high-quality preschools are, by fourth or fifth grade, three-quarters of an academic year ahead of students who did not attend a high-quality preschool. These children were less likely to be held back a grade or require costly special education. When a program is both high-quality and full-day, the lasting effects on children’s development, knowledge, and skill can be significant and help children read on target by 3rd grade, improving their chances for long-term academic success.
The quality of the New Jersey’s preschool is built on qualified early learning teachers, small class sizes and a strong curriculum. This winning combination should be the foundation of the federal expansion. Young children learn differently than older students. Their teachers must possess strong early childhood education skills and training and must earn comparable salaries and have health benefits similar to their colleagues teaching the older students to sustain a stable workforce.
In New Jersey, school districts team up with child care centers, community-based preschools and Head Start to deliver high-quality preschool. While the standards are the same regardless of where the classroom is located, access is improved, which solves the problem of limited space in schools and is cost-effective. Parents are an important part of their children’s school success. In New Jersey, “family workers” provide a critical connection between school and home, making sure that all of a child’s needs are met. And New Jersey schools are now thinking through ways to connect preschool learning to kindergarten and beyond so that children coming out of high-quality preschools sustain the gains they made in those first two years of early learning. Building the preschool structure took time, but the strong foundation we have today was worth the time and effort.
Leadership and long-term commitment to investing in young learners is evident in school districts throughout our state. A recent Advocates for Children of New Jersey (ACNJ) survey found that districts currently receiving limited preschool state aid are ready and willing to expand their preschools so that more children reap its proven benefits. The survey also found that there is a high parent demand for full-day quality early learning.
New Jersey has long recognized that quality preschool leverages the substantial investment we make in K-12 education, especially for low-income families. This is an investment that pays enormous dividends for children, families, communities, and taxpayers. It is an investment in our children’s future – an investment we can no longer afford to delay.
Cynthia Rice, Senior Policy Analyst