How difficult is “high-quality” preschool?

Well-known blogger Matt Yglesias had a post on preschool recently. In this post, Yglesias argued that implementing preschool programs at a large scale, at high-quality, is difficult.  Yglesias’s argument is overstated. The research suggests that most states and local governments can invest in more preschool in a way that can significantly improve child outcomes compared to the current policy alternatives.

Yglesias says that “I’m all for more investments in preschool, but…I see no particular reason to believe that talking about four-year-olds rather than ten-year-olds or sixteen-year-olds gets us out of the quality quandary….It’s not obvious how to run a really excellent preschool classroom any more than it’s obvious how to run a really excellent sixth grade classroom. “

But the policy issue in preschool education is somewhat different from the policy issue in K-12 education. For preschool education, the debate is over public funding for preschool, versus no public funding, for some group of children.  For K-12, there are no serious proposals to abolish sixth grade for some group of students, and then just send these students home for a year.

We know enough about what makes for quality in preschool that we can provide a publicly supported preschool program at a large-scale that is better than the alternatives for many children. There is evidence for preschool success on a large scale and in the long-run for preschool programs run by Chicago Public Schools. There is evidence for preschool success in improving kindergarten readiness at a large scale for preschool programs funded by the states of Oklahoma, West Virginia, Michigan, New Jersey, South Carolina,  New Mexico, and North Carolina.  All of these programs show success for participating children. That success is relative to the uneven quality mix of home care, child care, and private preschool programs that these children would otherwise attend.

These state and local areas have a wide variety of governments, political cultures, and social environments. The success of preschool investment in these wide variety of settings suggest that investing in preschool will in most cases beat the alternative of doing nothing.

Do we need to know more about what makes for higher quality preschool classrooms? Sure we do. But we know enough that we can implement publicly-funded preschool programs at a large scale that can get good results, compared to the alternatives without public funding.

For improving sixth grade, or other K-12 interventions, the issue is somewhat different. We’ve already settled the policy issue of public responsibility: there is significant public funding for K-12 education for children. The issue is over the magnitude of the funding, or how best to use the funding, etc. Such issues are more difficult, and controversial.

For preschool, there are similar difficult issues over exactly what teacher credentials to require, what is the best curriculum to use, and what the most efficient class size is.  I certainly agree that we need to invest in research on these important policy issues, so that we can get the best results out of additional investments in preschool. But if our additional investments in preschool have some reasonable class sizes, a curriculum that includes both hard skills and soft skills, and sufficiently high teacher salaries to attract and retain high quality teachers, than these programs will be successful, relative to the alternative of no public investments in preschool.

In other words, if the alternative is no preschool classroom at all, perhaps it doesn’t matter that we don’t know definitively how to run the best possible preschool classroom. If the alternative is “nothing”, all we need to run is a “reasonably good”” classroom to be helpful to many children. We know enough that we can create such “reasonably good” classrooms at a large scale, if the public funding and policy direction is sufficient.

This doesn’t mean that anything labeled “preschool” will work. If the class size is huge, publicly funded preschool will be no better than the alternative of no public funding. If the curriculum has minimal educational content, then public funding for preschool will not be an improvement over nothing.  If the public funding is so meager that good teachers constantly are leaving preschool settings, then publicly funded preschool will not improve child outcomes compared to the alternatives. But the research suggests that many state and local governments can figure out how to provide a preschool program that is better than the alternatives without public funding.

I should note that I’ve made similar arguments before in response to other bloggers. Some bloggers who are interested in promoting K-12 reform seem determined to emphasize the difficulty of quality in preschool education. Perhaps the concern is that investment in preschool may come at the expense of K-12 reform.  However, in my view, we need both investments in preschool education and K-12 reform. But investing in preschool education that will work on a large scale is, in my view, somewhat administratively easier to do, precisely because in this policy area, there is so much room to improve over what is currently available to many children. It’s easier to beat nothing than to beat something.

About timbartik

Tim Bartik is a senior economist at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, a non-profit and non-partisan research organization in Kalamazoo, Michigan. His research specializes in state and local economic development policies and local labor markets.
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