What is High-Quality Pre-K
Since ninety percent of brain development occurs during a child's first five years of life, early childhood experiences establish either a sturdy or a fragile foundation for everything that follows. High-quality, voluntary pre-kindergarten (pre-k) for four-year-olds is an effective early childhood education program that prepares children to succeed socially, emotionally and academically in kindergarten and beyond.
High-quality pre-k is a proven strategy for increasing the "school readiness" of all children. Alabama's Office of School Readiness defines school readiness as an ability to function in a social setting; age-appropriate communication and problem solving skills; age-appropriate physical and emotional skills; and optimal health. Research shows that when children enter kindergarten ready to learn, they are more likely to read proficiently in third grade, graduate from high school, attend college and become successful in the workplace.
Alabama's state funded pre-k program, First Class, has been recognized by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) for ten years in a row for meeting all 10 of the Institute's research-based benchmarks for quality. NIEER's Quality Standards Checklist represents a set of minimum policies needed to ensure the effectiveness of preschool education programs in preparing children for success in kindergarten and beyond.
NIEER Quality Standards Checklist:
- Comprehensive early learning standards
- Lead pre-k teachers have a bachelor's degree
- Lead pre-k teachers have specialized early childhood training
- Assistant pre-k teachers have a Childcare Development Associate (CDA)
- Teachers participate in substantial number of hours of professional development
- Maximum class size is 20 or fewer
- Staff to child ratio is 1:10 or less
- Children receive screening, referral and support services for vision, hearing, dental, health and other support areas
- Children are provided meals and/or snacks
- Systems hold individual classrooms accountable and monitor to ensure quality standards are being met.
Of the 10 standards, four involve teacher credentials and training. Teacher qualifications receive this emphasis in NIEER's checklist because research shows this area to be crucial in determining child outcomes. Better education and training for teachers can improve the interaction between children and teachers, which in turn affects children’s learning.
Class size and staff-child ratios are also emphasized in the Quality Standards Checklist, with the expectation that states will limit class sizes to 20 children at the most and have no more than 10 children per staff member. With smaller classes and fewer children per teacher, children have greater opportunities for interaction with adults and can receive more individualized attention, resulting in a higher quality program.
Early learning standards are also critical to quality as they offer programs guidance and ensure that they cover the full range of areas essential to children’s learning and development. Alabama meets this benchmark by requiring that First Class Pre-K classrooms use the Alabama Developmental Standards for Preschool Children.
The Quality Standards Checklist also addresses the comprehensive services that preschool education programs should be expected to offer. Programs should provide at least one meal; vision, hearing, and health screenings and referrals; and other support services, such as parent education, parent conferences and/or home visits, or referrals for such services. These items are included because children’s overall well-being and success in school involves not only their cognitive development, but also their physical and social/emotional health.
State policies requiring strong pre-k quality standards are essential, but it is also necessary to have a way to ensure that individual pre-k programs meet those standards. NIEER recommends that programs require, at a minimum, that all sites are visited for program quality at least once every five years to enforce standards and ensure high-quality education in state-funded preschool programs. Alabama exeeds this recommendation. Alabama First Class Pre-K programs are monitored multiple times a year by regional monitors, and teachers are supported by qualified coaches and provided with substantial professional development throughout the year.