Universal kindergarten is coming. Will it be high quality?

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Should preschool classes be limited to 16 children? Should teachers have a bachelor’s degree? Should classrooms be visited annually in person by expert assessors?

These are some of the questions Colorado leaders will face as they undertake the daunting task of defining what a high-quality preschool looks like — and deciding how it should be measured — when the state launches a school. free kindergarten for 4-year-olds in 2023.

The new universal program, which will be funded by a voter-approved nicotine tax, has been a priority for Governor Jared Polis since taking office in 2018. It represents a major expansion of the current government-funded preschool program. State of Colorado, which serves approximately 23,000 children from low-income households or who have poor social skills, language delays or other risk factors.

Experts say preschool can produce both short- and long-term benefits for children, but only if it’s high quality. This is why a winning formula must be found from the outset, but with many criteria to choose from, an already stretched early childhood workforce and limited funds for child care improvement efforts. quality is easier said than done.

“There is so much talk around the quality of scoring. … It’s very complicated,” said Sherri Valdez, executive director of the San Luis Valley Early Childhood Council in southern Colorado. “My hope is that social and emotional development will take priority no matter which direction we go.”

Melissa Mares, senior early years policy analyst at the Colorado Children’s Campaign, wants the state’s approach to take a holistic view of young children, give families a voice and better align various parameters.

“Our current measurements provide a very good baseline, but this is an opportunity to reinvent it,” she said.

Khatira Amn, an early childhood education policy advocate at the Denver-based Spring Institute for Intercultural Learning, said she wants the universal preschool curriculum to be culturally and linguistically appropriate by working to attract bilingual teachers, training teachers to work with diverse populations and communicating with parents in their native language — even if it’s not English or Spanish.

Amn, who is originally from Afghanistan, saw a moment of cultural recognition resonate in his own preschooler when his teacher asked him about the Muslim holiday of Eid his family celebrates.

“It was a very small culture-related conversation, but it really had a huge impact on my son,” she said. “He was extremely happy.”

Vision vs reality

Colorado’s current state-funded preschool program serves about a quarter of the state’s 4-year-olds and a smaller number of 3-year-olds. It has an annual budget of around $128 million and provides most children with 10 hours per week of tuition-free preschool education, although some get more.

Colorado’s nicotine tax will bring in a flurry of new preschool funding — about $165 million in the first year of the program and slightly more in subsequent years — allowing the state to offer tuition-free preschool to all 4 year old children.

Like the current version, the universal program will provide 10 hours of lessons per week, although children with the highest needs may benefit from additional hours and services. Funding from the current targeted preschool program will be rolled into the new program.

The universal preschool will be voluntary for families, but it is likely that many will be interested even if it is only half a day. Depending on how many families choose to participate, publicly funded preschool enrollment could triple.

State leaders planning for universal preschool rollout have vigorously embraced the vision of quality at all levels, stipulating that each provider will have to meet certain standards to participate. But the reality is that even Colorado’s current preschool program – a much smaller version of what is planned – is not a quality example.

More than 40 percent of program providers have one of the two lowest scores in the state’s five-level quality measurement system, Colorado Shines. Additionally, the curriculum requirements, which limit class sizes to 16, demand weekly planning time from teachers, and mandate regular assessments of children, meet only 4 of the 10 quality criteria recommended by the National Institute. Early Education Research Center at Rutgers University.

W. Steven Barnett, co-senior director of the institute, said states that meet the 10 criteria do not automatically have a high-quality preschool, but will have key ingredients in the mix, especially processes that help preschool providers to continuously improve.

“Landmarks are a starting point for politics,” he said. “You might think of them as a gateway to quality, not quality assurance.”

Barnett said quality standards must match the goals of public preschool programs. Many states, including Colorado, have the goal-setting part of the equation but fail to match them with quality metrics, he said.

Teachers make the difference

Experts say strong, well-supported teachers are essential to a high-quality preschool, and baccalaureate requirements are one way to achieve this. Degrees aren’t required in Colorado, in part because, as in many states, preschool teachers often earn less than fast-food workers — a median hourly wage of $15 — and many have neither the time or money to pursue their studies.

To complicate matters, labor shortages have recently prompted state officials to lower the qualifications of child care and preschool teachers, paving the way for even less educated and experienced people to work. join the labor market.

“We tend to find a hot body and pay them peanuts,” said Valdez, of the San Luis Valley Early Childhood Council. “We have a lot of work to do and it comes down to money.”

While Colorado has a number of initiatives underway to offer training and support to early childhood providers — as well as the promise of a nicotine tax proceeds — it’s unclear how far it will go. the money.

“Are they going to try to stretch the available funding too much? Barnet said. “You can kind of see the 10 a.m. as a symptom of that.”

A spokesperson for the governor said the state’s new Department of Early Childhood, set to launch in July, will convene a panel this summer to review various sets of quality standards and create a set for early childhood education. universal which will be in addition to the minimum licensing requirements.

Although there are 18 months left before the official launch of the universal preschool program, it will be a “very tight” timetable to establish and communicate the requirements to preschool providers who wish to participate, said Debi Mathias, director of the Network of ECE quality improvement systems. to the BUILD Initiative, a national organization that helps states develop early childhood systems.

One possible solution to both the lack of time and money, she said, is to set high standards but give providers a window of time — say, two to five years — to meet them. The state’s preschool recommendations, finalized in January, nod to this kind of phased approach.

“You can have a vision of where you want to be and come up with strategies and implementation plans that give people time to get there,” Mathias said.

Colorado shines

A preschooler at the Teaching Tree Early Learning Center in Fort Collins.
Courtesy of Teaching Tree Early Learning Center

The two Teaching Tree early learning centers that Anne Lance runs in northern Colorado are highly rated – Level 4 – under the Colorado Shines system. But it takes its staff many hours and a lot of paperwork to prepare for the assessments.

“I don’t necessarily think it’s about reinventing the wheel,” she said. “Certainly simplifying it would help.”

Another problem, she said, is the cycle of evaluations every three years. A bad day when the evaluator visits means that a single snapshot can last a long time.

To complicate matters further, Colorado’s universal preschool program will be offered at schools, community sites, and state-licensed homes. It’s a mix of choices that proponents applaud, but applying a consistent set of quality standards to such a wide range of settings can be difficult.

A 2019 study published by the U.S. Department of Education looking at the quality rating systems of nine states — but not Colorado Shines — found that the systems captured differences in program quality, but that these differences did not translate into differences in child outcomes. In other words, children in the highest-rated programs did not consistently outperform those in the lowest-rated programs.

The authors cite a variety of reasons for this, including that the assessment criteria do not map specifically enough to the factors that influence children’s outcomes. For example, many quality rating systems, including Colorado’s, assess vendor business practices, which have little to do with what children learn.

Mathias said the findings speak to the widespread underfunding of quality assessment systems, which aim to both assess the quality of early childhood and provide money and resources to help providers s ‘to improve.

“We haven’t given enough money to providers and we haven’t given enough money to the system,” she said.

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