What does "quality" preschool mean in D.C.?

One of our goals with "Little Citizens, Big Issues" is to showcase diverse voices and viewpoints from the community on issues affecting young children in the District. This post is by Jack McCarthy, managing director of AppleTree Institute for Education Innovation.

In Washington, D.C., two of every three babies are born to single mothers who live in poverty. That’s more than 5,000 babies this year who are likely to be at-risk for school failure because we can predict that they are unlikely to be exposed to the levels of language, vocabulary and background knowledge in their everyday lives that their more advantaged peers will receive.

Look at the NAEP 2009 reading scores in the District to see what happens by the time these children reach 4th grade. Despite small but important gains over the past five years, 56% of DC 4th graders are below basic in reading.

This is a crisis, pure and simple. Worse, it’s a crisis that we can in large part avoid if we try.

The good new is that the District—unlike most other cities in America--provides robust levels of public funding for early education. The bad news is that there still aren’t many quality programs available. In fact, most people—including policy makers—really don’t understand what constitutes quality preschool. There’s no real consensus.

Given our demographics and current education challenges, I believe we need to set a new goal for early childhood education funded through the District’s Pre-K Enhancement and Expansion Act: to close the achievement gap before young children enter kindergarten.

To get there, we’ll need better quality preschool facilities, human capital, better instructional quality, leadership and better ways of measuring the important outcomes that lead to school success.

We know that most of those 5,000 babies will need a strong, early, evidence-based intervention that builds their language, vocabulary, alphabet knowledge and phonological awareness to the normative range by the time they are five. If we don't make this a priority, these children will enter kindergarten far behind their peers who grew up in more advantaged circumstances.

We also know that these young children will need to develop important social/emotional skills leading to positive behavior, cooperation and self confidence—skills like learning to attend to instruction, to persist, to take direction from adults and to solve problems with words. Without these academic and social/emotional skills, many will become struggling readers, identified for special education (learning disabled), some will stay back, get discouraged and eventually drop out.

We need more examples of warm, nurturing, well-trained teachers with robust vocabularies in well-equipped preschool classrooms blending teacher directed and child-centered activities to foster the development of language, vocabulary, pre-literacy, numeracy, and important social emotional skills.  

We can create training programs, professional development, tools and other resources to help teachers deliver high quality early education. But we need a shift in how we think about early education—toward important “outcomes” and away from compliance-driven inputs. 

It starts with defining “quality” early education as that which demonstrates success in closing the achievement gap.