Voices’ Blog

Applying “lessons learned” to improve preschool in Virginia

Posted:  -  By: Emily Griffey

Research has provided the backbone to the movement to invest in early childhood education. Most of this research is focused on inputs and outcomes, the “WHAT?” and “WHY?” it offers little in terms of “HOW?” This is why when there are challenges, or less than desired outcomes, in early childhood interventions we are taken aback. Since we are at the point when we’ve proven that high quality early childhood interventions can be effective, I believe it is more important to focus on the HOW rather than the WHY. To get to the HOW we should look to policy implementation. Often that comes in the form of “lessons learned”.

“Lessons learned” typically refer to how mistakes or challenges were addressed. Several recent news reports have pointed to mistakes or challenges in the implementation of preschool. We should address these challenges and use them as an opportunity to improve. We should not use these examples to devalue the contribution of preschool in preparing our future workforce and closing the achievement gap. To ensure that Virginia’s investments produce these results we need to be laser focused on how they are implemented.

I’ll walk through some of the recent “lessons learned” and offer some ideas to how our policy makers can ensure these lessons learned are applied to Virginia’s efforts.

1. “Norfolk schools left unfilled despite federal cash to division”- Virginian-Pilot– With the opportunity to enroll more students in preschool through the federal preschool expansion grant, we are disappointed to see these slots in Norfolk go unused. Hopefully, publicity of open slots will help boost enrollment. As we weigh policy changes to eligibility criteria for VPI this year, VDOE was asked to collect more information from school divisions on their enrolled students. Hopefully this information will help policymakers determine which state-wide criteria should be used and allow for some local flexibility.

As we collect better information on eligible students, we should put in place better info/data sharing procedures to target at-risk students for enrollment. The students who could enroll in public preschool are the same who receive Medicaid/FAMIS or who receive child care subsidies. Boosting the capabilities of our early childhood leadership and governance should include serious efforts to promote interagency data sharing.

These missteps at the local level also point to need for additional technical assistance and oversight capacity from the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) for preschool programs. The Commonwealth Council on Childhood Success has recommended restoring staff capacity at VDOE to conduct site visits with local programs and provide technical assistance.

2. Tennessee Preschool Study– There is much debate around the recent study of the state funded preschool program in Tennessee. Some have called into question the study’s design or generalization to other communities. Rather than go down that route, I believe we can use this study as another “lesson learned”. The key lesson learned from this study is that quality matters and implementing quality at scale is not easy (but it can be done as demonstrated in some ways by this TN and CO comparison). In TN the quality of the preschool classroom experience, and the K-3 years, varied widely. That finding is likely true in Virginia and elsewhere.

To date, Virginia has done little to monitor the implementation of preschool, either by assessing quality or evaluating our child outcomes. If we want the biggest bang for our buck we can put several measures in place in Virginia to ensure that our preschool programs are high quality.

1. Measure classroom quality and make refinements– The Vanderbilt researchers in Tennessee found that public preschool classrooms were not of the highest quality. Quality in an early childhood setting is most importantly measured by the quality of the teacher-student interactions. The Curry School of Education at UVA has pioneered the most widely used observation tool for interactions, the CLASS. This observation tool is included in Virginia Quality, the QRIS, at level three and beyond. We should invest in more classroom observation and, very importantly, in coaches who can help translate how educators can use this measure to improve their quality.

2. Create a continuum of comprehensive quality early care and education before and after preschool– As strong as the evidence base for preschool is, we can not expect that one year (or about 8 months) of preschool will prove to have a significant impact over a lifetime. To ensure that the boost that preschool offers can be sustained, we must ensure that parents have the supports to focus on academic enrichment at home and that schools have the resources to continue those quality experiences in the elementary grades. What helps to sustain the continuum of quality? Coaches (or you could call them mentors, master teachers, etc.). Parent coaches, we call them home visitors, can help reiterate educational goals and help ensure families can access comprehensive resources. Educator coaches (mentors, trainers, Master teachers, etc.) are helpful at all elementary grade levels and can gear their tips to practical examples in the classroom. Some can even coach without even being in the same classroom or the same city, by observing through webcams or videos. Not every parent or every educator will need additional supports, but those who want the help and can benefit should have the opportunity.

3. Preschool Partnerships with Private Providers in Northern Virginia– Two school divisions in Northern Virginia have been piloting mixed-delivery models for preschool for many years now. Voices has profiled Fairfax and Alexandria for their lessons learned in implementing these models. Each has a different approach to structuring their partnerships, as well as funding and oversight, but both offer useful insights for the implementation of VPI in private settings. In these examples, they both use Virginia Quality rating to designate partners and on-site coaches to help ensure quality settings. These are two critical elements to ensure that private providers (who often do not have teacher licenses) are on-par with the education offered in public school settings. In these two communities, they are getting good results. Both Fairfax and Alexandria have reported student outcomes for their privately run programs on par with those in public schools settings. Another lesson from these communities is that partnerships offer a more family-focused approach. The children who attend the community-based programs are fortunate to receive year-round, full day care while their parents work. This translates to a two-generation impact- better outcomes for kids from longer interval of high quality care and working parents achieving self-sufficiency and contributing to the economy.

As we dig into the details of our policy choices around preschool, let’s also keep in mind that after making these choices, we’ll be asked for our “lessons learned”. Before we get there, let’s apply that one of our lessons learned will be that we need to monitor quality and quality improvement in early care settings from the beginning.

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