In Practice: Lessons for and from Practitioners

Three Ways to Improve the Quality of Preschool Programs

September 2021

This commentary originally appeared in District Administration.

As the details of the $3.5 trillion budget plan get ironed out, all signs point to the inclusion of ambitious provisions that aim to improve our current child care system. The leading legislation is the Child Care for Working Families Act (CCWFA), which should help families with low to moderate incomes access stable, high-quality child care and preschool programs. Defining “high quality” across different ages of children and settings is challenging, but the bill makes good first steps toward establishing a system of investing in high-quality care. Here are three ways states, localities, districts, and preschool programs can make targeted investments in the quality of care.

Promote evidence-based curricula.

Most publicly funded preschool programs rely on curricula to structure classroom activities that support children’s academic and social-emotional development. But not all curricula are equally effective.

Districts should adopt curricula that have actual evidence—with established track records of improving teacher practices and child outcomes. Some of the most promising curricula target specific learning domains (like literacy, math, or social-emotional learning) and have play-based activities that follow a scope and sequence in line with the way children learn. For example, we have found that a pre-K math curriculum greatly improved the amount and quality of math that preschool teachers taught, and we found lasting positive impacts of that curriculum on some children’s math skills at the end of kindergarten.

Implementing such curricula is possible. For example, districts from a wide range of settings have adopted curricula that actually work. Seventeen districts in 10 states, including Ohio, California, Texas, and Mississippi, implemented the evidence-based Preschool PATHS curriculum and Incredible Years Teacher Training programs in over 100 Head Start centers, and research shows that these curricula improved teachers’ practices and children’s social-emotional skills on a large scale.

Provide robust, ongoing professional development for staff.

Training is the main vehicle for helping teachers learn a curriculum and hone instructional practices. But training works best when it is paired with coaching and when these activities are ongoing throughout a school year. This pairing allows teachers to try out and reflect on new practices, and to receive feedback on how to make these practices work in their classrooms.

Training all relevant staff—such as lead and assistant teachers, aides, and administrators—on the same content allows preschool programs to implement curricula consistently across classrooms and ensure continuity when teachers leave and are replaced. Lead and assistant teachers from Head Start, child care, and public pre-K classrooms have reported that being trained together strengthens their relationships, makes implementation easier, and boosts assistant teachers’ morale and professionalism.

Develop a strong data infrastructure for continuous quality improvement.

Districts can develop flexible data systems to capture information about the use of evidence-based curricula and professional development over time. Tools can be developed to assess teachers’ training progress, participation in coaching, and use of curricula. Simple summary data can pinpoint supports that teachers and coaches need. Tracking progress against established goals and benchmarks can also help identify implementation challenges, facilitating rapid, data-driven problem-solving and technical assistance.

For example, the Community Action Project of Tulsa County (CAP Tulsa) created a tool that helps assess classroom quality and includes a checklist of classroom activities and materials that should be in place to show whether the curriculum is being implemented faithfully. Coaches use this tool to observe teacher practice, provide feedback, and track teachers’ progress. They use these kinds of quality data, along with data on children’s outcomes and teacher characteristics, to inform decision-making and quality improvement.

States, localities, districts, and preschool programs may soon have the opportunity to make important decisions about how to improve the quality of early care and education. By prioritizing these three investments, they will have the operational tools to improve the quality of child care and ensure that children can grow and succeed.

Michelle Maier and Shira Kolnik Mattera are both senior associates in MDRC’s Family Well-Being and Children’s Development Policy Area.