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Quantity over quality in growth of pre-K programs in California (and the US)

More state leaders are taking note of the benefits of early childhood education and putting more funding into preschool programs, but the quality of those programs isn't keeping pace with the quantity.

That's the story in California and across the United States, according to the latest State of Preschool report released Wednesday.

Each year, the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) evaluates funding, access and policies for state-funded preschool programs across the country. 

"The big takeaway this year is that while preschool is improving, the rate is very slow," said Steve Barnett, co-director of the National Institute for Education Research at Rutgers University.  "So that means that inequality in access to quality pre-K is growing." 

Nationally, there are more 4-year-olds in state-funded preschool programs than ever – 1.3 million to be exact, nearly a third of all 4-year-olds in the country. That number has more than doubled since NIEER started tracking this 15 years ago.

In California, the state-funded program serving most kids is the California State Preschool Program, which serves children from low-income families. But most of the funding growth is due to the newer state-funded program, Transitional Kindergarten or TK, a grade before kindergarten provided by public school districts for 4-year-olds with late birthdays who miss the kindergarten cut-off date. Los Angeles Unified School District started piloting TK in 2011-2012 school year and now has more than 8,700 4-year-olds enrolled. 

National Institute for Early Education Research

For the 2016-2017 school year, more than 235,000 preschoolers were enrolled in these two programs and the state spends an average of $6,300 per child enrolled.  

Here's a breakdown of how California is doing:


California is doing better than most states in getting 3-year-olds into pre-K programs, coming in at 8th nationally, according to the report. 

The state also shines in an area that the report just started tracking in 2015 – policies for dual language learners, children who speak a language other than English at home. At this point, most states don’t even keep track of how many dual language learners are enrolled or what languages they speak. So California is ahead there, with many programs that track it and allow bilingual instruction. That makes sense in a state where 60 percent of children birth to five in California are dual language learners. 


The NIEER report looks at 10 quality standards – including class size, teacher training, professional development – and whether the state programs are meeting the benchmarks in each area. Only three states met all ten of the latest quality standards benchmarks. 

California's state preschool program met six of the benchmarks and TK met two, bringing the state score average to 4.3.

That doesn't mean TK is failing kids, though. In fact, a recent evaluation from the American Institute for Research found the program to be highly effective at improving academic performance. 

When it comes to TK, this system of evaluation is complicated because TK operates more like first or second grade, so educators have structured it in a way that's substantially different from how many people evaluate early childhood programs. One box that TK does check is the benchmark for teacher degrees. There’s been a big push for early educators to have bachelor’s degrees and TK has an upper hand there, because TK teachers have to be credentialed just like grade school educators. But those teachers may not be trained in early childhood, the way state preschool teachers are. They may also not get the classroom observation and feedback that’s built into the state preschool to help educators improve, and in TK student-teacher ratios are generally larger. Hence, the low score.


Many advocates want to look at the benchmarks that are hit and missed in each program for lessons about how to achieve quality. 

"That’s one of the things that makes TK and CA preschool interesting," said NIEER's Barnett. "You can take the best of both and put them together."

We'll see if legislators and policymakers take that advice. Right now, there are two bills moving through the California legislature aimed at increasing preschool access for 4-year-olds. But get this – one would expand transitional kindergarten and the other would expand access to state preschool. 

"We’re fighting between what’s better?" said Patricia Lozano, executive director of Early Edge California, a child advocacy group that's worked to implement TK and provide training. 

"No, let’s take the good things from TK, let’s take the good things from state preschool and really think about what are the key elements for quality that will get us where we want to be in terms of outcomes."