Walter N. Ridley Lecture: Pre-Kindergarten Access and Quality are Essential for Children's Growth and Development

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Thank you so much, Provost Katsouleas, for that generous introduction and thank you to Dean Pianta for your leadership and the invitation to speak. I'm honored to participate in this distinguished lecture series recognizing the achievements of Dr. Walter N. Ridley.

Looking at the faces around this room, it's obvious that UVA honors Dr. Ridley's legacy by the students it is admitting today. Of course, we still have work to do ensure that here at UVA and across the country, that our college campuses are diverse, welcoming and inclusive places where every student can feel at home and never feels threatened because of their race, sex, gender identity, religion or political beliefs. Only then will we have achieved the true promise of higher education for every American.

To the students, I want to thank you for choosing education—there can be no more challenging and important work. As a former high school social studies teacher and middle school principal, I can personally say that the need for your talents and your passion is profound. The opportunities to make a difference—as teachers, leaders, researchers and advocates—are vast and exciting.

Education was a top concern for President Obama when he took office almost eight years ago at the height of the Great Recession. A substantial chunk of the President's emergency economic recovery legislation was devoted to education because he understood that for the economy to remain competitive, and for our democracy to remain strong, we had to put opportunity within reach of all people, and that education was key to doing that.

His goal was to once again make the U.S. the best educated nation in the world, and his approach needed to be comprehensive to accelerate outcomes from early learning through college and bring about systemic changes for sustainable education improvement. And while we still have a long way to go, we can confidently say that we've made great progress as a nation. We just celebrated America's highest high school graduation rate—at just over 83 percent, and since 2008, we've sent a million more African-American and Hispanic students to college.

Today, I want to focus on one area where the Obama Administration, states and communities have made major investments and important headway, and that's expanding access to high-quality early learning. We won't be able to lead the world in college graduates if we don't prioritize learning on the front end, for every child, beginning at birth.

I want to repeat that goal: expanding access to high-quality early learning—and specifically high-quality preschool—and ask you to notice that there are two parts to it: "access" and "quality." We have further to go in both.

The evidence, which I will get to shortly, is overwhelming that giving children a strong start has profound effects on their life outcomes. Young children are learning every second—in fact, their brains are growing most rapidly between the ages of 0 to 3—and playing and learning happen in tandem. And great early childhood teachers are essential to creating the opportunities and the environment for this powerful learning to occur—especially for economically disadvantaged students who, far too often, enter school behind in key areas of academic and socioemotional development.

That matters not just to children and their parents, but to all Americans. That's why we've worked with states to increase access to public preschool programs in every community, to support well-prepared early childhood teachers, and to ensure that those programs are high-quality. Doing all of this work is an economic and moral imperative.

Access to a low-quality program is no access at all. It's a false promise. It's a missed opportunity. Well-off parents can pay to send their children to programs of the highest quality. If we don't provide children of lower- and middle-income families with access to quality programs, our work is failing to reduce inequity and expand opportunity in our society.

That's why we, at the Department of Education, felt it was so important to work with Congress and the White House to ensure that early learning was woven throughout our nation's new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA. ESSA gives states and educators new flexibility to be innovative in providing an excellent, equitable and well-rounded education to every student—and now that vision is codified in law, beginning with high-quality early learning.

Progress in Expanding Access to High-Quality Early Learning

ESSA represents an historic opportunity for states and our nation to go much further, faster in improving education for every student. The Obama Administration laid the groundwork in early learning by supporting states to dramatically improve access and quality. In 2009, fewer than 40 states offered state-funded preschool. Today, all but four states are investing in free public preschool.

Through our Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge Grants, the number of states using a quality rating tool for early childhood programs has jumped from 17 to 40—meaning more parents and families can select early learning programs based on how well they serve children.

Thousands more high-needs children also are enrolled in state preschool programs earning the highest marks for quality.

However, despite our progress, only four in 10 four-year-olds in the U.S. are enrolled in publicly funded preschool. Across the map, too many black and Hispanic children and children from low-income families are not attending the highest-quality programs. We know we can do better—and we must.

The Evidence Supporting the Value of High Quality Preschool

Now, let's get to the evidence—and as most of you know, the evidence is on our side in this work. A survey of studies that includes the famous High/Scope Perry Preschool Project, the Chicago Child-Parent Centers, the Abecedarian Project in North Carolina, as well as more recent research, have found that quality preschool matters.

In the 1960s, the Perry Project showed that the low-income, African-American children who were randomly assigned to the preschool were more likely to graduate from high school, earned more money, were less likely to land in jail and more likely to be homeowners. The Abecedarian project, which was similar, but looked at the impact of high-quality early learning from birth through 5, found similar results, extending even to better health. The participants are now in their 40s, and recently researchers examined their blood samples and could actually tell who had gone to preschool and who had not!

More recent research of Tulsa's citywide program found that, in addition to significant learning gains, children who attended pre-K exhibited lower levels of timidity and higher levels of attentiveness than peers who had not attended pre-k or Head Start.

And on an economic level, estimates on the long-term return on investments in early learning are between 7:1 or 8:1 for every dollar. That's due to reduced need for things like remedial and special education, delinquency, incarceration and hospitalizations.

Research aside, ask any parent of a child who attended a high-quality preschool and they'll tell you the difference it made.In September, I visited the Pike View Early Childhood Center in North Little Rock, Arkansas, a community that benefited from our Preschool Development Grants. There, we met four-year-old twins, Erik and Leif Ellis, whose parents Josh and Cynthia told us about the dramatic growth their children had made in their preschool. Erik started the year not talking at all. With help from his teachers and a speech therapist, he not only started talking, he started singing! Leif fell in love with writing. Erik and Leif woke up every morning excited to go to school—and they didn't want to leave in the afternoons. As a parent, I can say that that is always a great sign that your children are thriving.

Now, recently, another study of the effects of preschool has raised some flags among researchers and policymakers.

Researchers at Vanderbilt University looked at the efficacy of Tennessee's voluntary pre-K program, which, at least nominally satisfied a number of widely accepted quality indicators, and found that instead of helping children, pre-k may have actually held students back. The attitudes toward school and work habits of third graders who had gone to pre-k were less positive than their peers who had not attended. As you can imagine, this is troubling news to people like me, who believe in the power of publicly funded preschool to change lives.

Of course, as others have pointed out, this is a single study that runs counter to decades of evidence that points in the other direction. But we can't ignore it. It may point to implementation or oversight issues—or what happens to kids between kindergarten and the third grade—but we don't really know, and we need to continue asking questions.

Personally, I think it's a powerful reminder of the importance of not just access, but quality, and knowing which indicators of quality matter most.

Elements of Quality

So, what do we mean when we talk about quality in the context of preschool?

At a fundamental level, early learning environments must be safe, clean, bright, stimulating and healthy; teachers and caregivers must have adequate training and certification; and the child-to-adult ratio should be reasonable. But though all of these factors are important, they are but a checklist that doesn't quite get at the heart of quality.

As we have learned from the pioneering work of Dean Pianta, the essence of quality is in the interactions between the teachers and the children. Are the teachers warm and nurturing? Do they ask questions in a way that helps children build their expressive language and understanding? How do they handle behavior issues? Is it productive or punitive?

The Obama Administration has worked hard to increase the quality and effectiveness of Head Start programs, and one resource for doing so is Dean Pianta's CLASS observation tool for improving teacher-child interactions, which is now in wide use.

You can learn a lot about quality just by spending some time with a first-rate preschool teacher, as I did recently in New Jersey. You can see a video of Raquel Lima's classroom and hear her talk about her work on the Department of Education's YouTube site. It's only about three minutes long but even in that short time, you can get a pretty robust picture of the kind of programs we need everywhere.

You'll see that everything Raquel does is intentional and designed to help her children grow socially, emotionally and cognitively. From the moment her kids arrive, she is working to, in her words, "capitalize on every second and keep them engaged."

Obviously, teachers need extensive training and professional development to do that. The state of New Jersey provided Raquel, who had been a classroom aide, with a scholarship to earn a degree and certification as a teacher.

And, importantly, Raquel is paid on the same scale as public school teachers. That's as it should be, but in most of the nation, that's not yet the case. In June, the Department of Education released a report with the Department of Health and Human Services that looked at this troubling pay gap.

Ninety-seven percent of early education teachers are women, and it's alarming that in many states, their wages are closer to what a nail technician earns than to what we pay K-12 teachers. According to the report, in six states preschool teachers were paid less than the federal poverty wage for a family of four. Many pre-kindergarten teachers have to work a second job just to make ends meet.

It's no surprise that such low pay makes it difficult to attract and retain experienced or better-educated teachers, particularly in programs serving high-needs students. These are people who are opening doors to opportunity and success for our youngest and, often, most disadvantaged children.

Another thing you'll notice in Raquel's classroom is its diversity. It is diverse racially, linguistically and socio-economically. Research shows that diverse classrooms offer important cognitive and social benefits for all students.

For instance, nine out of the 14 children in Raquel's class are English learners, and she works with them to develop their language skills. Meanwhile, she's teaching the others, as she says, to "understand that people are different, and that's ok."

She also recognizes that children's home languages are an asset that should be valued, not a deficit that must be overcome. Research shows that supporting bilingualism from early ages can have wide-ranging benefits for all children throughout their lifetimes.

Even during lunch, Raquel is working with children. She models the art of conversation. Children learn how to listen and to consider others' ideas.

None of this is inconsistent with having fun—as you will see in the excited, happy faces of the children as they go through their day.

Raquel says her job is not just to look at the classroom as a whole—which is a big enough job—but to carefully observe each child and think about how she's going to meet his or her needs.

She understands that children learn best from each other, and that includes children with disabilities. Too often, children with disabilities are taught in segregated settings with no opportunity to interact with their typically developing peers. Inclusive early learning programs benefit all children.

And finally, a high-quality program is one that supports all children, even those who may be disruptive or who have trouble adjusting. But, too often, preschools suspend or expel children as young as four years old! This is a shortsighted and expensive mistake. By expelling children, we remove them from the very settings that should help their socio-emotional development. We are sending them off on the wrong trajectory, even before their first day of kindergarten. And, disproportionately, the children who are suspended are children of color, especially African-American males.

This problem doesn't just manifest out of thin air—it grows out of our own implicit biases as humans, and as educators, and we need to confront that within ourselves. Some of you might have heard about the recent study on this issue by the Yale Child Study Center. Researchers found that when asked to watch video clips of children in preschool settings and look out for actions that might lead to behavior problems, preschool teachers were more likely to focus on the black boys in each group. And when asked which of the children required more attention from their teachers, 42 percent selected the black boy, followed by 34 percent selecting the white boy. And here's the thing: None of the children were actually behaving badly! But our expectations and our biases show through, even when we're not conscious of them.

Now, despite the argument I am making in favor of preschool, I am in no way suggesting that preschool is like an inoculation. The power of high-quality preschool can only be sustained if children have high-quality, rigorous, developmentally appropriate, well-rounded, and language-rich experiences when they get to elementary school. And by the same token, the potential benefits of preschool will evaporate if children enter schools with unreasonably large class sizes, few resources, and inadequately prepared teachers.

Our focus on the third grade, which is rightly when most states begin required statewide testing in reading and math, may have distracted us from what needs to take place starting in kindergarten.

We need to change that. We need to think about preschool to grade 3 as a continuum, one in which each year should build on the previous.

The Department is working on a series of case studies that examines the innovative work that some communities are doing in this area. What we're finding is that these places have a kindergarten curriculum that builds on preschool and doesn't just turn kindergarten into first grade. Five-year-olds can still play and do hands-on science and have fun developing literacy skills, but we don't see that happening often enough.

States Leading the Way

I want to spend a few minutes talking about all the encouraging work that is already going on in states to improve quality.

For example, I recently visited a preschool in West Virginia, a state that has been working on expanding access to quality preschool since 2002.

That year, state leaders passed legislation that required the state to make pre-k universally available by 2012-13. Today, West Virginia's program is rated 10 out of 10 in terms of quality by the National Institute of Early Education Research. It reaches more than three-quarters of the state's four-year-olds and all three-year-olds with disabilities. The state created a sustainable system by including pre-k as part of the school funding formula, and required schools to work in coordination with community-based centers and with Head Start programs.

In August, I visited Colorado and Delaware, two states that have leveraged federal Early Learning Challenge grants to make systemic change in early learning.

Colorado has increased the number of programs participating in its new Quality Rating and Improvement System nearly ten-fold. They've created a clear career pathway for becoming credentialed as a preschool teacher and a system of online professional development to support early childhood teachers.

Delaware actually created a new state agency dedicated entirely to early learning. They're screening children's health, they're doing outreach to parents to ensure they know about high-quality programs in their area, and they are strengthening connections between preschool and K-12.

At the federal level, the Administration recently released a new, comprehensive vision for Head Start that sets rigorous performance standards, including a new expectation that, over time, all children in Head Start will benefit from full-day and year-round programs that we know can make a great difference for our most vulnerable children.

A Quality Agenda

Despite all we know about the importance and value of preschool and the elements of quality, there is much more to learn.

We know there are different models of preschool than can be effective. But we don't yet have an adequate evidence base on what elements of curricula should be included.

We need to keep studying statewide preschool programs, to see if they're working for children and to improve them where needed.

We need researchers to try to replicate or drill down in the work that the Vanderbilt researchers did.

We need to do more to understand how kindergarten, as well as the first, second and third grades, can sustain and build on what children gain from high-quality preschool.

We need to keep studying preparation programs and identify the connections between what preschool teachers are learning and what they are able to do in classrooms. Dean Pianta's MyTeachingPartner program, which includes a video library and individual coaching support, is one great example of the kind of resource that can be extremely helpful to teachers.

I am confident that, being here at UVA, you've already learned a lot about these issues.

But even if your careers don't find you working directly on preschool access or quality issues, you can use your knowledge to be strong advocates for both.

The public strongly supports high-quality preschool for all, but it is important that all of us take it upon ourselves to build the public will necessary to keep investing in both access and quality. We can't afford not to.

Thank you for listening and I'm glad to take your questions.