Earlier this year, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh announced plans to provide high-quality pre-kindergarten to every four-year-old child in the city.
That’s welcome news, as decades of research have shown that developmentally-appropriate early learning experiences have lasting, positive effects on children’s early language, literacy, and mathematics skills. Early education can also create additional benefits—including improved social and emotional skills, and better health outcomes across the board—that persist into adulthood.
In this context, Abt Associates’ ongoing evaluation of Massachusetts’ federal Preschool Expansion Grant (PEG) for the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care (EEC) offers timely insights about how to implement high-quality preschool through public-private collaborations between local school districts and community-based organizations.
Massachusetts is using its PEG resources to expand access to high-quality preschool for four-year-old children from low-income families in five communities (Boston, Holyoke, Lawrence, Lowell, and Springfield). The grant supports 48 classrooms that serve approximately 840 children per year. Most of the children served by PEG classrooms have no prior formal early childhood experience.
PEG programs are expected to implement key components that are believed to be important drivers of quality, such as teacher compensation commensurate to the local public schools, formal curricula and assessment systems, professional development supports, family engagements, and comprehensive services for families, including referrals to health and other social services.
Early Findings Show Promise, Room for Growth
Abt’s report showed that, during the first year of the program (2015-16), the overall quality of PEG classrooms was moderate to high, on average. Teachers reported high levels of job satisfaction, parents gave the programs high marks and felt highly connected to the program and their children’s teachers, and by kindergarten, most PEG students—most of whom came from families living well below 200 percent of the federal poverty level—demonstrated early math and literacy skills on par with their peers nationally. That said, PEG classrooms had higher ratings on measures of classroom environmental quality and lower ratings on instructional supports, which is a finding consistent with other studies.
There also remains room for more growth and consistency. Professional development supports for educators were not consistently aligned with coaching and classroom curricula, and the provision of comprehensive services to children and families was inconsistent. Although the average student’s vocabulary development was not far below what might be expected, about one-third of PEG students were substantially below age expectation at the end of preschool.
The PEG evaluation provides encouraging early findings on the promise of providing expanded high-quality early learning experiences to help ensure that all children enter school ready to succeed. In the year ahead, EEC will continue to provide technical assistance to PEG communities, and continue to improve professional development resources and coordination of comprehensive services. Programs will be encouraged to improve the quality of teacher-child interactions and the supports provided for language development. The Department of Early Education and Care has recently funded 13 communities across the state to develop strategic plans for preschool expansion following the PEG model and supporting collaborations between public and private programs.
Abt, meanwhile, will assess the impacts of PEG on children’s academic, social and executive functioning skills using a rigorous research design. Findings from this next phase of research are expected in early 2018. Abt will also continue to track the program’s implementation over time.
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