Last month, headlines were abuzz with results from a new study on Tennessee’s state-subsidized preschool program for poor children: Tennessee study casts doubt on preschool, Increased access to preschool does not guarantee increased achievement, and Study shows preschool gains may not last.
In the study, researchers from Vanderbilt University found that children who attended the program, which serves 18,000 low-income children, initially started kindergarten ahead on many school readiness measures. But by the time the children were in first grade, they started to score lower on standardized tests than kids who hadn’t even attended preschool.
What these headlines and many articles failed to recognize is the program’s focus on access over quality. Tennessee’s preschool program quickly scaled up to 900 classrooms across 95 counties without a way to measure quality across programs. As U.C. Berkeley researcher David Kirp said recently on KQED’s Forum, “It is easier to go from better to bigger, than bigger to better. You’re not going to get a great preschool education on the cheap.”
Gains in quality must keep pace with gains in access. That’s why First 5 Contra Costa and our partners have joined 15 other California counties to build California’s child care Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS).
Working with 101 child care programs in our county, we’ve created a system that rates their quality and provides continuous support to improve it. Thirty-three of the QRIS sites are family child care homes and 78 are child care centers, including Head Start sites and state preschool programs. Combined, these programs serve 3,400 children, most of whom are low-income children, dual language learners or children with special needs.
Early ratings are showing that these children are receiving high-quality care – 83% of participating sites earned top ratings. These impressive results didn’t happen overnight. They were years in the making: first with our work incentivizing child care providers to advance their training and education, then with our funded support at Contra Costa’s three community colleges to help providers succeed in school, and later with our Preschool Makes a Difference preschool scholarship program.
Our QRIS program builds on over a decade of quality improvement work. And the ratings our pilot sites are earning demonstrate this. We already know quality early education makes a difference for children long-term. What we need now is a commitment among policymakers to building quality, and ongoing funding to pay for it.
Sean Casey is the Executive Director of First 5 Contra Costa.