READ: Obama’s pre-K plan

February 14, 2013

Pre-K students in a Southeast DC charter school. There will be a whole lot more public pre-K students if Obama's plan becomes law. (Astrid Riecken/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

President Obama used his State of the Union address to launch a push for massively expanding pre-K and other early childhood education programs. But he was pretty vague about it. Not anymore. At 6 a.m. today, the administration released its detailed plan for early childhood education. Its three main components are:

  • A state-federal partnership to guarantee pre-K to all 4-year-olds in families at or below 200 percent of the poverty line, to be provided by school districts and other local partners, and to use instructors with the same level of education and training as K-12 instructions.
  • A massively expanded Early Head Start program — building on the existing program, which has proven very effective in randomized controlled trials — which provides early education, child care, parental education, and health services to vulnerable children ages 0 to 3.
  • Also expanding Nurse Family Partnerships, a program that has also earned top marks in randomized trials, and which provides regular home visits from nurses to families from pregnancy through the child's second birthday, intended to promote good health and parenting practices. update - it appears that the White House program is broader than just NFPs but the general practice is the same, if less well-evaluated. Sorry for the confusion

Upon opening the plan for the first time (while on the phone with me) Nobel laureate and early childhood education expert James Heckman exclaimed "Holy smokes!" in approval. Your mileage may vary — see the full plan outline, courtesy of the White House, below.

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The President’s Commitment to Early Education

A zip code should never predetermine the quality of any child’s educational opportunities.  Yet studies show that children from low-income families are less likely to have access to high-quality early education, and less likely to enter school prepared for success.  By third grade, children from low-income families who are not reading at grade level are six times less likely to graduate from high school than students who are proficient.  Often, the high costs of private preschool and lack of public programs also narrow options for middle-class families.

High-quality early childhood education provides the foundation for all children’s success in school and helps to reduce achievement gaps.  Despite the individual and economic benefits of early education, our nation has lagged in its commitment to ensuring the provision of high quality public preschool in our children’s earliest years. The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) estimates that the United States ranks 28th out of 38 countries for the share of four-year olds enrolled in early childhood education.  And fewer than 3 in 10 four-year olds are enrolled in high-quality programs.

Preschool for All

  • The President’s proposal will improve quality and expand access to preschool, through a cost sharing partnership with all 50 states, to extend federal funds to expand high-quality public preschool to reach all low- and moderate-income four-year olds from families at or below 200% of poverty.  The U.S. Department of Education will allocate dollars to states based their share of four-year olds from low- and moderate-income families and funds would be distributed to local school districts and other partner providers to implement the program.  The proposal would include an incentive for states to broaden participation in their public preschool program for additional middle-class families, which states may choose to reach and serve in a variety of ways, such as a sliding-scale arrangement.
  • Funds will support states as they ensure that children are enrolled in high-quality programs.   In order to access federal funding, states would be required to meet quality benchmarks that are linked to better outcomes for children, which include:
    • State-level standards for early learning;
    • Qualified teachers for all preschool classrooms; and
    • A plan to implement comprehensive data and assessment systems.
  • Preschool programs across the states would meet common and consistent standards for quality across all programs, including:
    • Well-trained teachers, who are paid comparably to K-12 staff;
    • Small class sizes and low adult to child ratios;
    • A rigorous curriculum;
    • Comprehensive health and related services; and
    • Effective evaluation and review of programs.
  • The proposal also encourages states to expand the availability of full-day kindergarten.  Only 6 out of 10 of America’s kindergarten students have access to a full day of learning.  In order to ensure that our kindergartners spend the time they need in school to reach rigorous benchmarks and standards, funds under this program may also be used to expand full-day kindergarten once states have provided preschool education to low- and moderate-income four year-olds.
  • Under the President’s proposal, investment in the federal Head Start program will continue to grow.  The President’s plan will maintain and build on current Head Start investments, to support a greater share of infants, toddlers, and three-year olds in America’s Head Start centers, while state preschool settings will serve a greater share of four-year olds.

Quality Early Learning for Our Youngest Children 

  • The President will also launch a new Early Head Start-Child Care Partnership program, to support states and communities that expand the availability of Early Head Start and child care providers that can meet the highest standards of quality for infants and toddlers, serving children from birth through age 3.  Funds will be awarded through Early Head Start on a competitive basis to enhance and support early learning settings; provide new, full-day, comprehensive services that meet the needs of working families; and prepare children for the transition into preschool.  This strategy – combined with an expansion of publicly funded preschool education for four-year olds – will ensure a cohesive and well-aligned system of early learning for children from birth to age five.
  • The President is proposing to expand the Administration’s evidence-based home visiting initiative, through which states are implementing voluntary programs that provide nurses, social workers, and other professionals to meet with at-risk families in their homes and connect them to assistance that impacts a child’s health, development, and ability to learn. These programs have been critical in improving maternal and child health outcomes in the early years, leaving long-lasting, positive impacts on parenting skills; children’s cognitive, language, and social-emotional development; and school readiness. This will help ensure that our most vulnerable Americans are on track from birth, and that later educational investments rest upon a strong foundation.
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Dylan Matthews · February 13, 2013