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Education Lab is a yearlong project to spark meaningful conversations about education solutions in the Pacific Northwest.

January 30, 2014 at 5:00 AM

How Boston’s preschools went from mediocre to outstanding

Corrected version

Preschool has a high profile these days, with many government leaders, from President Obama on down, pushing for more — and better — early childhood programs.

The Seattle City Council, for example, is considering joining a handful of other municipalities across the nation that make preschool available to every 3- and 4-year-old, regardless of the family’s ability to pay.

As part of the city of Seattle’s discussions about preschool, Seattle City Councilman Tim Burgess has organized a hearing next week where two researchers will discuss their recent studies on the value of preschool. One of those studies focuses on the program in Boston Public Schools, which Burgess and others see as possible model for Seattle. To date, Boston’s program has seen some of the best success in preparing students for school, the researchers say.

In advance of their visit to Seattle, we asked those researchers — Hirokazu Yoshikawa from New York University and Christina Weiland from the University of Michigan — a few questions. They are willing to answer some of your questions, too.  Fill out the form below, and we’ll pick a handful for the researchers to answer.

For those who want to hear from them in person, the hearing is scheduled for Monday, Feb. 3 from 9:30-11 a.m. in the City Council chambers, 600 4th Avenue.

Q: In national and local discussions about preschool, some say the research is mixed when it comes to how much children benefit academically. In your minds, is the research mixed?

Yoshikawa: There is no denying that preschool quality is mixed. But in our meta-analysis that summarizes the effect of preschool education over the decades, we still find a consistent positive effect on early cognition and school readiness.

In recent evaluations of high-quality programs, including some across entire cities or states, we are finding larger effects. But you only get the moderate and large effects if you invest in high quality.

Q: So why do some question the value of investing in preschool education?

Yoshikawa: One set of findings consistently shows that the short-term effects are positive.  But in later elementary school years, and in middle school, there is what we call fade out — the kids who went to preschool and the ones who didn’t converge in their test scores. One of the problems there is mostly what we have as measures are test scores.

Then we have a small set of long-term studies, both small-scale demonstrations and large-scale programs, that have shown very important long-term effects on things like high-school graduation, teenage pregnancy and crime.

Q: Why did you decide to study the universal preschool program in Boston?

Weiland: I was really captivated by what Boston was doing to improve the quality of its preschool programs. They had implemented curriculum with proven results, and paired it with training — in-person weekly or bi-weekly coaching.

In general, preschools tend to do pretty well in areas such as emotional support, but not so well on instructional quality. Boston raised quality across the city.

Q: Does Boston have the best results to date?

Weiland: It has the largest language and math impact.

Some other programs have also had great success and we can and should learn from them. Tulsa’s program is wonderful.  New Jersey’s is wonderful. Boston is the one that most closely matches the package that we and other researchers think has
the most promise.

Yoshikawa: Folks have had a lot of questions about the value of universal preschool.  Both Boston and Tulsa show substantial benefits for kids from middle-class families. Children from low-income backgrounds benefit more…but it’s not that poor kids benefit and middle-class students don’t.

Q: Why does the Boston program get such good results? What are they doing that parents might not be doing at home?

Weiland: It’s not just about home. Two-thirds of the children in our control group were in other preschool programs. We think it’s the instructional quality. It’s very rare to find preschool programs that focus so strongly on the quality of their instruction.

Yoshikawa: It’s this combination of coaching with good curriculum that focuses on particular skills important in school readiness. The (Boston) director of early childhood picked curriculum that had been proven in smaller scale studies to be successful. He didn’t pick curriculum in the way it’s often picked — through connections or folks you know who happened to have used a particular program and liked it.

Q:  You also have talked about the importance of how Boston preschool teachers are evaluated. Say more about that.

Weiland: Every two years, the school district randomly samples preschool classrooms across the city, and … an outside group produces reports that summarize the quality of the program. As part of that, the school district gives reports to teachers with data from their own classrooms, and coaches work with teachers to strength any weaknesses.

The data isn’t used to fire anyone. It’s not tied to pay. It’s really tied to helping teachers grow and to decide where the program as a whole needs to grow.

Q: Why did Boston invest in curriculum and coaching in the first place?

Weiland: It all started with a front-page headline in The Boston Globe, saying the school district’s preschool programs were mediocre. That was based on the outside reviews that the district does every few years.

Q: What mistakes did Boston learn that other cities can avoid repeating?

Yoshikawa: One overall issue that Seattle is facing, and New York City is going to face, is making sure they make adequate investments in quality, while providing greater access.

We would certainly recommend things such as the use of evidence-based curriculum and highly trained and qualified on-site coaches and mentors.  Those kinds of supports should be provided to the whole system, not just one kind of provider.

Q: Boston pays its preschool teachers the same as its K-12 teachers.  Is that an important factor in its success, too?

Weiland: Boston was paying preschool teachers that much even when their program was judged to be mediocre. Factors like pay and teacher education help to set the stage for instructional quality to occur, but it’s not enough by itself.

Editor’s note: This post was edited at 1:11 p.m. on Jan. 30 to include an additional, clarifying sentence in interviewee Christina Weiland’s final response. The second sentence had been removed by an editor prior to publication.

Comments | More in News | Topics: Boston Public Schools, early ed, early-childhood education

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