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Idea Lab: How to Build a Large-Scale Universal Preschool Program

Published on: January 30, 2014

light bulb over a brainUniversal preschool is having a moment.

Around the country, on both sides of the political aisle, lawmakers and leaders are singing the praises of early education, arguing that investing in high quality preschool programs saves money in the long run.

They believe tackling education inequities at the "front end" might just be the way to effectively close the opportunity gap.

Here's an overview of some of the initiatives currently on the table.

Now, the talk is moving beyond rhetoric and towards implementation. And Seattle is using the latest research on successful preschool programs around the United States to develop its Preschool for All Plan, the brainchild of City Councilman Tim Burgess.

On January 29, Mayor Ed Murray released the results of a "gap analysis," which shows who is and who is not enrolled in preschool.

"Only a little over half (54%) of the families earning less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level have their 3 and 4-year-olds enrolled in some sort of childcare," Murray said in his cover letter. "This should motivate us to do better."

What the experts say

Hirokazu Yoshikawa, Ph.D. is a professor of Globalization and Education at New York University's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development. He's also a community and developmental psychologist, who studies the effects of public policies and programs related to immigration, early childhood and poverty reduction on children’s development. 

Yoshikawa and Christina Weiland, Ed.D., assistant professor at the University of Michigan's School of Education, are the primary authors of an evidence-based analysis of preschool programs conducted for the Society for Research in Child Development and the Foundation for Child Development. The study was published in October, 2013. Following on the heels of other national preschool experts who have recently visited Seattle at Tim Burgess's invitation, on February 3, they'll be presenting their research to the Seattle City Council. 

 Key among their findings:
  • Large-scale public preschool programs, especially ones that coordinate with health and other social services, can have substantial impacts on children's early learning.
  • Quality preschool education is a profitable investment.
  • The most important aspects of a quality program are supportive and stimulating interactions between students and teachers and effective use of curricula.
  • Ongoing teacher mentoring through the use of onsite coaches is critical for a program's success.
  • All children, not just those from lower income families, benefit from universal preschool programs.

What do Tulsa and Boston have in common?

I interviewed Yoshikawa and Weiland a few days before their Seattle visit to learn about their study and its applicability to Seattle and other urban areas.

"The reason this is so exciting from a research and policy perspective is that the bulk of research had been on small scale evaluations (10–20 classrooms)," Yoshikawa explains. "These are evaluations done across entire cities, in a diverse racial and socio-economic urban context. This is important for Seattle."

The study analyzed evaluations of 84 preschool programs and city-wide preschool programs in Tulsa and Boston and determined that, on average, children who attend preschool gain about a third of a year of learning in language, reading and math.

City-wide preschool programs in Tulsa and Boston have demonstrated even greater gains: Between one-half and one full year of additional learning in reading and math.

 What's the secret sauce to implementing a high-quality preschool program?

It's not enough to simply hand a teacher a curriculum, say Yoshikawa and Weiland. Teacher training and onsite coaching are the keys to success.

Tulsa's program is part of a state-wide universal preschool initiative, implemented in Oklahoma in 1998. Approximately three-fourths of the state's 4-year-olds are enrolled in the program.  

"Boston implemented its universal preschool program in 2005, but the quality was lacking," said Weiland. "In 2007, they added curriculum and coaching support." That made all the difference, she says.

"We're hoping Seattle will start at the point that Boston reached," adds Yoshikawa. 

Cost-benefit analysis

According to the study, life skills build cumulatively. The return on investment in preschool programs is measured by evaluating a student's kindergarten scores. Projections are then made about future earning potential. Under this rubric, both the Boston and Tulsa programs demonstrated savings of three to seven dollars per dollar spent.

Though the test scores of students who did not attend preschool sometimes converge with those who did (meaning these students catch up to their peers who participated in early learning programs), the social and emotional development component to early education is an important factor. Investing in this early can save school districts and municipal social service agencies from having to provide interventions and other specialized services.  

Though the cost of teacher coaching is perceived as expensive, says Yoshikawa, in most of the case studies reviewed, mentors and coaches visited 12–15 classrooms each. Onsite mentoring and coaching worked out to be a more cost-effective form of professional development than offsite workshops. 

The critical role of evaluation 

As Boston education leaders discovered, effective programs cannot be stagnant. They benefit from regular evaluation and a system-wide review of deficits.

But Weiland stresses that the evaluation and mentoring component is not high-stakes, nor threatening, to teachers. And it's personal. It doesn't use a pre-determined checklist to monitor and evaluate programs.

"The Boston model is very supportive in nature," she says. "It's not used to hire and fire anyone.  It's used to move the teachers’ practice forward."

"This combination of curriculum and coaching has proven successful in all types of contexts," says Yoshikawa. "Coaches can be trained to work with particular skill levels. It's important to have coaches with the ability to be flexible."  

Here's a look at Boston's preschool program and the teacher-coach relationship in action. More information is available at the Restoring Opportunity website


Alignment with K–12 curriculum

Nationwide, attempts to align preschool curriculum with K–12 are underway. Yoshikawa and Weiland say that Jason Sachs, director of Boston Public School's Department of Early Childhood Education, has made this part of his mission. Locally, Kristie Kauerz, Ed.D., of the University of Washington's College of Education, specializes in education reform efforts that address the continuum of learning from birth through grade 3. A nationally recognized expert, she is the the lead author of the Framework for Planning, Implementing, and Evaluating PreK–3rd Grade Approaches, a tool to guide school, district, community and state efforts. She co-authored the original Washington State Early Learning and Development Benchmarks.

Next steps

Following Yoshikawa and Weiland's testimony to the Seattle City Council, a full proposal (including design and funding options) will be developed that is expected to be presented to the Council in April. The text for a November ballot measure could be introduced as early as late May or June.  


When an entire city can make a dent in educational inequality and manage to improve a sector of education, that’s something to celebrate. 

Hirokazu Yoshikawa, Professor of Globalization and Education

     New York University












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