We don't just need more pre-K, we need better pre-K

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Story highlights

  • Suzanne Bouffard: Our young children are in a precarious position, because we are in danger of not getting pre-K right
  • If we want pre-K programs and the children they serve to succeed, we have to invest in the people and infrastructure to help them, she writes

Suzanne Bouffard is a writer specializing in child development and education. She has a PhD in developmental psychology from Duke University and has conducted education research at Harvard University for a decade. She is the author of a new book, "The Most Important Year: Pre-Kindergarten and the Future of our Children." The views expressed in this commentary are solely the author's.

(CNN)Communities across the country support increasing public funding for pre-K education, but it's not enough simply to provide it to more kids. All children need better pre-K.

Our young children are in a precarious position, because we are in danger of not getting pre-K right. When programs get it right, they are a boon to children and parents alike, with a long-term return on investment of, according to the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, around $8 for every $1 invested.
Suzanne Bouffard
But many programs are not doing what is best for children, studies show. Only a small percentage are so low in quality that they might actually be harmful to children, but most are mediocre (only a few states have publicly funded, universal voluntary pre-K programs that offer service to all 4-year-olds). Just like young children, pre-K programs need to be supported, guided and monitored if they are going to do well. These elements of quality do not come cheap, but neither does making up for them later or when children fail to develop a solid foundation for school.
    First, strong programs have excellent teachers, and teachers are made, not born. Early-childhood educators need child development training before they enter the classroom, but they also need support and coaching as they develop. Young children constantly pose new challenges and it takes time to get interactions with children right.
    Teaching is often isolating and stressful, and burnout is high. Boston Public Schools, for example, have invested heavily in coaching for new pre-K teachers, to help them implement the curriculum, brainstorm solutions to challenges and speed up the process of incorporating new research and mastering the techniques of veteran educators. Leaders there attribute the success of the program -- including gains in children's skills lasting until at least third grade -- largely to the coaching.
    Although teachers are at the core of any strong pre-K program, the most successful ones also have support staff, such as specialists for children who have developmental delays and severe behavior challenges, and a regular rotation of "floater" teachers who are employed full time to cover classrooms during teacher absences, planning time, and sick days.
    Consistency is essential for young children, especially in their relationships with adults. New Jersey's Abbott Preschool Program has preschool intervention and referral teams (PIRT) that identify and address behavior challenges and head off the need for expensive intervention later on.
    Great staff need effective curricula. A pre-K curriculum should be based in hands-on, exploratory play, include lots of exposure to books and rich discussions, and have ample opportunity for teachers to adjust the topics and lessons to children's needs and interests. Good programs, like the ones used in Boston, prompt teachers to look for teachable moments and expand children's thinking, for example by asking thought-provoking questions about books and going on "number walks" during which children count items and identify numerals in their environment.
    They also guide teachers in how to build children's self-regulation skills, like handling frustration and other "big feelings," solving social conflicts, paying attention and waiting their turn. In DC's public pre-K program, most schools use a curriculum called Tools of the Mind, specifically designed to build those skills while also building writing, reading, and math knowledge.
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    If we want programs and the children they serve to succeed, we have to invest in the people and infrastructure to help them. Districts like Boston, DC and Elizabeth, New Jersey, are proving that is possible, even on a large scale. In less than two years, New York City created a pre-K program so massive it serves more 4-year-olds than there are K-12 students in some other urban districts, and so far, studies suggest that quality has been high.
    That is not the result of luck, but of a massive and intentional effort to build quality, including regular teacher training led by the Department of Education, nonprofits and universities. New York took to heart lessons from programs that preceded it. Hopefully, other publicly funded pre-K programs will do the same, because just creating more pre-K spots will get us partway to excellence and equity, but partway isn't good enough for our children or our country's future.