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Progress Means Changing the Status Quo

Defending the Preschool Promise

Swati Adarkar | 8/15/2016, 4:14 p.m.
The legislation behind Preschool Promise is driven by a commitment to provide high-quality early learning environments for children across the ...
Swati Adarkar

Two pieces published recently in the Portland Observer (“Preschool Promise Conflict” and “Well Intended but with Devastating Consequences,” July 20 issue) raise concerns about Oregon’s new preschool program, Preschool Promise. The program will begin providing high-quality preschool for three- and four-year-old children from low-income families this September.

The legislation behind Preschool Promise is driven by a commitment to provide high-quality early learning environments for children across the state — a proven strategy to reduce both health and education disparities before kindergarten.

“High-quality” is not a catch phrase. It has a specific meaning built upon best practices and research that have yielded results for early learners, including children of color and dual language learners. Preschool Promise lifts early learning standards, increases funding to qualified providers to support equitable teacher pay with kindergarten teachers, provides full-day classes, maintains a 1:10 adult-child ratio, and calls for lead teachers with bachelor’s degrees in early childhood education or a related field.

The article and opinion piece published by the Portland Observer suggest that the bachelor’s degree requirement for teachers in Preschool Promise may isolate kids of color and have “devastating consequences” by reducing the number of teachers of color serving those children. They also suggest that there is no connection between a bachelor’s degree and teacher quality.

Children’s Institute understands these legitimate concerns about how Preschool Promise will address the need for a diverse workforce to serve children of color. We know that creating quality goes beyond having teachers with bachelor’s degrees. Preschool Promise allows for a range of education levels in the classroom; it emphasizes that family and community engagement and involvement is critical to quality early learning.

We have been truly inspired to see many examples in Oregon where parents start as classroom volunteers, get energized by the work, and further their education to become classroom assistants and beyond. This is supported and encouraged in Preschool Promise and does not undermine existing professional development programs.

Children’s Institute has learned much by working with diverse families and children at our Early Works site at Earl Boyles Elementary School in southeast Portland. Families from that community have been our teachers and partners in understanding the fierce obstacles facing low-income children and families of color to achieve early school success. This model of involvement and participation has helped shape our understanding of quality early learning and effective implementation.

Preschool Promise raises the bar for teacher education and quality in Oregon. Raising education requirements and recognizing the importance of classroom experience and training for preschool teachers has clearly demonstrated that it increases preschool quality. Research also continues to confirm that intentionally structured, high-quality preschool supports optimal development for children during their earliest years, a crucial period about which there is little disagreement: Brain development is unparalleled in the years before kindergarten and stimulating learning during this time is absolutely essential.

Further, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recently published an extensive report on transforming the early childhood workforce. Among the core recommendations is clear support for a bachelor’s degree with “specialized knowledge and competencies” for early educators working with children from birth through age eight. Federal trends and programs, including Head Start, are also moving toward requiring more lead preschool teachers to hold a bachelor’s degree.

These findings and trends represent movement toward high-quality early learning systems. Oregon does not have one yet, but Children’s Institute has a vision of what that system can be and what it can accomplish. As Preschool Promise launches, it serves as a call to action for Oregon: The quality of a preschool program is dependent upon the quality of its teachers. It recognizes that better educated early childhood teachers offer significantly higher quality learning environments. It’s based on research that tells us well-educated teachers give children more stimulating and developmentally appropriate curricula, improved cognitive and social gains, and more responsive interactions with children that activate learning. It also recognizes that high-quality early childhood education requires specialized skills and training, and that teachers with those attributes should be compensated on the same scale as their K-12 peers.

Preschool Promise is part of a crucial effort to help Oregon change the status quo, to truly change the trajectory for our most vulnerable children and families. It will elevate the early learning workforce, pay teachers equitably, and prepare educators to deliver high-quality preschool. And it will help the state bolster its commitment to high-quality programming that will unequivocally change lives.

But Preschool Promise is merely at a starting point. We need to push to support what we’ve set in motion to strengthen early learning and improve education and health outcomes for our disadvantaged children and families. The vision for Preschool Promise will only be met if advocates and state leaders pull together and commit to supporting high-quality implementation and ensuring there are pathways to education and training. They also have to support the funding to back it.

To serve more low-income children, Oregon needs to invest more. In this coming Legislative session, we will push for increased funding for Preschool Promise, more support for professional development, and a focus on implementation and evaluation to support improvement and measure child outcomes. We will also push for more opportunities and financial support for culturally, ethnically, and linguistically diverse teachers to increase their education.

Preschool Promise is a smart, strategic public investment for Oregon. But the work has just begun. Preschool Promise can only deliver if we sufficiently invest and support a quality workforce.

We engage in this work fully aware of the significant challenges facing low-income families and children of color. But we also believe we can succeed in changing life outcomes with coordinated efforts by families, advocates, schools, community members, and state leaders. Together we must remove obstacles and fulfill the vision that all children, no matter their income or race, will be able to achieve school and life success.

Swati Adarkar is president and chief executive officer of the Children’s Institute, a Portland-based nonprofit that is committed to all children being prepared for success in school and life, promoting cost-effective public and private investment in our children pre-birth through third grade.