As Vermont prepares to begin paying for pre-kindergarten for all youngsters this fall, the quality of those programs is considered key to realizing the hoped-for return on that investment.
Research has shown that good pre-K programs can help close the achievement gap and lower the number of children identified as needing special education later in their schooling.
"Pre-K can be a great equalizer, but only if it is high-quality," said Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. That means having well-educated teachers trained in early education, who use a rigorous curriculum in a small class where they can have one-on-one interactions with each child, according to Barnett.
Yet some in the field are considering what's the right yardstick for evaluating early education programs, especially private ones.
Ensuring universal access isn't easy, especially in a rural state like Vermont. That is why lawmakers have created a blended system that allows both public schools and private centers to offer pre-K to the state's 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds not enrolled in kindergarten.
The hybrid system straddles a fine line for viability because it costs a lot in time and money to invest in a high-quality pre-K program. If policymakers require too much of providers, they could run them out of business at a time when options need to expand. But getting the most benefit for children means ensuring public dollars are well spent.
Different standards in use
This past year was a trial run in areas of the state that were ready to move forward with the universal pre-kindergarten law — Act 166 — and its voucher system. This year all eligible children will be given a $3,092 voucher to attend any prequalified program for 10 hours a week for 35 weeks.
Currently 342 programs across the state have prequalified. Fifty-nine percent, or 202, are privately operated. The 140 others are operated by public schools.
Vermont is relying on its rating program known as Vermont Step Ahead Recognition System, or STARS, to delineate quality and approve programs to accept public dollars.
STARS was originally built to recognize day care programs that go above and beyond licensing requirements. Centers that choose to participate — it's required for those that want to offer publicly funded pre-K — are rated from one to five stars. The standards were developed by the Agency of Education and the Department for Children and Families. The Legislature approved them in 2009.
When passing Act 166, lawmakers decided to use four- and five-star ratings to determine that a pre-K program is qualified. Act 166 also allows for programs that have three stars to get approval as long as they have an appropriate plan to get to four stars within two years.
"Act 166 really provided motivation for any center that was currently educating 3- and 5-year-olds to get a rating," said Alexandra Dusablon, who heads the three-star program at The Edge gym in Essex.
According to the Education Agency, of the prequalified programs:
• Forty-two percent have five stars — 80 public programs and 64 private.
• Thirty-six percent have four stars — 76 private and 47 public.
• Ten percent have three stars — 21 private and 12 public.
• Twelve percent have accreditation from the National Association for the Education of Young Children — 41 private and one public. The organization has been providing accreditation for more than 30 years and is considered the gold standard. Any Vermont program that has accreditation automatically gets a five-star rating from the state.
There are a total of 55 NAEYC-approved programs sparsely spread across Vermont, according to the association. Not all of them serve pre-K under Act 166.
State Board of Education member Bill Mathis said it is an open question whether good quality pre-K options are available to all Vermont children, particularly the neediest, who are expected to benefit the most. Mathis said he is interested in comparing the rigor and quality of Vermont's STARS ratings to the national association's evaluations.
The Milton Family Community Center has had the national accreditation since 2002. The center has three full-time teachers on staff, and the curriculum is tailored to each child's ability and interest. Jennifer Hayes, the center's child care director, said that while STARS is rigorous enough for Vermont, she sees a big difference between a five-star program and a nationally accredited one. "I don't think they are the same because of the amount of work and effort and tiny details NAEYC looks at. STARS is a lot more generalized," she said.
Timson Hill Preschool in Williamsville, in Windham County, has also had the group's accreditation since the start of the century. Programs have to go through a renewal every five years. Kathie Gatto-Gurney heads the pre-K program and said she likes the NAEYC process. "It gives us a chance to review the whole program thoroughly every five years. That is the part I like about it — it challenges me."
Gatto-Gurney also participated in STARS before becoming nationally accredited but said she isn't sure how she feels about either program. "I don't know how important it is. STARS is very different. Others find it rigorous and challenging," she said. She added that if a center doesn't have STARS or national accreditation, it doesn't mean the program isn't good, or even great.
At the pre-K program at The Edge called Kids & Fitness, three people in the Essex building hold teacher licenses, according to Dusablon. She has a degree in elementary education with an endorsement in early childhood education and psychology.
She advocated for the STARS program. "I think the star application process is quite comprehensive," she said. "Maintaining those standards requires an active, conscious effort, and it requires continual reflection and improvement."
Reaching for the stars
The STARS rating system is based on a paper application process. The framework is a graduated point system with five arenas: regulatory history; staff qualifications; families and community; program practices; and program administration.
Centers offer evidence detailing how they have met the standards. The criteria include having been inspected by a DCF licensee within the last two years; maintaining written policies and procedures; communicating with families and the broader community; having a developmentally appropriate curriculum and activities; and following proper business practices.
one-star program is just starting out and may be really strong in one of the five arenas. "They put their foot on the path to make a commitment to quality," said Reeva Murphy, deputy commissioner at DCF's child development division.
The three-star programs have shown substantial progress in two or three areas. "This is really the gateway to quality. They are working along and doing really great," Murphy said.
A four-star program has documented that it is solid in every arena, and five-star programs are equivalent to those with national accreditation, according to Murphy. "It is a big move to go from three to four stars," she said.
But some practitioners and experts question whether five stars truly equates to national accreditation.
"It is absolutely not as rigorous" as the National Association for the Education of Young Children, said Hayes, from the Milton Family Community Center.
Going for gold
The national association has 10 areas of research-based criteria and standards that providers need to show they meet to receive accreditation.
"Within each of the 10 early child program standards, we assess against specific criteria," said Kristen Johnson, senior director of its Academy for Early Childhood Program Accreditation. "The standards are 30 years old, and they were developed using all the best research and expertise available."
The standards address relationships, curriculum, instructional approaches, assessment of children, health, teachers, family communication, community relationships, physical environment, and leadership and management.
Specifically, programs are required to use teaching approaches that are developmentally, linguistically and culturally appropriate and effective at addressing each child's learning needs, styles and interests.
They also must have a well-planned, written curriculum that consistently promotes developmentally appropriate learning in social, emotional, physical, language and cognitive sectors. "It takes more than buying a curriculum and implementing it," Johnson said. "We want to see they are implementing it with fidelity, that teachers are responsive to children's interests and that they are engaging the children in appropriate ways."
Programs must have staff with educational qualifications and specific knowledge about early learning. They also need to support their staff with ongoing professional development programs and make sure employees are trained in the curriculum and work as a team.
Applicants for accreditation are expected to connect with outside entities such as museums, parks, libraries and zoos and bring in local performers and artists.
Programs have to be administered by someone with a bachelor's degree and additional education in the early childhood field and administration, leadership and management. And for pre-K the ratio should be 20 children to two staff members.
Accreditation can take up to several years, Johnson said. It begins with self-study to see what can be improved, then continues with a detailed application and the compiling of evidence demonstrating how they are achieving each of the standards.
The association then sends assessors to observe the program in action. The assessor also reviews all the evidence collected during the self-examination process.
If the program gets a grade of 80 percent or above in each domain, accreditation is awarded for five years.
Vermont contracts with a nonprofit organization that hired two people to handle most of the daily work with STARS, according to DCF's Jan Walker, who is sometimes called the quality person because she is responsible for workforce development and quality at the child development division. Two STARS coordinators review all applications and supporting documents and decide how many stars to award a program. The credential is good for three years.
The first step in the process is for an early education program to be visited by a licensing specialist.
The STARS coordinator checks on the regulatory history of the program and notifies DCF if the program hasn't had a licensing visit in the last two years, said Walker.
The only other time in the STARS process that a trained person might go to a program to observe and assess it — other than for licensing — is if the center is trying to earn three or four points in the program practices area of the evaluation, according to Walker. But programs have to agree to unannounced as well as announced visits by DCF or the Education Agency, according to the Act 166 rules.
Some in the field say requiring on-site evaluations would bring more rigor to the STARS program.
Teachers are key
Experts in early education say that the most important elements to consider in a pre-K program are the background and qualifications of the teacher and the curriculum used.
"You need a strong curriculum, but teachers have to be supported by some kind of continual improvement system in order to deliver it well," said Barnett, of the National Institute for Early Education Research.
Four- or five-star programs will prequalify for Act 166 if they have two stars in each of the arenas and have a licensed teacher specializing in early education on staff and present during the 10 hours that publicly financed pre-K is provided. Family home centers are able to contract with a licensed teacher who monitors them, according to Murphy at DCF's child development division.
Public schools have to play by a slightly different rulebook: Every classroom has to have a teacher with a valid license and specialty in early education or early childhood special education.
Practitioners do not always agree that a degree equates to quality. "The people who work in the home centers don't feel they need (a degree). They feel that if you are nurturing, you are nurturing, and some people with a master's degree are not as good as someone who is naturally nurturing," said Gatto-Gurney.
As for herself, Gatto-Gurney said having a background in teaching helps. She said that if you are educated in how children develop and learn, then designing teaching strategies to use play to explore and learn the different aspects of the state's learning standards comes easily.
Barnett takes issue with Vermont's rules that allow for private and home based pre-K programs to have only one licensed teacher on site or in a mentoring capacity. "How would you feel if you went to a hospital and they said, 'We don't have a doctor to deliver your care, but we have one available should something go wrong'?"
He said that in most states with hybrid public-private pre-K systems, the standards for private programs are lower than those for public schools.
But if it isn't acceptable to have an unlicensed person teaching kindergarten, then it shouldn't be acceptable for 4-year-olds, in his view. "They aren't easier to teach than 5-year-olds," he said.
The reason there are different standards for private and public school pre-K programs is that lawmakers didn't change the qualifying standards from earlier legislation to Act 166, according to Murphy, who added that the older standards are being reviewed and are subject to change.
"We want to look at our results before making decisions about where to make changes in quality," Murphy said.
Dusablon, of The Edge, said it's hard to attract licensed teachers to private centers because they won't earn as much as a kindergarten or first-grade teacher. "That is the challenge for lawmakers and everyone as a whole," she said. "How do we move to a place where proper compensation for professionals in this field doesn't fall on the backs of the parents paying the tuition for child care?"
The National Association for the Education of Young Children expects teachers to have at least an associate degree or equivalent. It also wants at least 75 percent of the teachers to have a minimum of a baccalaureate degree in early childhood education, child development, elementary education or early childhood special education.
"We know from years of research that early childhood educators with more professional preparation provide more developmentally appropriate, nurturing and responsive care and education experiences for young children," said Johnson. She added that other aspects of high-quality teacher preparation include experience and mentoring.
In this sense, Vermont's public school pre-K programs exceed the association's teacher expectations, but that isn't the case for private providers.
Assessing the students too
All pre-K programs have to demonstrate that their curriculum is aligned with the state's early learning standards, and they have to use a state assessment for each student to show if they are learning what they should be at the right developmental stage. In the early years, such assessments are not paper and pencil tests but observations noted by the teachers.
The assessment can be a hardship for some providers, according to Dusablon. She said her center has to maintain a yearly subscription to a specific online assessment called Teaching Strategies Gold for each child. "It is a financial burden that could become challenging for some providers," she said.
Murphy simply said that it is necessary to know that students are learning what they are supposed to in pre-K. "We want to know they have a curriculum that is intentional, thoughtful and aligned with the early learning standards. That is what STARS promotes," said Murphy.
And although the general public may not know the details of the STARS evaluation, the system creates a common language that parents can understand, said Dusablon. "We have rating systems for other services like hotels and restaurants. People can understand that more stars must equal a better program, but I don't think the general public understands everything that goes into it. But on the face value, everyone can understand that five may be better than three."