Extensive research has long established that investing in Early Childhood Education pays long-term dividends in academics and life. This has been the foundation for Talent 2025’s support of high-quality ECE programs.
At the same time, not all programs are equal. They often produce uneven results –exemplified by the recent finding that one pre-K program in Tennessee actually led to worse outcomes.
The difference, as discussed at our latest Issues Spotlight – Revising Our Understanding of Pre-K’s ROI – is that quality can be reinforced by four key factors: teacher pay, teacher-student ratios, evidence-based curriculum with instructional coaching supports, and being able to measure outcomes with a statewide assessment of kindergarten readiness.
Dr. Christina Weiland of the University of Michigan School of Education and Dr. Anna Shapiro, early childhood research scientist at the University of Virginia, have studied Michigan’s preschool programs. They guided us through the latest research on what matters most for children to have a high-quality early childhood experiences.
You can find a full recording of the Issues Spotlight here. The discussion is summarized below.
Teacher pay influences turnover and quality
Weiland noted the Great Start Readiness Program, Michigan’s preschool program for at-risk 4-year-olds, is among those state-funded programs that pay teachers less than their K-12 colleagues – despite having the same degree requirements.
“It's no surprise that we then see higher turnover and quality challenges,” Weiland said. “Because if I like teaching 4-year-olds, I'm probably going to like teaching 5-year-olds. And I'm definitely going to like making $30,000 more a year, right?”
Weiland said some programs with pay parity have been able to reduce turnover. Shapiro gave the example of a trial in Virginia where ECE teachers were given an incentive of about $1,500 if they stayed for eight months, and turnover was cut in half. Research continues into the effect on student outcomes.
“We can see that teachers do improve quite a fair amount when they stay in their centers,” Shapiro said. “And so, you can extrapolate that to think if teachers are turning over because they can’t stay in their position, we’re losing the quality gains that they’re getting through experience.”
Raising teacher ratios may offer opportunity to raise pay
Sharing data from the National Institute for Early Education Research, Shapiro noted Michigan’s GSRP program hits all 10 of the organization’s quality standard benchmarks.
In fact, the staff-child ratio of 1:8 for GSRP is lower than the recommended maximum of 1:10. This prompted CEO Council member Sean Welsh, regional president for PNC Bank, to ask about opportunities to increase teacher pay by bringing class sizes up to the recommended ratio.
“If you put two more kids in, you’d have two more tuitions,” Welsh said. “That’s maybe a way we close some of the pay gaps without eroding quality – that’s something we would want to prove, obviously.”
Weiland and Shapiro agreed there currently is no research into the difference in outcomes in classrooms with 1:8 vs. 1:10 ratios.
The advantage of evidence-based curriculum with instructional coaching
Despite GSRP hitting the quality benchmarks, Weiland and Shapiro noted other areas for improvement, including a lack of coaching and professional development for teachers.
“One of the things that could be improved would be thinking more about these instructional components of Great Start and trying to push the needle on the quality of the curriculum,” Weiland said. “And also, the support that teachers are receiving so that they can deliver those curricula well for children.”
The challenge in Michigan, Weiland said, is that school districts have faced resistance from the Department of Education when they want to explore evidence-based curricula that are not on the state-approve list.
The need for a statewide kindergarten-readiness assessment
Talent 2025 has been a strong advocate for statewide assessments for kindergarten readiness to help measure the effectiveness of GSRP. Despite support from organizations such as the Washtenaw Intermediate School District, the Michigan Kindergarten Entry Observation (MKEO) has faced resistance and it is being discontinued.
“I think it is a loss for the state that we won't have, going forward, those kinds of consistent metrics,” Weiland said.
Although individual districts conduct their own assessments, Shapiro noted the advantage of a standardized statewide assessment: It provides immediate measures of the effectiveness of pre-K programs.
“I think it's a really a huge missing piece in a lot of our data collection,” Shapiro said. “Most of the time when we want to see if a preschool program is working, we have to wait until the kid's in third grade in order to have some sort of standardized assessment. Those are blunt tools, but they are at least standardized, and they're used with all children.”