One of the most frequent questions that I am asked regarding early childhood education is, “What is more important in scaling a system—increasing access or increasing quality?The quantity versus quality debate puts these priorities in competition with each other; as policymakers must decide if they wish to fund more slots or better slots. This debate comes down to the fundamental question, “Is more always better?”
In the eighties, nineties, and oughts, the answer from a federal, state, and local level focused on increasing access to slots for infants, toddlers, and pre-kindergarteners as the most important policy lever to push. Over these 30 years, the number of mothers returning to the workforce dramatically increased, causing policymakers to focus efforts on ensuring access to childcare and early childhood education for as many children as possible. The question focused more on how to increase the system’s capacity rather than how to improve the system’s quality. Access versus quality was an “either/or” debate instead of a “both/and” debate. Budget decisions highlighted how many additional slots could be opened with a child care budget line item or federal block grant instead of what types of additional slots could be opened.
The tide began to change about ten years ago when increasing numbers of peer-reviewed research articles and national studies found that high-quality early care and education programs could make substantial differences in the trajectory of young children’s learning, particularly the learning of our nation’s most at-risk children. Specifically, children who attend high quality early learning programs demonstrate higher levels of school achievement and better social adjustment. Study upon study found that children attending high quality programs are less likely to repeat a grade or be placed in special education classes and more likely to graduate from high school. These high-quality programs are required for preschool attendance to produce positive effects. Unfortunately, during this time period the quality of many programs was too low or “mediocre at best” to generate lasting academic and social success. This realization by national, state, and local leaders began the movement from an “either/or” system-building effort to a “both/and” effort. We began to hear policy makers pair access and quality together, rather than treat them as politically opposing factors.
In the past five years, it has been almost impossible to hear about increasing access without also hearing about increasing quality. The common phrase is now “increasing access to high quality early learning programs”. This effort has been both bipartisan and multi-generational. Advocates, associations, and organizations as diverse as the National Association for the Education of Young Children, the Federal Reserve Bank, the Business Roundtable, the US Conference of Mayors, the retired admirals and generals of Mission: Readiness, and the nation’s Police Chiefs have produced calls to action, official statements, and research–based reports.
In his past three State of the Union addresses, President Obama called upon Congress to expand access to high-quality early learning for every child in America, proposing investments that would support a continuum of early learning opportunity from birth through kindergarten entry. Again, access and high quality were described as a “both/and” rather than an “either/or”. In his Valentine’s Day speech in Decatur, Georgia, President Obama outlined his call for high-quality preschool programs for all children in America.
At every point in the speech where access was mentioned, it was always paired with high quality. In my mind, this is one of the most memorable speeches ever given on the access vs. quality issue.
The capstone to this access versus quality debate occurred during the December 14, 2014 White House Summit on Early Education in which state and local policymakers, mayors, school superintendents, corporate and community leaders, and advocates came together to discuss effective strategies and programs to bring high-quality early childhood education to scale. The White House’s Fact Sheet on The Early Education Summit that was produced as a result of the summit included 16 references to high-quality early learning and always paired increasing access with high quality programs.
The evidence is too significant, the situation is too dire, and the result is too important to ignore—access and quality must both be present in any early childhood system to ensure we change the trajectory for all children.
Every state, every district, every school, every teacher faced decisions that they had never anticipated in the last academic year. As the end of the 2020-2021 school year approaches, it’s time to reflect on those decisions, learn from others, and prepare for the fall ahead.
To those in the education world, it’s not news that our schools, our systems, and our students are struggling. For nearly 40 years, since the publication of A Nation At Risk, we’ve recognized as a country that something isn’t working.
For more than a century after the United States’ colonization, school was intended for children who were overwhelmingly wealthy, white, male, and English-speaking - those demographics are no longer the case. Students today are representative of all our nation’s families, but our history means there’s a mismatch between what education has done up to this point and what children really need. What’s more, advances in science - psychology, medicine,
neuroscience, economics, and more - have shown us that to give children the greatest opportunity we must change what we’re doing. We can’t let another 40 years pass while we figure it out.
At Teachstone, our driving vision is to ensure every child experiences life-changing teaching. This mission is why we’re making a commitment to restabilize and improve education for every child, and every educator. And, we know that bringing this commitment to life requires providing education leaders with the support they need to not only face the current challenges, but that will propel towards the future of quality and equity.
Given the context of today’s educational landscape, the global pandemic we are still fighting, and the divides our country is facing, strong leadership is essential. There is a clear need to restabilize and improve education for every child, and every educator. But, what does that mean exactly for educational leaders who are leading the way?