Painting a picture of today’s pre-K – Early Learning Network
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Painting a picture of today’s pre-K

Painting a picture of today’s pre-K

Report sheds light on children’s early learning experiences


Publicly funded pre-K education is a widely accepted strategy to address opportunity and achievement gaps among low-income children. Earlier this year, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest person, announced his plans to spend $2 billion to launch new preschools in underserved communities, along with a program to help the homeless.


But what if for all its promise — and 40 years of public investment — these programs are falling short of their potential?


Although there’s no question that preschool benefits our youngest learners, the U.S. education system has always lacked a clear funding and curricular approach to optimize early learning opportunities during this critical period of development.


New research sheds light on children’s experiences in today’s pre-K classrooms, the implications for practice and policy, and how these programs can be shaped to place all children on a path for long-term success.


The investigation, led by Robert C. Pianta, dean of the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, provides a snapshot of today’s public pre-K experience as part of the national Early Learning Network. Importantly, this research mirrors data collection approaches used for the past 20 years, providing a perspective on the evolution of this key sector of American educational opportunity.


“Given what’s at stake, it is critical that we have a deeper understanding of the extent to which early childhood education meets expectations for practice, whether programs are delivering their intended effects, and the extent to which programs have shifted over the past decades of expansion and emphasis on school readiness,” Pianta said.


Pianta and other UVA researchers worked with school district and community partners to collect data from 117 publicly funded preschool classrooms in Fairfax County, Virginia — a large, diverse, suburban setting. Fairfax’s full-day pre-K programs, located both within schools and in the community, serve more than 2,000 low-income students.


The research team gathered data on classroom settings, teacher and child behaviors, the nature and extent of educational activities, and children’s involvement with those activities.


“After first describing the educational opportunities and experiences in these classrooms, we then set out to understand the extent to which children’s pre-K experiences reflect program, classroom and teacher characteristics,” Pianta said. “In other words, to identify which factors have the greatest impact on children’s learning.”


How do children spend their day, and how does it relate to learning?


The study revealed that children spent most of the day in teacher-led, whole-group instruction and in free play, and spent little time in one-on-one and small-group settings. More than a third of the school day was dedicated to academic activities.


“Clearly, there is a lot of academic learning taking place in these classrooms; notably, there are fewer opportunities for socioemotional learning,” Pianta said.


Nearly 70 percent of the academic time was focused on literacy and social studies, while children’s exposure to math and science lagged behind considerably, most likely reflecting the emphasis on early literacy in most public education systems.


A third of the school day was dedicated to mealtimes and carrying out routines and transitions. And although early childhood programming requires time to take care of kids’ basic needs — lining up, washing hands and other procedures — the report notes that these routine activities likely represent untapped potential that can be leveraged into learning opportunities.


According to the report, students were observed learning basic skills when teachers provided directed activities, and when those activities were associated with specific academic content. There was also a significant association between free time within classrooms and children’s on-task behaviors, suggesting that free play may be an important context on which to capitalize.


Pre-K is evolving


An important feature of the study is the ability to compare findings with data collected in pre-K classrooms from more than 15 years ago. Results showed an increase in children’s exposure to educational content, and an increase in teachers demonstrating active involvement in managing children’s time and learning.


“Over time, teachers have become more actively engaged with children throughout more of the day and across more settings — viewing free play or choice/center time as a setting in which they can intentionally foster learning,” Pianta said.


The report suggests that these changes in pre-K programming may be part of a larger shift in educational intentionality — a trend that likely stems from the early childhood sector’s growing emphasis on school readiness over the past 10 years.


And, teachers with more years of education and experience provided more instruction and educational content in their classrooms. Perhaps more training and experience are connected to the increased emphasis on educational goals for pre-K.


How can today’s pre-K experience be optimized?


A powerful way to build on children’s positive experiences in preschool is through evidence-based policies and professional development that help influence programs, classrooms and teachers’ interactions with their students during the day.


The study’s results suggest several strategies to optimize the benefit of public pre-K programs:

  • Promote policies and programs to improve the quality and impact of early education settings.
  • Support workforce development policies that focus on enhancing children’s early learning experiences.
  • Develop, adopt and support stronger pre-K curricula in the areas of mathematics and social-emotional learning.
  • Provide teachers with a set of skills and practices that enable them to turn all periods of the day (meals, transitions, routines, etc.), as appropriate, into educational opportunities.


“Although the results of this study provide important insights into today’s pre-K experience, they are not generalizable to what’s happening in every preschool in America,” Pianta said. “We should be appropriately cautious about the inferences we make.”


Instead, this report strengthens our understanding of the evolving nature of pre-K programs, offering perspective on how U.S. education policies and practices can be better focused to foster children’s early learning needs.


“First, we need to have a clear picture of where we stand and where we need to be,” Pianta said. “It’s encouraging to see a modest increase in children’s exposure to classroom learning opportunities, compared to just 10 years ago, but there’s much more work to do to ensure that preschoolers have what they need to thrive in school and in life — particularly those who are most vulnerable.”


The study was published in Early Education and Development, a peer-reviewed publication of Taylor & Francis. Learn more about the UVA research program, part of the Early Learning Network’s nationwide research efforts.