03/04/2013 04:30 pm ET Updated May 04, 2013

Universal Preschool: Use Innovation and Evidence to Make it Effective

In his recent State of the Union Address, President Obama proposed to "make high-quality preschool available to every child in America." He referred to research that has demonstrated long term positive effects of attending high-quality preschool programs. President Obama's support has excited the early childhood community. Who could be opposed to expanding high-quality preschool opportunities? Yet this begs the question: What does "high-quality" mean in practice?

"High-quality" preschools are often defined by educators and economists alike as ones in which teachers are adequately paid, facilities are adequate, and the ratio of staff to children is low. These are indeed important elements of quality and they are serious problems, as preschool educators are often very poorly paid, poorly educated themselves, and lack decent facilities. The low salaries received by preschool teachers leads to a high turnover rate, which also reduces quality. So ensuring universal access to high-quality preschools when many current preschoolers are already struggling with quality and funding issues will be a heavy lift.

Leaving aside money issues, however, there is an important question about how preschool programs should be structured. There is lots of research showing the benefits of high-quality preschool in comparison to no preschool (as in the famous Perry Preschool and Abecedarian programs). However, there is far less research showing different benefits of different preschool approaches.

The Preschool Curriculum Effectiveness Research initiative compared a number of promising approaches to each other and to groups using standard preschool teaching methods. The results are summarized in a review on the Best Evidence Encyclopedia. By the end of kindergarten, only a few of the programs showed child outcomes superior to those achieved by other programs. Structured programs that had a very strong focus on language and emergent literacy, giving children many opportunities to use language to work together, solve challenges, and develop positive relationships with each other, had the best outcomes for children.

Technology has so far played a modest role in early childhood education, but this may change as multimedia devices (such as interactive whiteboards) become more commonly used. Technology offers opportunities for teachers to enhance language development by engaging children with brief content that helps them understand how the world works. For example, children learning about health can see videos on how the body works and can be provided with video models of how to stay safe and healthy. Children can make choices and manipulate pictures and videos representing objects and processes. Further, classroom technology allows for linkages with the home, as parents increasingly have computers, DVDs, and other media available. Children can be shown exciting content in school and then take home DVDs or link electronically to specific materials that closely align with the content they learned that day. These electronic activities can be designed to be done with parents and children together, and can then inform parents about what children are learning in school. Also, in high-poverty homes children often have few if any books. Existing DVD or internet technologies can provide children with access to appropriate literature, which can be read to them by narrators or by their parents or older siblings.

Of course, technology will not replace the majority of early childhood teaching. Young children still need to manipulate real objects and learn to work with each other, sing songs, develop coordination and creativity, and practice appropriate behaviors. However, technology may add the capacity for teachers to show anything they want to their children and to link to the home in ways that have not been possible in the past, and this may result in enhanced learning at this critical age.

Expanding preschool access is a terrific idea, but it will take a lot of money and a long time to put into place. The possibility that it may take place should motivate immediate investments in innovation and evaluation, to develop new ways of ensuring that early education leads to enhanced preparation for success, especially for disadvantaged children.

Preschool quality should not just be seen as a question of per-pupil cost. Preschool educators and children need innovative, proven models that use modern teaching strategies and technologies that are appropriate to the developmental needs of four-year-olds. Innovation and research is needed to show the way as we head toward universal preschool.

Subscribe to the Politics email.
How will Trump’s administration impact you?