7 Takeaways from the NIEER Report on Pre-k in Texas and Across the US

The new National Institute of Early Education Research (NIEER) Yearbook is out and, as usual, it’s in the headlines in Texas and around the country.

Every year, the report provides a critical opportunity for policymakers and early childhood stakeholders to take stock of our state’s commitment to pre-k and the road ahead to achieve the best outcomes for kids, communities, and the state. Not only does the NIEER Yearbook show enrollment and quality improvement trends across the country for the prior year (in this case the 2014-2015 school year), it also highlights those states making significant progress, those lagging behind, and research-backed steps that states must take to achieve a high return on their pre-k investment. 

Here are our top 7 takeaways from the 2015 NIEER Yearbook and its implications for Texas: 

  1. In Texas, improving pre-k program quality is our biggest challenge and opportunity. Again, the Texas pre-k program earns a mere 2 out of 10 on NIEER’s quality rating scale, making it one of the lowest quality programs in the nation. We must set higher standards and ensure districts have the support they need to improve program quality. In particular, decades of solid academic research show that setting maximum class size limits and teacher/student ratios and investing in full-day options for families will lead to stronger outcomes for kids and communities. More manageable class sizes encourage more teacher-student interaction and individualized attention while a higher dosage of pre-k is particularly beneficial for children from disadvantaged backgrounds and dual language learners.
  2. House Bill 4 was a positive step forward but is just a down payment on quality improvement. The state’s new High Quality Pre-k Grant Program is not reflected in the 2015 Yearbook because the rules were just promulgated this Spring and, in any case, the quality improvements will not apply statewide to all districts given the voluntary grant structure. It also bears repeating that House Bill 4 did not set class size or ratio limits or expand access to full-day pre-k programs.
  3. Texans should feel proud that our state has the 10th largest pre-k program in the nation, serving more than 219,000 three- and four-year-olds in 2014-2015, which translates into access for 48% of Texas four-year-olds and 7% of three-year-olds.
  4. While we are in the top 10 for access, enrollment in Texas pre-k fell to 219,000 in 2014-2015, a decline of nearly 7,000 students. Looking deeper at the data, 6,000 more three-year-olds were served but access for four-year-olds dropped by over 13,000. Clearly we need to understand why pre-k enrollment has dropped when the population of young children is increasing in Texas. Are half-day programs too incompatible with working parents' schedules? Is it a lack of community outreach? Uncovering the reasons behind the enrollment drop should be a priority for TEA and districts.
  5. The NIEER Yearbook does not track innovative local efforts to improve pre-k access or quality, an area where Texas shines. Fortunately, many Texas communities are supporting high quality, full day pre-k and/or prioritizing access to three-year-olds with a creative mix of state, local and private funds. Communities in Central Texas, San Antonio, Fort Worth and Dallas, for example, are making hard choices and leveraging public support to achieve their long range plans. The state should wisely invest in these local efforts and offer incentives to other districts still lagging behind.
  6. Texas gets mixed results in a new subject measured by this year’s report: serving Dual Language Learners (DLLs) in pre-k. Given that classification as a DLL (or "English Language Learner”) is one of the ways Texas children qualify for pre-k, it is not surprising that we serve a fairly high number of DLLs in state pre-k. NIEER data show that TX pre-k serves about 9% of three-year-olds for whom English is not a first language (or 12,000 kids) and 58% of the state’s four-year-old DLL children (81,000 pre-k students). However, Texas does not have early learning standards related to DLLs. We don’t require that pre-k students are assessed in the family’s home language. And we don’t require pre-k teachers to have qualifications relevant to serving DLL students. Clearly, we have much more work to do to explore best practices for serving DLLs in pre-k and to determine whether we are collecting the right data and acting on that data to improve outcomes.
  7. The national picture shows strong bipartisan support for increasing access to quality pre-k. Nationally, states invested an additional $533 million in pre-k in 2014-2015, a 10% increase, with almost two-thirds of that coming from new investments in New York City (which implemented quality full day pre-k for all 4 year olds). 

What does all this mean for Texas? We should loudly celebrate the strong bipartisan support for pre-k in the State Capitol and the gains we have made over the years. However, the NIEER Yearbook is a stark reminder of how far we still have to go. We must map out the way forward to build on HB 4, ensure pre-k class sizes are manageable, help districts provide full-day programs, and take the other steps necessary to make pre-k more effective. The road to ensuring increased access to high quality pre-k will take leadership, collaboration, and resources. High quality pre-k is one of the smartest investments we can make -- and our state’s future depends on it.