Closing Boston’s “Quality Gap” in Early Education

The City of Boston, with the support of United Way and other community groups, plan to set consistent standards for early education across all the City’s neighborhoods.

The vast majority of Boston’s approximately 6,000 4-year-olds are enrolled in pre-kindergarten, with more than half being served by Boston Public Schools and the remainder in community-based or private programs. So, why, then, is the City of Boston pushing so hard for a universal system?

The challenge, city leaders say, is that the quality of early education across these mixed settings is not consistently high. The local debate around implementing universal preschool is no longer just about access or availability; it’s about helping to ensure all programs in the City of Boston are delivering the highest quality early education.

Quality vs. Access

Research shows high-quality universal pre-kindergarten makes a difference in improving outcomes for children in critical areas of early learning. Pre-reading and math skills lead to future school success. Locally, results from evaluations of the Boston Public Schools K1 model and Boston K1DS, indicate that high-quality programs yield a measurable positive impact on children’s early learning.

“Boston has mostly solved the access challenge but continues to face a significant shortage of quality seats,” says Rahn Dorsey, Chief of Education for Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh. “Additionally, quality differs substantially by neighborhood.”

That’s why the City of Boston, in partnership with United Way and Barr Foundation, developed a plan to increase seats in community-based organizations that meet the City’s quality thresholds in shortage neighborhoods.

“In Boston, we have a clear vision for unlocking the potential of early education not just for Boston, but as a model for the rest of the state,” says Dorsey.

Research shows high-quality programming includes highly-trained and well-compensated teachers, environments that are safe and age-appropriate to promote learning, and use of an evidenced-based curriculum with a focus on literacy and math as well as additional support for children with additional language or developmental needs. Strong communication and family engagement, ongoing professional development and coaching, as well as program evaluation and assessment are also key factors used when evaluating quality.

Achieving High-Quality Pre-K in Boston

Mayor Walsh’s efforts have focused on gathering the types of concrete data necessary to develop an effective system of high-quality Pre-K. That includes gauging parent demand for Pre-K options against availability, gaining a better understanding of quality in settings across the City, developing strategies to expand access to high-quality seats, and estimating the costs associated with bringing seats to the level of quality that best support child development. This process has been led by the City of Boston, with critical input from community-based providers, educators, parents and early childhood experts.

“Together, we have developed what we are confident is an ambitious, yet feasible blueprint to ensure every four-year-old has a high-quality Pre-K option that meets their developmental needs and that work for their families,” says Dorsey.

But that plan will require additional resources. That’s why earlier this year, Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh filed legislation to redirect revenues that are generated exclusively in the City of Boston (the Boston Sightseeing Surcharge and the Boston Vehicular Rental Transaction Surcharge) to fund the expansion of quality Pre-K in Boston.

It will cost a minimum of $16 million per year in new revenue to create a system where all of Boston’s four-year-olds are consistently served in a high-quality Pre-K setting that meets their developmental needs.With sustainable funding, Boston’s approach could not only be expanded throughout the city, but it could also serve as a model for other communities in Massachusetts.

With sustainable funding, Boston’s approach could not only be expanded throughout the city, but it could also serve as a model for other communities across the state that are also seeking to develop UPK systems.

“This is an exciting time,” says Karley Ausiello, Senior Vice President for Community Impact at United Way and a member of the Mayor’s UPK Steering Committee. “Together, we can transform our vision for high-quality universal Pre-K into positive social and academic outcomes for our City’s children.”

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