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Originally published Thursday, September 5, 2013 at 4:36 PM

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Guest: Want great preschools for all? Look to Boston

What it takes to achieve high-quality preschool across an entire city, according to guest columnists Christina Weiland and Hirokazu Yoshikawa.

Special to The Times

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SEATTLE City Council is considering following the lead of Boston, Tulsa, San Francisco and President Obama’s Preschool for All proposal by making preschool available and affordable to all kids in the city.

The crucial debate isn’t whether Seattle should have a universal-preschool program, as proposed by Councilmember Tim Burgess. Returns on investments in early childhood are higher than investments at any other time in life. Seattle would gain more from the plan than it would spend.

The crucial debate is: What does it take to achieve high-quality preschool at scale, across an entire city?

The science of early childhood is clear: Instructional quality is the toughest challenge facing preschool programs nationally, just as for the K-12 system, and it is the most important factor in preparing children for kindergarten.

What is instructional quality in preschool? The best preschool programs provide plenty of rich language, literacy and mathematics-learning opportunities. They help 3- and 4-year-old children learn appropriate social behaviors and use fun, developmentally appropriate activities to push children’s attention and memory skills. And they accomplish this by taking advantage of how young children learn best — by doing and by exploring, primarily in small groups.

The very successful Boston prekindergarten and other successful preschool programs offer several lessons for Seattle about how to ensure high instructional quality across city preschools.

In our recently completed study of thousands of children in the Boston program, we found that it produced the largest positive effects on children’s vocabulary and mathematics skills of any rigorously evaluated public prekindergarten program to date.

The Boston program also narrowed, and in some cases completely eliminated, school-readiness gaps between minority and white children, but not at the expense of white or middle-class children. That is, all children gained, but children of color and children from disadvantaged backgrounds gained more.

The program also improved important self-regulation skills not directly targeted by the program, such as children’s memory and cognitive self-control.

Increasingly, research shows that these kinds of skills — which reflect early brain development, the ability to focus and behavioral skills — are critical to children’s success down the road.

It’s important to note that these impacts were achieved at scale, across a diverse and large, urban-school district, and one with income- and race-based achievement gaps as stubborn as Seattle’s.

What was Boston’s secret? Boston, like other preschool programs that perform well, treated its prekindergarten teachers as professionals. Boston prekindergarten teachers hold at least a bachelor’s degree and are paid at levels comparable to K-12 teachers.

In Boston preschools, children from mixed-income families ended up in the same classes. Middle-class children, who also have plenty of room to grow, benefited from high-quality preschool programs like the Boston program.

For lower-income children, having mixed-income peers matters. Research has long shown that learning doesn’t happen in a vacuum. An individual’s peers affect his or her own learning.

Boston also implemented research-based curricula that intentionally and specifically targeted children’s language, literacy and mathematics skills. High-quality mathematics instruction in particular is rare in preschool classrooms. This is especially troubling because math skills are the strongest predictor of later school success, even stronger in some national studies than early reading skills.

Other preschool evaluations have proved that targeting children’s socio-emotional skills improves both their behavioral and their academic outcomes.

Crucially, Boston paired these curricula with professional development in real time. Prekindergarten teachers were supported by expert teachers who visited their classrooms regularly, provided coaching and ensured teachers actually adopted — and children actually absorbed — the curricula. This kind of live classroom support has been shown to boost children’s development in many preschool studies.

Finally, Boston was smart about using teacher-observation data to improve instructional quality. Current K-12 review systems are often ineffective, punitive and fraught with politics.

Boston hired outside observers to rate program quality, allocated resources based on the results and shared results with individual teachers to help identify strengths and target weaknesses in their teaching practice. The results were not tied to pay increases or firing decisions, which meant that teachers were more willing to use the data to improve instructional quality.

Boston’s investment will continue to pay dividends into the future. If Seattle can similarly tackle the preschool instructional-quality problem in its proposed preschool program, the same will be true in the Emerald City.

Christina Weiland, left, is an assistant professor of education at the University of Michigan. Hirokazu Yoshikawa is the Courtney Sale Ross University Professor of Globalization and Education at New York University and author of “Immigrants Raising Citizens: Undocumented Parents and Their Young Children.”

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