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What to look for in a high-quality preschool
Many preschools vary in teacher education levels, philosophy and price range making it difficult for parents to sort out characteristics of a high-quality preschool to enroll their kids in. - photo by Megan McNulty
When enrolling a child in preschool, there are multiple factors to consider to ensure the best early learning experience possible.

Studies show children who receive a high-quality early education develop a solid base for success in school and their future careers.

According to a recent report by the U.S. Department of Education, it is very common in the United States for both parents to work because more mothers are contributing to household income than previous generations. Parents now have a better understanding of the importance of early education increasing the demand for high-quality yet affordable early education.

According to the report, research shows that high-caliber teachers are the most important factor in preschool because they serve as role models and foster language and literacy skills. A high-quality learning environment correlates directly with an exceptional workforce down the road, according to the report. A successful preschool program should not only prepare children for the transition into kindergarten, but should also incorporate the appropriate amounts of play time and creativity.

Various factors may impact a child's preschool experience, including teacher compensation and education level, school funding, price ranges and different educational philosophies.

Teacher compensation

Early education has been proved to be essential to a child's learning development, but teacher turnover is high because of low pay, the department's report said. Evidence shows that when children are enrolled in preschools with a low teacher turnover rate and higher pay, they engage in more positive interactions with their teachers and peers.

Yet preschool teachers were paid an average of $28,570 in 2015 only about half of what kindergarten teachers earn ($51,640). They are paid less than janitors and hairstylists and often qualify for public benefits.

"There are a lot of amazing, strong, competent and creative people who would go into early childhood (teaching) if the wages were the same level as elementary and secondary," said Jennifer Keys Adair, an assistant professor of early childhood education at the University of Texas at Austin.

The amount of work that goes into a preschool teacher's curriculum is often underestimated because they must learn not only to connect with children, but also offer reassurance to parents, Adair said.

Funding and price ranges

According to Department of Education data, preschool teachers in private programs earn more than teachers in Head Start or publicly funded programs.

The gap in median wages is $6.70 an hour between a public program and a private school that requires teachers to have a bachelor's degree or higher, according to the report.

The cost of preschool programs can vary anywhere from free to $13,158 a year, but "whether a family is paying or not does not equate with the quality of the program," said Marjorie Wechsler, a research manager at the Learning Policy Institute and an early education expert. "Public and state-funded preschool programs where parents dont pay anything can be extremely high-quality programs."

Education level

Recent reports have suggested some preschool teachers have little to no early childhood teaching education, sparking debate about exactly how much education preschool teachers should be getting.

According to Adair, a high-quality preschool workforce stems from the way a teacher interacts with and understands children and their development, regardless of whether the teacher has attained a high-level education.

"I've seen teachers with associate's degrees with a lot of experience and creativity and respect for the families do amazing and others with master's degrees I think would be horrible," Adair said.

Adair said a preschool teacher's degree only matters if they are specifically trained in early childhood education, because some universities focus on a more general pre-K through sixth-grade standard, failing to understand "a 4-year-old does not respond the same way as an 8-year-old."

However, according to the department report, preschool teachers with different education levels also earn different wages. Teachers with a high school diploma or less were found to earn a median of $9 an hour; an associate's degree, $11 an hour, and a bachelor's degree, $14.70 per hour.

According to Wechsler, people tend to expect a higher education level from preschool teachers, and when they find ways to advance their education, those teachers often move into kindergarten jobs that pay better.

Finding the right preschool

Parents may find it difficult to sort out what type of preschool is best for their child.

Adair offered some advice to parents. When observing a teacher, it is a good sign if they are positively interacting with students and asking them questions to encourage critical thinking and creativity.

Adair has found that elements like developing a child's agency and encouraging early critical thinking are essential in a successful preschool program that will prepare children for higher grades. As a professor, she focuses on project-based learning for children where they can ask questions, conduct research and share ideas.

Preschool teachers face a lot of pressure to be more academic and incorporate worksheets, flashcards and memorization but Adair says this isn't ideal. "The best kind of teaching is for kids to have a lot of time to play and experiment with different materials and ideas and be able to work together and solve problems," she said. She noted that many preschools inform parents of project-based learning in their program descriptions.

A preschool curriculum should be developmentally appropriate for children at such young ages, Wechsler said. "They needs hands-on experimental learning and play-based opportunities."

In a report Wechsler co-authored about high-quality early childhood education programs, she noted a good preschool program conducts effective assessments of the whole child including academic, socio-emotional and physical development.

According to Adair, some parents tend to overdo it with excessive parental involvement and trying to control their children's preschool education.

"The best thing is to provide them with lots of interesting material, help them feel safe pursuing their ideas and telling their stories, offer a range of experiences and engaging with them," Adair said. "This will add richness to their lives and prepare them for school more than anything else."

However, in her report, Wechsler highlighted the importance of involving families in meaningful ways into children's preschool education. "Preschools should include parents as role models," she said.