When former Seattle Mayor Ed Murray pitched his $81 million subsidized preschool program to voters in 2014, this was his promise: high-quality, affordable early learning that would help bridge the opportunity gap between rich and poor, black and white.
Three years into its four-year pilot, that publicly-funded preschool program is showing mixed results. Outside evaluations in 2016 and 2017 found that the Seattle Preschool Program offered warm, loving care for young children, but the program fared poorly on measures of teaching quality.
As part of the pilot, outside evaluators visited SPP classrooms to conduct regular assessments of teaching and learning. Evaluators gave the 32 classrooms they visited in the 2016-17 school year an average emotional support score of 6.29 on a scale of one to seven. That domain looks at how welcome teachers make children feel in class, and how well teachers foster healthy relationships with and between children.
But in the instructional support domain — which measures things like how well teachers develop children's problem-solving, critical thinking and complex language abilities — the average classroom scored just 3.06 on the seven-point scale.
The assessments were conducted using one common measure of preschool teaching quality, the Classroom Assessment Scoring System. Similar quality gaps were seen both years on another measure of teaching quality, the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale, Third Edition.
These disparities illustrate the difficulty of launching — and quickly expanding — high-quality, publicly-funded preschool programs, said early-childhood education researcher Suzanne Bouffard. She recently authored the book "The Most Important Year: Pre-Kindergarten and the Future of Our Children," which examined how publicly-funded preschools have fared across the country.
"I'm not surprised that in getting off the ground and getting things going for the first few years, the quality isn't yet where we would hope to see it," Bouffard said. “In general, the research that we have over the last decade or so shows that quality tends to be pretty mediocre.”
Programs are excelling in places like Boston and New Jersey, but that’s come after they’ve been up and running for years, Bouffard said.
Like Seattle, Boston's early results were poor. Its K1 preschool program achieved major gains when it stopped its rapid expansion and focused on improvements on things like curriculum and teacher training.
Seattle, meanwhile, has grown from serving about 300 children in 2015 to nearly 1,000 currently. The goal is to serve as many as 1,615 students this fall.
"You would hope in some ways that we could learn the lessons of [high-achieving] initiatives and get to quality faster," Bouffard said. "We have learned that going to scale with quality and creating really great programs for everyone is a challenge."
Experts agree a major lesson is teacher training. But teaching preschool has traditionally been a low-paying job that didn’t require a lot of education.
Seattle's program includes two new classrooms, created in public schools and community centers, as well as existing preschools. The existing preschools that joined the program are typically in lower-income neighborhoods and couldn't historically afford the kind of ongoing training teachers need to meet evolving expectations.
Monica Liang-Aguirre is the Early Learning Director at Seattle's Department of Education and Early Learning, which oversees the preschool program.
"I think there are a lot of teachers, a lot of programs that have done a beautiful job preparing children to be happy, healthy, socially-emotionally stable children, but never had to focus so much on the skill development, necessarily," she said.
Liang-Aguirre said SPP provides a lot of one-on-one coaching for teachers to get them up to speed. That’s been a key factor in improving quality in places like Boston and New Jersey.
"We started off with a bit of a standardized approach for all teachers, and we realized some teachers might need a much more intensive support," Liang-Aguirre said. That might be due to individual skill level, or due to the population they serve.
She said that coaching is paying off.
In SPP’s second year, evaluators found that teachers were better at making books engaging for kids and weaving math lessons into other activities. They also scored better for spending more time one-on-one with children to individualize their learning.
Sharail Butler has taught young children for 18 years and is now at the Launch preschool in Madrona. She said her coach is helping her with things like behavioral approaches, teaching kids to problem-solve, and letting children guide the lessons.
"After you’ve been doing it so long, you find yourself getting stuck in the same rut," Butler said. "Okay, it’s February, we’re going to do Valentines." Her coach now has Butler "breaking out of that and really figuring out what the kids are interested in, and then making your lesson plans reflect that."
Although city officials acknowledge that SPP is doing much better on measures of emotional support and classroom climate than on instructional quality, Liang-Aguirre said that social-emotional strength is at the heart of what preschool is all about.
"Preschool is an opportunity for children to establish themselves as learners, as a person, and as a part of a community," Liang-Aguirre said. "And so we absolutely prioritize and value the social-emotional support that a preschool provides.”
So how much are kids learning in the Seattle Preschool Program?
City officials point to student test results that suggest low-income kids and children of color are making the greatest academic gains. But they warn that it’s hard to gauge the impact of the program this early on.
Early childhood expert Suzanne Bouffard said that assessment results for kids should be taken with a grain of salt.
"We know from research that standardized test scores are unreliable in young children for a variety of reasons," she said. "One is, if you think about any preschooler, you know they can be in a completely different mental place from one day to the next."
Another issue is that it’s hard to distinguish how much preschoolers are building particular skills at school versus at home.
The most scientific way to determine the success of a preschool program is through a randomized, controlled study that follows two large groups of children: one group that went through the program and another that didn't.
Officials didn't set up a randomized, controlled trial for the Seattle Preschool Program. It does have a comparison group, but children in that group are more likely to be white and well-off, so it's not an apples-to-apples comparison.
That means we may never really know how well the program works for kids.
Despite that, the preschool program is popular among families, especially for its affordability. Tuition is free for families making up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level, and sliding-scale for higher-earning families.
Annie Sharrett voted for SPP, and when her oldest daughter turned four, she quickly enrolled her.
"It was the most amount of preschool we could get for the least amount of money," Sharrett said.
For six hours a day, five days a week, she pays just $550 dollars a month. Full-time, private preschool can cost four times that much.
Sharrett said her daughter seems really happy in the program.
"She loves to be a lights helper and turn off all the lights in our house, which is a role from preschool," she said. "And she likes to pretend to be a teacher and teach her little sister, so that part’s been really great."
But Sharrett also has some concerns.
She hoped the program would be more focused on children’s individual interests, rather than the rote academic skills she observes.
"Every single day she comes home with a sample of her having traced her name at school," Sharrett said. "And I think it’s great that she is getting exposure to writing and letters. But it just seems like quite a focus on that particular skill."
While parent-teacher conferences lay out her daughter's academic skill development, Sharrett said she'd like to see more transparency about overall classroom quality. That's something some other programs nationwide, like in New York City, offer parents.
The Seattle Preschool Program enters the final year of its pilot this fall, along with the $58 million property tax levy on the city's homeowners that provides the bulk of its funding.
Now city leaders plan to ask voters for more money to continue SPP and expand it even further.
"The challenge that I see moving forward is how can we begin to scale, right?" said Liang-Aguirre. "How can we make this accessible across the city?"
She said the Department of Education and Early Learning is working with Mayor Jenny Durkan to decide what the next phase of the preschool program would look like.
Seattle voters may see a renewal levy for the Seattle Preschool Program on ballots as early as this November.