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Grand Rounds Seminar Explores Preschool in Vermont

Headshots of expert panelists Dr. Steve Barnett, Dr. GG Weisenfeld, Dr. Lori Connors-Tadros,

On June 18, 2024, Building Bright Futures Executive Director Dr. Morgan Crossman moderated a Vermont Early Childhood Grand Rounds Seminar titled “The State of Preschool: Situating Vermont within the national context,” part of a series launched in 2023 and hosted by Vermont’s Early Childhood Data and Policy Center to elevate and disseminate high-quality data and data-related topics that affect Vermont’s early childhood system. The seminar featured national experts Dr. Steven Barnett, Dr. Lori Connors-Tadros, and Dr. GG Weisenfeld speaking about The State of Preschool Yearbook, published annually by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), and situating Vermont’s pre-K program within the national context.

The session was attended live by over 75 individuals from Vermont and across the country, including legislators, pre-K coordinators and educators, families, state officials, and community and advocacy partners.  

Watch the full recording of the seminar

Download the Resource List

Presenters discussed the ways in which Vermont’s pre-K program leads the nation and areas to consider for the future. They talked about how to build capacity for quality improvement, how to secure sustainable funding, and how state-level coordination and oversight can be most effective. 

Dr. GG Weisenfeld is a Senior ECE Policy Specialist at the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University, Graduate School of Education.

Dr. W. Steven (Steve) Barnett is a Board of Governors Professor and the founder and Senior Co-Director of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University. 

Dr. Lori Connors-Tadros is a Senior Research Fellow at the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University.

Read the panelists’ full bios

The State of Preschool Yearbook

Since 2002, NIEER has been collecting information about states’ pre-K programs through its State of Preschool Yearbook. In that time period, the number of states offering pre-K programs has grown from 38 to 45, and the number of states offering school-day programs (six hours per day) has gone from 9 to 22. 

Dr. GG Weisenfeld described NIEER’s policy benchmarks for preschool programs, which she described as “research based, and what we consider the minimum of what a state should be doing to meet quality.” Five states met all 10 NIEER benchmarks for the 2022–2023 school year, while Vermont met seven out of 10 benchmarks. 

“DC and Vermont serve the most children starting at age 3,” Dr. Weisenfeld said. “There’s no income requirement for students in Vermont, which is great, because it means it is truly a universal program.” Other ways in which Vermont meets NIEER’s benchmarks include limiting class sizes to 20 children, requiring teachers to have special training in early childhood education, and requiring pre-K programs to participate in systems of continuous quality improvement. She praised Vermont’s mixed-delivery system, which includes public school classrooms, private preschools, and family child care homes.

Dr. Weisenfeld noted that at just 10 hours a week, Vermont’s pre-K program is not a school-day program, defined as a program that offers six hours of pre-K per day. “More states are moving to school-day programs for a number of reasons,” she said. “It provides better education for children. It provides more access for families. That’s something we recommend for Vermont to consider as they’re looking for ways to improve their pre-K program… Ten hours per week is not enough.”

Following the Research

Dr. W. Steven (Steve) Barnett posed the question, “What do we know that leads to large, persistent benefits for kids from early childhood programs?” He continued, “How do we maximize our chances that our programs are actually doing what they’re supposed to do? The first is to design our public programs to be as close as possible to the models that research has demonstrated are effective, and not to just engage in wishful thinking… The second is to have a continuous improvement system that supports effectiveness at every level.” 

Dr. Barnett also emphasized the importance of providing early childhood teachers with preparation and compensation comparable to teachers in the primary grades, including a bachelor’s degree and specialized preparation in early childhood education. “Systems that have been successful with this start with the teachers that you have [already] and develop pathways and supports for them to get the higher education that they need, whether it’s a bachelor’s degree or specialized education or both…. Most of the cost can be borne by existing financing mechanisms for higher education, because teachers are going to qualify for financial aid.”

“How much money is being put behind these policies?” Dr. Barnett asked. Vermont’s spending per child falls on the higher end of a wide-ranging spectrum (adjusted for state cost of living differences), from over $20,000 in DC and nearly $16,000 in New Jersey to just over $3,000 in Florida. “The vast majority of state spending falls short, sometimes very, very short,” he said. 

The right questions to ask, Dr. Barnett said, are “What is it that we want for our children and families? What do we have to do to make that happen? What does that cost?” But instead, most states ask, “How much do we want to spend? How many kids do we want to serve?” These states divide the sum they want to spend by the number of children and “come up with a number that more often than not, is completely inconsistent with the stated goals for what you want to be able to do to serve those children.”

State-Level Leadership

Dr. Lori Connors-Tadros spoke about what is needed at the state level in order to provide strong infrastructure, guidance, and policy to meet the goals laid out by Dr. Weisenfeld and Dr. Barnett. She discussed a recent study on effective state offices of early learning that demonstrated that while there are multiple models for governance that can be successful, in each case, the state office of early learning was the key driver of quality improvement and supports for early childhood programs.

“We stand on the research that shows that having highly trained teachers and also highly trained assistant teachers is really important,” Dr. Connors-Tadros said. “It’s really critical. It’s the linchpin to having effective teacher-child interactions, teacher-parent interactions, and supports for young children’s development… The state plays a very strong role in developing alternative pathways to bring a diverse workforce into the system and allow them opportunities to increase their competence as well as ongoing support.”

Conducting and making use of research on state early childhood programs is essential, Dr. Connors-Tadros said. “There’s a need for state agencies and those overseeing these pre-K programs to have a robust research and data function.” In addition to using data, Dr. Connors-Tadros laid out five other essential functions of an effective state office of early learning: promoting program quality, guiding instructional quality, supporting educator competence, strengthening the continuum of learning, and efficiently managing public resources. 

Next Steps

The event concluded with questions from attendees, including inquiries submitted in advance and during the session, starting with a question about lessons learned in the course of the successful expansion of pre-K programs. Panelists discussed the varied roles of school districts in state programs, inclusion in universal pre-K, the effectiveness of Vermont’s Act 76, and how to balance increased minimum education requirements with the shortage of qualified teachers. 

“It’s very clear that compensation is a strong motivator for the workforce,” Dr. Barnett said. “If we have shortages, a key reason is not because our standards are too high, but because our pay is too low. The other thing to think about is the extent to which allowing people to develop as professionals who are really, really good at what they do, and successful in providing young children with what they need—how that makes this a much more attractive job. The key is to create on-ramps for the existing workforce and for the folks who are not necessarily on the pathway to a four-year degree and being a well-qualified early childhood teacher—to create the pathways and provide the supports that will allow them to succeed.”

One attendee wrote in the chat, “As a mother of an autistic individual, we were pushed out of our child care due to a lack of teacher education, training, and a class size of 22. They could not support our needs, and it has shown as an ongoing deficit for many parents in our community.” Dr. Morgan Crossman asked the panelists to talk about the importance of inclusion for those with disabilities and special health care needs, what supports and resources need to be in place to support students, and what that means for the workforce.

Jump to the section of the Q&A on the importance of inclusion

The session closed with a question about what Vermont should prioritize as the state works to transform and expand access to pre-K education over the next three to five years. Dr. Weisenfeld cited continuing Vermont’s inclusion of 3-year-olds, use of a mixed-delivery system, and use of coaching. Dr. Connors-Tadros spoke about intentionality around state governance structure. Dr. Barnett said that Vermont has a great foundation for a universal, high-quality pre-K system and needs to lay out a clear plan for what to do next, what it will cost, and what the timeline will be. 

“You’re in a great place [in Vermont] because of the resources you have to generate the data and get that out to the public in a way that builds support,” Dr. Barnett said. “And nothing builds support like success itself.”

Jump to the section of the Q&A about top priorities for Vermont

Watch the full recording of the seminar

Read the panelists’ bios

Download the Resource List

Attend Our July Grand Rounds Seminar on Family Leadership

Building Bright Futures and Vermont’s Early Childhood Data and Policy Center look forward to our next Vermont Early Childhood Grand Rounds Seminar, on the topic of family leadership. On Thursday, July 18, from 10–11:30 a.m., the BBF Families & Communities Committee will host an online panel of family leadership experts from Vermont, Missouri, Maine, Pennsylvania, and the National Center for Family & Parent Leadership. Panelists will discuss promising practices, accomplishments, and strategies to engage parent leaders. 

Register here

Read the panelists’ bios

Vermont Early Childhood Grand Rounds is a seminar series hosted by Vermont’s Early Childhood Data and Policy Center, which is operated by Building Bright Futures, Vermont’s Early Childhood State Advisory Council. Vermont Early Childhood Grand Rounds Seminars provide a forum to elevate and disseminate high-quality data and data-related topics that affect Vermont’s early childhood system, as well as national best practices. Professionals can earn continuing education credits for participating in the live seminars.

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