What Makes a Good Preschool Good?

by Alice Wiggins
April 21st, 2009

If you were looking for the ideal preschool for your son or daughter, what would you look for?  You’d probably expect your child’s preschool to hire well-trained, qualified teachers, have small class sizes and maintain a low teacher-student ratio.  If so, your list might look a lot like the benchmarks of National Institute for Early Education Research (NIERR), whose mission is to support early childhood education initiatives “by providing objective, nonpartisan information based on research.”

NIERR publishes an annual yearbook that determines if a state’s pre-K programs meet ten benchmarks considered to be “minimum standards for educationally effective preschool programs.”  The criteria include teachers with a bachelor’s degree and specialized training in early childhood education; a comprehensive curriculum that covers domains of language/literacy, math, science, socioemotional skills, cognitive development, and other  areas; and a maximum class size that is less than or equal to 20 children, with a child-to-teacher ratio of 10:1 or lower.

There’s only one problem: none of the items on NIERR’S checklist, while important, appear to be the difference makers in student outcomes according to a study in the May/June 2008 issue of Child Development by Andrew J. Mashburn of the University of Virginia and others.

Findings indicate that despite their relevance to discussions of program development and quality, none of the minimum standards recommended by NIEER, or the nine-item NIEER quality index, were consistently associated with measures of academic, language, and social development during pre-K, among a large sample of 4-year-old children who attended state funded programs.

 But let’s get back to your hypothetical preschool.  If you’re like most parents, you would probably want your child to have a teacher who is nice to your child.  Someone who creates a warm, nurturing environment and shows affection and respect.  In that, your list would actually be a step ahead of NIERR’s benchmarks.  The Mashburn study would back you up.  It found preschool children benefit most when they experience instructionally and emotionally supportive interactions with their teachers.

“High-quality instructional interactions occur when teachers provide children with feedback about their ideas, comment in ways that extend and expand their skills, and frequently use discussions and activities to promote complex thinking. For example, teachers who provide high instructional support ask ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions to children to explain their thinking, relate concepts to children’s lives, and provide additional information to children to expand their understanding,”  Mashburn said

Thus the second of my list of five ideas to improve early childhood education:  If we want effective high quality preschools, we’re going to change the way we look at and evaluate early childhood education.  We need to recognize that preschool quality is a function of both process AND structure.   As Mashburn’s study concluded:

Results indicate that in state-funded pre-K programs serving 4-year olds, requiring teachers to have a college education or degrees in ECE and mandating small class sizes and child-to-teacher ratios may not be sufficient to ensure that children are learning in classrooms. Rather, these results confirm that for young children, learning occurs via interactions, and high-quality emotional and instructional interactions are the mechanisms through which pre-K programs transmit academic, language, and social competencies to children…Thus, we argue that program policies and regulations aimed at improving the effectiveness of children’s exposure to pre-K should focus more directly on improving interactions that children experience in classrooms.

In other words, success is not merely a function of what teachers have (a degree, a small number of students, etc.) but what teachers do.


  1. Thank you for a very compelling posting.

    Policies and regulations that address what teachers DO, rather than what they HAVE, seem a good deal more difficult (and expensive) to construct and implement. Do you know of any good models?

    Comment by Claus — April 21, 2009 @ 4:46 pm

  2. Hi Claus,
    It is J.M. Holland from TLN. Alice and Dr. Mashburn make great points about why policy is so difficult to craft in the early years. We struggled with this in Virginia whole working on the Start Strong initiative, developing an overarching pre-k strategy that has ultimately been sacrificed piece by piece until it was essentially just another piece meal reform. The big outcome of that process though was the creation and beginning implementation of the Quality Rating and Improvement System. (QRIS) The rating system is a voluntary rating system that sets a certain standard that preschool must meet in order to receive state funds. They can be in an improvement phase and work with the state on a development plan. One of the components is Dr. Mashburn and Dr. Pianta’s CLASS system that looks at the qualities of teacher interactions with children. It is a great tool but, could you imagine a voluntary accountability system in K-12? Now that would be wild but maybe a decent idea? Make certain scores count AND be held accountable for the whole child’s development in order to receive funding above the minimum?

    Comment by J.M. Holland — April 23, 2009 @ 10:42 pm

  3. I have hired teachers more for the heart they have to be around pre-schoolers than those who submit too impressive credentials who later on expect children to be as “intelligent ” as they are. Teachers must allow children to enjoy each other….enjoy their relationships with their teachers and by the way administrators too!

    Comment by babette m. aparato — April 24, 2009 @ 8:13 am

  4. I have to agree with the last commenter as a former preschool teacher w/ an associates and a mom of 4 sons, I agree that while education is important, I always found that being genuinely interested in a child is much more important than the extra two years in school. I like the fact that a good deal of the states are requiring something other than “I have babysat since I was little”, having said that though, if I had someone interviewing for me, and that was experience but they worked well in the classroom and the children were taken with them, I would fit them in somewhere. The only real thing I found the going for the degree taught me was dealing with all the older people, not the little ones.

    Comment by K.L.Gibson — April 24, 2009 @ 11:25 am

  5. I had been a preschool teacher and childcare provider for 18 years. After much encouragement from very happy parents I decided to open a preschool and pre-k, without childcare. I have done this for the last 2 years. Throughout these 20 years of teaching, nurturing and caring for children I have taken over 250 clock hours of child dev. and ECE courses. I have researched and studied everything that has to do with my profession, I am passionate about this. However, due to a very busy schedule and raising my 4 children along with my career I have not had the time or the funds to pursue my college education until January of 2008. I have a few more months left to complete my Associates. I have had children that have left my program and through the state assessments have shown that they are above the standards for their age. My point is that a degree is not the only thing that makes a true teacher and that ECE and Child Dev courses should be considered. I have seen so many “degreed” preschool teachers flaunting their degrees and they are awful teachers. I am sorry, I saw this article and I had to share my story, thank you for your time.

    Comment by Lynn — April 24, 2009 @ 11:26 am

  6. Claus, et al.
    Bob Pianta’s lab, and the Curry School of Education at UVA are using what they are learning from CLASS to develop new programs for both existing and pre-service teachers. Lynn’s point is well taken. It’s not the degree that makes the teacher. It’s what the teacher does. In other professions, employees may be selected based on specific qualities. For teachers, some of possible selection qualities lie in the constructs of the CLASS. To K.L.Gibson’s point, selecting teachers based on the qualities of their interactions with children may well be better than selecting based on their years of experience or level of degree.

    Comment by Alice Wiggins — April 24, 2009 @ 1:47 pm

  7. I’m a preschool teacher, and happened to get certified to teach Pre-K to third grade not that long ago.
    So I’m in the trenches. I would be thrilled if someone would post a comprehensive list of REAL stories that all 3 year olds and 4 year olds should listen to, along with about 8 insightful questions that a teacher should ask for maximum student comprehension. I read during naptime to those students who cannot sleep. I seek compelling stories to read to them, such as My Father’s Dragon to the 4-5 year olds (it took a few days to finish reading it). I got that title off the Internet.

    I do have the What Your Preschooler Needs to Know, and have read about, for instance, George Washington and the Cherry Tree several times (that concept of honesty is so important), etc. In fact, when I suspect a student isn’t telling the truth, I will point-blank ask, “Are you acting like George Washington and the cherry tree right now?”

    That said, I would like to know how to improve my interactions with the kids I serve. I wonder about what kinds of science experiments I should be doing. I try to make art time useful, in that the activities are varied: sometimes cutting with scissors, sometimes painting, gluing, etc. I wonder what other games the kids could play at their tables besides I Spy as I busy myself ‘plating’ their food and would welcome suggestions or titles of idea books. I would LOVE more suggestions for phonemic awareness exercises, although I did get some fantastic and FREE ideas from a website: http://www.aability.com/pagames.

    I came to preschool teaching the long way, having raised my own kids first. My television set broke when my oldest was 5, and I elected not to replace it. My kids as a consequence grew up reading for entertainment. However, I picked up along the way that many kids apparently are being distracted from reading by all the other media available in our culture, and I wanted to get in some licks for reading while they were young and impressionable, so decided to go back and get certified to teach. A LOT of my education classes were useless, but student teaching was very useful. I pull on that experience all the time in my preschool teaching. I will say, though, that the drive I have, the passion I have for my work, comes from within. The student-teaching was great, but you can’t be a dilettante at this kind of work and really be effective. You either have the drive acquired during your life experiences or you don’t. The courses help, but wanting to be the best teacher you can to give students that great foundation has to be at your core, or it doesn’t matter what else you bring to that classroom.

    Comment by Chris — April 25, 2009 @ 7:55 am

  8. I represent three early learning centers in Wichita, Kansas and have been doing research the past two months to determine if there is some sort of test available that would help us determine (pre-employment) if a candidate has the appropriate characteristics to be a great ECE teacher. So far, I’ve not found anything geared toward early childhood education. I was wondering if you might be aware of anything or have any contacts I might reach out to.

    Comment by Nola Brown — June 16, 2011 @ 5:52 pm

  9. I appreciate this information about the qualities that make a good preschool. It is good to know that providing students with feedback is a beneficial thing to do. This would allow for parents and students to better progress with the learning process. Something else to consider would be to find a preschool that is offered for a price within your budget.

    Comment by Jade Brunet — October 21, 2016 @ 3:58 pm

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