Maine Schools in Focus: Assessing Progress Toward Universal Preschool Education
Janet Fairman, Associate Professor
Patricia Lech, Senior Research Associate
Maine Governor Janet Mills has made universal public preschool education a priority. The Maine Education Policy Research Institute (MEPRI), through the University of Maine, has conducted several studies in the past five years examining school districts’ readiness to start or expand public preschool, parents’ preferences for preschool, and the ways districts are structuring and delivering these programs in Maine. In this brief, we outline the progress made to date in moving toward universal public preschool and the challenges and gaps the state and school districts still need to address.
There is considerable research evidence that quality preschool education improves readiness for kindergarten and school performance beyond (Barnett, 2011, 2013; Gormley, Phillips & Anderson 2017; Weiland & Yoshikawa, 2013). Increasingly, the research emphasizes the importance of play, particularly peer play in both preschool and kindergarten, as an important foundation for social/emotional development and school readiness (Eggum-Wilkens et al., 2013; Torres, Domitrovich & Bierman 2015). Social interactions also help children develop executive functions (necessary for prioritizing, decision making and problem solving), as well as self-regulation of emotions and behavior, which remain critical skills students need throughout their educational journey and in adult life (Duncan & Magnuson 2013, MDOE, 2015). Quality public preschool programs incorporate both academic learning (math, science, reading, social studies) and non-academic learning (e.g., music, art, physical movement, eating, naptime and play) that support physical health, mental/cognitive growth and social/emotional development (Atteberry, Bassok & Wong 2019).
Maine’s Early Learning and Development Standards (MELDS), adopted in 2015, describe expectations for student learning by the start of kindergarten and guidance for early educators on instructional approaches that support that learning (MDOE, 2015). The standards underline the importance of relationships and peer play for social/emotional development, effective approaches to meet diverse student needs and inclusive classrooms and trained educators. In 2017, the MDOE established rules for approval of public preschool programs and components of those programs in Chapter 124 (MDOE, 2017).
Maine is also making progress in public preschool participation. Based on estimates from the most recent MEPRI study (Lech and Fairman, 2020), the number of children enrolled in public preschool in Maine increased by about 30% over the past five years—from roughly 5,000 children in 2014-2015 to about 6,500 children in the 2019-20 school year, serving roughly 48% of four-year-olds. Similarly, there is progress in the delivery of public preschool programs, which expanded from about 203 schools in 2015-16 in 122 school administrative units (SAUs) to 252 schools in 158 SAUs in 2020 that offer programs of various types. About 39 SAUs do not offer preschool programs. Many districts (40%) in Maine have preschool programs that operate only two to four days per week. About half of the current preschool students attend half-day programs, while only 18% attend full-time (full day, 5 days). This contrasts sharply with kindergarten participation which currently includes about 94% of eligible students in full-day programs and only 6% of students in half-day programs. By law, all kindergarten programs are five days per week.
Most districts that offer public preschool programs are making use of evidence-based curricula and MDOE-recommended assessments. Based on a fall 2019 MEPRI survey of 142 superintendents in districts with kindergarten programs which had a 62% response rate, preschool programs use either a commercial preschool curriculum or the PreK for ME curriculum provided by the MDOE in roughly equal proportions (Lech & Fairman, 2020). The most commonly used commercial curriculum is the Opening the World of Learning (OWL) curriculum. Only four districts indicated their programs use curricula created entirely by the preschool teachers.
Yet, districts indicated on the recent MEPRI survey significant challenges in starting or expanding public preschool programs in their schools. The three biggest challenges reported were: financial cost for start-up and expansion, appropriate facilities and space that meet the state’s requirements, and recruitment and retention of trained preschool teachers and staff.
Most districts appear to be meeting the demand for preschool, but 25% of responding superintendents indicated on the recent MEPRI survey that their preschool programs have waiting lists for students they cannot currently accommodate. A majority of responding district superintendents (74%) indicated that “many”, “most” or “all” of their sending families would use a full-time preschool program if it was available. The MEPRI study found that 58% of schools that currently operate a preschool program have three or more unused preschool spaces that are not currently being used. It is not clear why these preschool programs are under-enrolled as their kindergarten classes are filled. MEPRI estimates that roughly482 additional preschool classes (of 16 students) would need to be added to provide full-day, full week preschool for all eligible children in Maine (Lech & Fairman, 2020). Together, the study’s findings indicate a pressing need for increased program funding, development of additional preschool educators in the state, and expansion and alteration of school or other facilities to house full-time, five day a week preschool programs.
Expanding public preschool programs could be supported through district partnerships with federally-funded agencies (Head Start) or private programs, but only about 25%-30% of responding districts indicated on the MEPRI survey that they currently utilize such partnerships. Some districts lack agencies or potential partners in their immediate area, and other districts cited transportation issues or parents’ preference for programs within the elementary school as barriers to partnerships. Districts that have formed partnerships cited the advantages of cost-sharing, use of additional facilities and trained staff and the need to serve more students as reasons for partnering on preschool programs.
The recent MEPRI survey also indicated a gap in access to appropriate professional development for public preschool teachers and staff. Although most of the districts responding to the survey (80%) indicated they include preschool teachers in their regular inservice training once a semester or as often as weekly, the training is typically not focused on early childhood topics specifically. Further, 30 districts (44%) indicated that preschool teachers have access to coaching supports, and 26 districts (38%) indicated that preschool and/or kindergarten teachers are included in weekly or monthly professional learning communities (PLCs) (Lech & Fairman, 2020).
On a recent national ranking of states for components of preschool program quality, Maine and five other states met nine of ten benchmarks (NIEER, 2019). Maine met the benchmark for employing preschool teachers with bachelor’s degrees specializing in early childhood education, but did not meet the benchmarks for providing a minimum of 15 hours per year of appropriate professional development, individual professional development plans, and coaching support. Teacher quality is one of the primary factors determining student learning outcomes. Small districts may only employ one or two preschool teachers, who work in isolation. Regional networks or collaboratives can be a useful strategy to help educators connect with their colleagues and increase access to a broader range of professional learning resources (Hargreaves, Parsley & Cox, 2015). More work is needed to improve the quality and quantity of on-going professional development and supports for preschool educators.
As school districts prepare for expansion of public preschool programs, the following questions may facilitate productive discussions and planning.
- What changes could be made to increase utilization of your district’s public preschool programs? Would increasing program hours increase participation? Do families recognize that preschool focuses on play-based social learning with peers?
- What other preschool programs in your immediate area might provide potential partnerships to support the cost, staffing and facilities needs for preschool programs? What are some challenges or barriers to partnership? What actions or changes are needed to overcome those barriers?
- How could your district increase community support and funding of public preschool? Are the cost and social benefits of public preschool being communicated to taxpayers?
- To what extend does your district provide preschool teachers and staff access to inservice, PLCs, coaching, professional development plans, and other on-going professional development? Are these supports focused on early childhood education? Does your district provide a minimum of 15 hours per year in professional development? If not, how can your district partner with other districts in the region, join or form a professional collaborative, or access resources from the state or national organizations to support teachers’ development and high quality preschool programs?
- What planning for renovations or future school facilities need to happen to ensure your district can accommodate the space needs for preschool program expansion? What changes need to be anticipated to meet space requirements in Maine’s Early Learning and Development Standards?
References and Resources:
Atteberry, A., Bassok, D., & Wong, V. C. (2019). The effects of full-day prekindergarten: Experimental evidence of impacts on Children’s school readiness. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis. doi:10.3102/0162373719872197
Barnett, W.S. (2013). Expanding access to quality pre-K is sound public policy. A report of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER). New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University. Retrieved from: http://nieer.org/2013/12/16/expanding-access-to-quality-pre-k-is-sound-public-policy
Barnett, W.S. (2011). Preschool education as an educational reform: Issues of effectiveness and access. A report of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER). New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University.
Duncan, G. J., & Magnuson, K. (2013). Investing in preschool programs. The Journal of Economic Perspectives, 27(2), 109-131. doi:10.1257/jep.27.2.109
Eggum-Wilkens, N. D., Fabes, R. A., Castle, S., Zhang, L., Hanish, L. D., & Martin, C. L. (2014). Playing with others: Head start children’s peer play and relations with kindergarten school competence. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 29(3), 345-356. doi:10.1016/j.ecresq.2014.04.008
Fairman, J. & Johnson, A. (2019). Report on PreK special education inclusion practices in Maine: An exploratory study of three districts. A report of the Maine Education Policy Research Institute (MEPRI). Orono, ME: University of Maine.
Fairman, J.C., Logue, M.E., & LaBrie S. (February 2016) Factors influencing parents’ decision to use public pre-K programs in Maine: Results of a parent survey. A report of the Maine Education Policy Research Institute (MEPRI). Orono, ME: University of Maine
Gormley, W. T., Phillips, D., & Anderson, S. (2018). The effects of Tulsa’s Pre‐K program on middle school student performance. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 37(1), 63-87. doi:10.1002/pam.22023
Hargreaves, A., & O’Connor, M. T. (2018). Solidarity with solidity: The case for collaborative professionalism: Effective collaboration requires teachers to get their heads out of the sand and see what others are doing while relying on expertise to keep the sand out of their heads. Phi Delta Kappan, 100(1), 20.
Lech, P. & Fairman, J. (Feb. 2020). Public preschool programs in Maine: Program design, capacity and expansion challenges. A research report of the Maine Education Policy Research Institute (MEPRI). Orono, ME: University of Maine.
Logue, M.E., Tu, S., Fisher, S., & Mason, C.A. (June 2015) Public preschool programs in Maine: Four case studies of quality programs. A report of the Maine Education Policy Research Institute (MEPRI). Orono, ME: University of Maine
Maine Department of Education (MDOE). (2017). Chapter 124: Basic approval standards: Public preschool programs. Augusta, Maine: Author. Retrieved from: https://www.maine.gov/sos/cec/rules/05/chaps05.htm
Maine Department of Education (MDOE). (2015). Early learning and development standards. Augusta, Maine: Author. Retrieved from: https://www.maine.gov/doe/learning/earlychildhood/publicpreschool/standards
Maine State Legislature. (2019). Proposed bill, LD 1043 An act to establish universal public preschool programs.
Mason, C. A., and Porter, M. (March 2015). Public preschools in Maine: Current status and characteristics. A report of the Maine Education Policy Research Institute (MEPRI). Orono, ME: University of Maine
National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). Various resources for educators, programs and teacher training programs are found at: https://www.naeyc.org/
National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER). (2019). State of Preschool 2018 Annual Report (2019). New Brunswick NJ: Rutgers University. Retrieved from: http://nieer.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/YB2018_Full-ReportR3wAppendices.pdf
Torres, M. M., Domitrovich, C. E., & Bierman, K. L. (2015). Preschool interpersonal relationships predict kindergarten achievement: Mediated by gains in emotion knowledge. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 39, 44-52. doi:10.1016/j.appdev.2015.04.008
Weiland, C., & Yoshikawa, H. (2013). Impacts of a prekindergarten program on children’s mathematics, language, literacy, executive function, and emotional skills. Child Development, 84(6), 2112-2130. doi:10.1111/cdev.12099
Recent MEPRI research reports can be found at: http://mepri.maine.edu/posts/
Any opinions, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the Maine Schools in Focus briefs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect institutional positions or views of the College of Education and Human Development or the University of Maine.