What We Do

Washington State

Early Learning



Early learning helps build a stronger education system and a more competitive workforce for the future.

Our goal:

to ensure that every child has high-quality early learning opportunities that support kindergarten readiness and elementary school achievement.

The Challenge

At A Glance

Early learning is a smart investment that helps our economy prosper with a more competitive workforce.

Research shows that high-quality early learning can make a big difference—especially for low-income children—by closing the achievement gap that starts before kindergarten.

The most significant gains for young children are achieved by improving the quality of instruction and teacher-child interactions.

The Early Learning initiative is one of the foundation’s top priorities in Washington State.

The path to a good education and a successful career starts early. High-quality early learning from birth to age 5 helps children enter kindergarten ready to learn and prepared to thrive in elementary school and beyond. Positive early childhood experiences also build the foundation for a skilled workforce, a responsible community, and a thriving economy.

Thanks to broad support from elected officials, businesses leaders, and philanthropic partners in Washington State and across the country, access to pre-K for 3- and 4-year-old children has increased over the past two decades.

However, a growing body of research shows that the quality of these programs varies and has a significant impact on student outcomes. To help all children succeed, investments in pre-K must support high-quality programs that produce measurable, lasting gains.

The Opportunity

Researchers have tracked the performance over time of students who have attended high-quality pre-K programs in Boston, Maryland, New Jersey, and North Carolina. Their evaluations show that these programs improve kindergarten readiness and that academic gains persist through the early elementary grades.

While we know that children need support from stable families, healthy communities, and great teaching at every step along their educational pathway, the research shows that high-quality pre-K can help children get off to a strong start.

Our Strategy

Education can help break the cycle of poverty. In Washington State, we focus on promoting successful educational outcomes for all students through a holistic approach, starting at birth and culminating in a college degree or certificate. We call this effort Education Pathways because we aim to support every child on the path to success. We focus on expanding opportunities for low-income children and children from diverse racial and cultural backgrounds.

Early learning is crucial to this strategy. Since 2005, we have worked with public, private, and community partners in the state to ensure high-quality early learning opportunities that help children enter school ready to learn and succeed. These include home visiting services, which support parents in their role as their children’s first and most important teachers, and efforts to improve early learning environments.

A woman and her four-year-old daughter read books together at their apartment in Tacoma, Washington.

In all of our work, we believe in following the evidence. How high-quality pre-K programs succeed is not a mystery. Recent research shows that they consistently focus on improving the interactions between teachers and children. They also share a set of common features that foster high-quality instruction, support educators and young learners, and benefit from state and local policies that create a positive enabling environment. Lessons from high-quality programs should inform efforts to expand pre-K and help all children enter school ready to learn.

We believe that by successfully supporting and scaling up the elements of quality that result in greater school readiness and sustained academic achievement, more young children will enter school prepared and will achieve ongoing academic success. We also know that children need healthy, stable families and strong communities, and we are committed to viewing education as a pathway from birth through college, and to strengthening all aspects of the support systems for children and families.

Areas of Focus

We are committed to listening to and learning from the researchers, advocates, and early childhood leaders who have worked on these issues for many years. We aim to collaborate with a wide range of partners—including early childhood educators—to build on the work already underway and to identify opportunities in three key areas:

  • Best Practice and Program Implementation. We support the development of tools for quality teaching and learning, and we support efforts to evaluate program implementation based on the essential elements of high-quality pre-K.
  • A teacher lines up her second-graders to go to lunch.

  • National Policy and Advocacy. We work with a broad array of early learning advocates and coalitions, and we support high-quality pre-K at the state and federal levels.
  • Program Implementation and Advocacy in Washington State. We invest in quality improvement in Head Start and the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP), as well as in strengthening the connections between pre-K and the elementary grades to build on the gains from early learning.

Essential Elements of High-Quality Pre-K

Support for Educators and Young Learners

  • Education and compensation. Lead teachers should have a B.A. plus an early learning credential and earn compensation at the same level as K-3 teachers.
  • Adult-child ratios. Programs should have maximum class sizes of 22 children and adult-to-child ratios ranging from 2:15 to 2:22.
  • Learning time. Additional time in high-quality pre-K benefits children with the greatest needs. High-quality pre-K programs run 6 to 6.5 hours a day, 180 to 205 days a year.
  • Two adults in the classroom. High-quality pre-K programs have two adults in the classroom at all times: one lead teacher and one paraprofessional or aide.
  • Support for English language learners. Bilingual teachers and specialists can help students build skills in their native language while learning English.
  • Support for students with special needs. For children with special needs, early intervention helps most. Early intervention can also reduce special education needs and grade retention in elementary school.

High-Quality Instruction

  • Teacher-child interactions focused on learning. Teachers use structured activities and play to create rich learning environments in which children talk about what they are doing and follow their natural curiosity.
  • Age-appropriate learning standards. Goals for academic and social-emotional learning align with the expectations of kindergarten and beyond.
  • Proven curriculum. Programs adhere closely to a research-based curriculum that is aligned with early learning standards and teachers’ professional development.
  • Formative assessments. At the pre-K level, assessments are classroom-based and designed to help teachers and administrators improve outcomes for children.
  • Data-driven decision making. Programs use data to inform action and improve outcomes for children.
  • Professional development. Ongoing coaching focused on improving teacher-child interactions can help teachers improve instruction and student outcomes.
  • Integrated system. Standards, curriculum, professional development, formative assessments, and data are tied together and are mutually reinforcing.

Enabling Environment

  • Strong leadership. Educators create a culture of high expectations, cultivate political will, and communicate the importance of quality instruction to parents.
  • Political will. Support from elected officials or a judicial mandate can help sustain public commitment to high-quality pre-K.
Visit Our Blog