The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) seeks to improve student learning and narrow academic achievement gaps that place low-income and minority students at a disadvantage relative to their affluent and white peers. Evidence shows that the roots of children’s academic success or failure are already firmly in place by third grade and as much as half of the black-white achievement gap already exists before children enter first grade. Therefore, to achieve its ambitious goals NCLB must do a much better job of catalyzing and supporting state and local efforts to improve children’s education in the preschool and early elementary years.
But despite the importance of the pre-k and early elementary school years, current debate over NCLB reauthorization has devoted very little attention to improving pre-k and early elementary school programs, separately or as an integrated collective. The main debate has been over the law’s testing and accountability provisions—which focus on student performance in grades three through eight.
Advocates for universal pre-k are lobbying for the creation of a new pre-k title in NCLB and substantial new federal funding to support state universal pre-k efforts. But there is almost no discussion of how provisions already in NCLB could better support high-quality early education in pre-k through grade three (PK-3).
Many provisions in NCLB affect early education. Four federal programs authorized under NCLB—Title I, Even Start, Early Reading First, and the Early Childhood Educator Professional Development Program—provide nearly half a billion dollars annually in funding for pre-k programs. Two-thirds of children in rapidly growing state pre-k programs attend classes in public schools, so policies that affect elementary schools also affect pre-k. Provisions throughout NCLB—from its teacher quality provisions to its charter school program—should be updated to reflect the increased inclusion of pre-k in public education, and to acknowledge the centrality of high-quality early education to achieving the law’s school improvement goals.
This issue brief analyzes NCLB programs and policies that affect or have the potential to affect early education and recommends 10 ways NCLB reauthorization can better support high-quality early education.
1) Allow Reading First funds to be used for pre-k language and literacy activities
2) Tap supplemental educational services and public school choice set-aside funds for high-quality pre-k
3) Improve accountability for early education programs
4) Restructure elementary schools identified for reconstitution as PK-3 Early Education Academies
5) Strengthen the ability of charter schools to deliver high-quality pre-k
6) Combine NCLB's Title V block grant program with Head Start's newly authorized state early childhood coordination initiative to create a single "2020 Early Education" state grant program
7) Require pre-k programs operated in public schools or with Title I funds to employ "highly qualified early educators" as lead teachers
8) Create a "Pathways to Pre-kindergarten Teaching" alternative certification demonstration program
9) Provide targeted professional development to individual teachers
10) Expand the representation of English Language Learners in pre-k programs
All of these ideas carry little or no cost to the federal government, relying on better use of existing funds rather than new funding. These are not the only ways to improve early education in NCLB, but they form a starting point for a broader discussion about how federal education policy can better support high-quality early education.
For the full paper, please see the attached PDF below.