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Condition of Education 2010 Report: Where’s Early Education?

What’s missing from the 2010 edition of the Department of Education’s Condition of Education (COE) report that came out last week? Data on the condition of early education.

The annual COE compendium (required by Congress) is intended to be an “annual portrait of education in the United States.” It documents trends and highlights existing data for relevant topics. This year’s report included 49 indicators in five areas: enrollment trends, learner outcomes, student effort and educational progress, contexts of elementary and secondary education, and contexts of post-secondary education.

The most significant news from the COE report came from this year’s special section, which focused on high-poverty schools. The COE report found that in 2008, 17 percent of all schools were high poverty (based on free and reduced priced lunch program data), almost a 42 percent increase from the 1999-00 school year. In raw numbers, that’s more than 16,000 schools identified as high-poverty, with 40 percent of high-poverty elementary schools and 20 percent of high-poverty secondary schools located in cities and attended by large numbers of African American and Hispanic students.

These findings lacked any data on school readiness ratings of students attending high-poverty schools when they entered kindergarten, whether or not students attending high-poverty schools participated in a Head Start or pre-K program, and if they did— the quality of the programs they attended.

It is impossible to provide a full picture of the condition of education in high-poverty schools, or any schools for that matter, without including the status of early education.

To be fair, though, early education wasn’t completely left out: data on 3 and 4 year-old enrollment trends were included. In 2008, 53 percent of children ages 3 to 4 were enrolled in “nursery school.” But, again this tidbit leads to more unanswered questions: In what types of early education programs were children enrolled? How many hours did they attend? And, perhaps most importantly, what is known about the quality of the teachers and of the programs children attended?

Past COE reports have given more attention to early education indicators. For example, in 2009, indicators on the early development of and the acquisition of knowledge and skills by children were included. One finding showed that in 2003, “29 percent of 2-year-olds in poverty demonstrated proficiency in listening comprehension, compared with 39 percent of those at or above poverty, and 55 percent of those in poverty were proficient in expressive vocabulary, compared with 67 percent at or above poverty.”

In 2004, the report identified trends in full- and half-day kindergarten. It showed that in 2001, 78 percent of the children enrolled in kindergarten, and living in the South, attended full-day kindergarten. This differed dramatically from other regions where only 60 percent of children living in the Northeast, 53 percent of children living in the Midwest and 43 percent of children living in the West attended full-day kindergarten.

And, in 2003, there was a special section entitled “Reading—Young Children’s Achievement and Classroom Experiences.” Based on data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 1998–99, the special section showed that by the end of kindergarten, 94 percent of the children recognized letters, 70 percent understood letter-sound relationships at the beginning of words, and about 50 percent understood letter-sound relationships at the end of words.

You can find early education indicators from previous reports here.

Overall, we thought last week’s release missed opportunities to spur conversations on early education data because NCES only excerpted K -12 data, such as characteristics of full-time teachers and newly hired teachers, school-level expenditures, and as mentioned before, the status of early education programs that feed into high-poverty schools.

Only by moving from a K-12 data discussion to a “cradle to career” data discussion can we see the complete picture of the condition of education. But doing so means that early education data must become a more integrated piece of both federal and state longitudinal data tracking systems. (Fortunately, as our sister blog Ed Money Watch reported, a round of stimulus grants should help make that easier for at least 20 winning states, among them Illinois and Washington.) Look for more on tracking systems in the coming months.