Leveraging Local Needs Assessments and Plan Development to Support Early Learning in ESSA

Blog Post
Courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.
Aug. 8, 2017

New America is proud to partner with the Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes (CEELO) on this blog series highlighting early learning opportunities and challenges under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). In this week's post, M. Christine Dwyer and Kyle Snow explain how the needs assessments and related design and development activities that LEAs undertake as part of local plan development can be important vehicles for early learning advocacy.

There is much excitement in the early learning community about the opportunities for support provided by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). New America and the BUILD Initiative and the First Five Years Fund were among those amplifying the U. S. Department of Education’s 2016 nonregulatory guidance on integrating early learning into ESSA. In our earlier work we likewise identified specific opportunities for states to consider when preparing their plan. However, there are many more possibilities than requirements. Advocates are quick to acknowledge a limited number of explicit references to early learning. How can the field actualize the opportunity when it is not widely nor explicitly called for by the law?

States have been developing, and in some cases have already submitted consolidated state plans under ESSA (As of May 2017, 16 states and the District of Columbia submitted plans). Once the state plans are approved, state educational agencies (SEAs) will rely on local educational agencies (LEAs) and schools to implement the plans. Local early learning supporters will need persistence to highlight and then advocate for opportunities to increase access and quality within LEA and school plans. The needs assessments and related design and development activities that LEAs undertake as part of local plan development can be important vehicles for advocacy. Local needs assessments and planning activities, if structured appropriately, can play a major role in raising the profile of early learning when decisions are made about allocating federal funds in the district. Without special attention to early learning during the needs assessment process, LEAs may simply not think about the possibilities and, for example, continue with past patterns of Title I expenditures that include early learning in a limited way or not at all.

We developed a brief to help SEAs take an early learning perspective when developing guidance to inform LEA needs assessments and plan development activities. States may develop policy to ensure early learning is a key strategy in district school improvement strategies (Colorado has done this) and/or build them into needs assessment templates to support LEAs (see, for example, New Jersey and Delaware). 

SEAs can support LEA staff.

State agencies can provide training and support to LEA staff in conducting need assessments and designing local plans; developing templates for needs assessments and the plans that include references to early learning; and identifying potential data sources.

SEAs can provide guiding questions to shape LEA needs assessments.

State agencies can provide structure for local needs assessments by providing broad and specific guiding questions for LEAs to develop plans that speak to local needs and opportunities within the state plan. The brief includes examples of such questions that can link important LEA needs with related data elements to structure LEA plans. Here’s a sample:

States can ask guiding questions to inform LEA needs assessments and plans.

What are the developmental gaps of incoming kindergartners? ….of incoming first graders?  (to inform plans for LEA use of Title I funds for pre-K and K)

  • What are the patterns of results of kindergarten entry assessments by domain?

  • What are the patterns of end-of-year kindergarten results by domain?

  • What are kindergarten and first grade teachers’ perspectives on children’s learning strengths and needs?

  • How do parents perceive the readiness of their children?

SEAs can make available state-level data to augment analyses done locally.

State agencies can also provide structure by identifying data likely available at the SEA and/or LEA to illuminate areas of need. The brief provides ideas about what different data may reveal about early learning needs. Here’s an example:

For students who are struggling in 3rd grade reading, examine patterns of early learning experiences (quality and intensity of pre-K and K), results of formal and informal literacy assessments, and extent of intervention experiences (referrals and supports).

  • Patterns may show: 1) gaps in pre-K opportunities for some groups of students; 2) need for improvement in precision/interpretation of screening and assessment tools; 3) inadequacy of interventions; 4) roadblocks/lack of progress during particular time periods or at specific benchmarks.

  • Data could inform LEA use of Title I funds and school improvement plans for comprehensive and targeted support and improvement schools as well as Title II funds to support relevant professional development.

It is clear that ESSA provides great opportunity for districts to prioritize early learning as a key strategy to ameliorate achievement gaps. This possibility comes at a time of widespread popular support for early learning and clear scientific evidence for its importance. With guidance from the SEA, plans developed by LEAs provide the greatest avenue through which early learning opportunities can be expanded and supported.

For further information on ESSA see CEELO’s ESSA webpage  and New America’s Early and Elementary Education Team’s ESSA webpage.