New Paper: Unlocking ESSA's Potential to Support Early Learning

New America and the BUILD Initiative explore major ESSA provisions that have implications for our nation’s youngest learners
Blog Post
March 2, 2017

In December 2015, Congress reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, replacing No Child Left Behind with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). A little more than one year later, states are readying to submit their plans for approval. This latest iteration of the law brings new attention to children’s earliest years. In a paper out today, New America and the BUILD Initiative offer an introduction to ESSA and explore major provisions that have implications for our nation’s youngest learners.

While early childhood education (ECE) has always been a part of the federal education law— particularly in the provisions to provide additional support for children from low-income families—the reality is that minimal federal education dollars have historically been invested in early learning services. ESSA both strengthens and expands allowable uses for early learning, birth through third grade. But as with the previous version of the law, it remains up to state and local authorities to decide whether to invest. Creating the conditions for local and/ or state investment requires an active, intentional plan.

ESSA can play an important role in state and local commitments to early learning, but it provides a challenge to systems builders because its inclusion of early childhood is largely discretionary. With many competing priorities and limited dollars, state and local education leaders must choose to use their ESSA funds and plans to support early learning. It is critical that early childhood advocates are able to make a case for why decision makers should include a focus on early education.

A thoughtful strategy for both state and local early childhood stakeholders to engage in ESSA is essential given the discretion provided in the law. A mutually beneficial partnership is also needed. That makes it incumbent upon early childhood leaders to understand the K–12 education system, the leading issues, and the problems and solutions that the K–12 community is focusing on.

Early education is mentioned throughout the law. In the paper, we zoom in on what we think are key opportunities for state and local leaders in:

  • Title I: Improving the Academic Achievement of the Disadvantaged

  • Title II: Preparing, Training, and Recruiting High-Quality Educators

  • Title III: Language Instruction for English Learners and Immigrant Students

  • Title IX: Preschool Development Grants

Under Title I, ESSA brings new, or in some cases renewed, attention to state support for local ECE programs, transition planning between ECE programs and kindergarten, family engagement, and school accountability for what happens in kindergarten through second grade.

For the first time in Title II, early childhood educators are included in the definition of professional development, which means that teachers of young children can be included in activities under Title II, whether they are teaching in a community or school setting. ESSA identifies new allowable state and local activities that emphasize teaching in and leadership for the early grades. Title II also includes, “Literacy Education for All, Results for the Nation” (LEARN), a program to help states improve teaching and learning, birth through 12th grade, in reading and writing.

Title III provides states with formula grants to support the education of dual language learners (DLL) starting at age three and can be used to support the development and implementation of effective preschool language instruction programs funded by local education agencies. This can include bilingual education programs. Additionally, Title III can be used to facilitate family engagement and provide teachers with professional development and capacity building to implement and sustain effective language instruction programs.

Title IX includes Preschool Development Grants. This is a brand-new component of ESSA. While there was a previous grant competition with the same name, which provided start-up or expansion funds to 18 states to serve 4-year-olds in pre-K, ESSA articulates a new framework for the federal approach to pre-K. This framework notes a three-part purpose or direction for working with the states, which includes 1) supporting strategic planning for high-quality early learning; 2) encouraging partnerships to deliver programs; and 3) maximizing parental choice in a mixed-delivery system.

In most places, incorporating early education into ESSA planning will not come naturally. Considering how to use ESSA dollars to improve teaching and learning in pre-K and toddler classrooms, or even in kindergarten classrooms may not be a top priority. Ensuring early educators are prepared to use appropriate and effective instructional strategies for supporting DLL language acquisition and to help increase the number of bilingual teachers may not be seen as a top need. Incorporating indicators into school accountability systems that reflect the importance of learning in the early grades may seem too daunting a task. It will require sound ideas and strategies, strong voices from the early childhood community, and promising evidence of outcomes for children to spur state and school district leaders to include early learning in an intentional and meaningful way, not just in their ESSA plans but also in their larger vision for education.

Check out the paper for more details on the opportunities and our ideas on what states and local school districts can do to support early learning and make it a real part of their visions for student success.