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New Report Puts Spotlight on Early Elementary Years

How can state leaders help ensure that children’s gains in pre-K and other early childhood programs persist over time? They should rethink and strengthen learning experiences in the early elementary grades (K-3). And, the Education Commission of the States (ECS) just released a new guide with some good ideas for state policymakers for improving the early elementary years. (Full disclosure: New America is a partner in this work.)

The guide to action directs state leaders to the passage of ESSA as an opportunity to prioritize K-3 teaching and learning. ESSA includes several provisions related to early learning, such as allowing the use of Title I funds to support smoother transitions between pre-K and the early elementary grades and directing Title II professional development funds to support teacher and principal training that improves their understanding of how young students learn. ESSA also allows states to use different measures of school quality or student success for different grade spans, which means states can choose to identify a targeted K-3 indicator, chronic absenteeism for example, to include in their accountability plan. States can also opt to include data specific to K-3 in state report cards.

In addition to urging states to take advantage of the flexibility offered by ESSA to concentrate on K-3 improvement, the guide lists specific actions states should consider taking to improve the quality of the early elementary years.

For kindergarten, the guide encourages states to consider requiring districts to offer full-day kindergarten. It might come as a surprise that at a time when academic expectations for kindergarteners are growing only 13 states require districts to offer full-day kindergarten. When full-day kindergarten is offered, only 27 states require that kindergarten programs have the same length of day as first grade programs. States are also encouraged to consider making kindergarten attendance compulsory. Currently, 15 states don’t require students to begin formal schooling until they are seven- or eight-years-old.

When it comes to workforce development and licensure strategies, the guide encourages states to bring a greater focus to the K-3 span. As we’ve pointed out in the past, today’s licensure systems vary greatly by state. In some states, kindergarten through third grade teachers hold a PreK-3rd license while in other states educators may be teaching with a broader K-6 license. Teacher preparation programs leading to broader licenses are less likely to equip teachers with the knowledge and competencies necessary to meet the unique needs of younger learners. Limiting the grade span of licenses is controversial, however, since narrower licenses can give principals less flexibility when it comes to hiring and staffing.

Because of the important role principals play as early education leaders, the guide recommends states also consider revamping their principal preparation programs to encourage a greater focus on the early years. Illinois is currently the only state that integrates early childhood education into principal training and certification. Principals without specific early education training can find it difficult to provide helpful instructional feedback to K-3 teachers.

The guide also discusses the importance of reforming the way in which state early childhood systems are currently spread across various agencies. This lack of coordination can result in inefficiencies and a lack of accountability. The guide suggests states consider creating a dedicated office in the state department of education that specifically focuses on K-3 quality improvements and encouraging districts to create a similar dedicated position as well. The state office could be charged with coordinating with pre-K providers as well as with fourth-to-12th grade programs to ensure that students experience smooth transitions between grades.

You can find more suggested actions in the full report.

Both the passage of ESSA and the recent election results mean states will have an unprecedented amount of freedom and flexibility in the coming years to shape education policy. The ECS guide can help states think about how to make the most of that flexibility to ensure that high-quality pre-K is followed up by strong early elementary experiences.