Individual states have made steady progress over the last 15 years in expanding access to early education for young children. In 2002, only three states enrolled more than 30 percent of four-year-olds in pre-K. Compare that to today in which 32 percent of four-year-olds across the entire country have access to state-funded pre-K and it’s clear how much progress states have made in improving access to early education.
There’s still a lot of work for states to do though when it comes to expanding access and improving the quality of early education. For instance, six states still have no state-funded pre-K program for three- or four-year-olds at all, and a total of fifteen states serve fewer than five percent of four-year-olds.
With the goal of assisting state policymakers working to ensure all children enter kindergarten ready to learn, the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) recently issued a report laying out the critical elements states must address to improve early learning. The report’s findings are the result of an early education working group formed by NCSL comprised of state legislators, legislative staff, and early learning experts. The group identified the following five focus areas as essential for enhancing early learning outcomes: equity, high quality P-3 education, governance, community and family engagement, and educator development.
Currently, minority students and students from low-income families are less likely to attend high-quality early education programs compared to their peers. The NCSL report acknowledges that equity must be a fundamental part of any conversation related to early learning since large school readiness gaps still exist for students of color and students from low-income families.
The report recognizes the importance of both increasing access and removing barriers to high-quality early learning for all students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The report specifically notes that state policymakers can take concrete steps to improve the transition between pre-K and kindergarten so that students and parents feel welcomed and prepared as they formally begin elementary school. States can also take advantage of new rules under ESSA, including the requirement that states report the percentage of students enrolled in pre-K. This data can be disaggregated by income level and race/ethnicity to highlight equity concerns and areas for improvement.
High Quality P-3 Education
The report points out that states must take action to ensure that all grades along the P-3 continuum are strong rather than focusing only on pre-K. While high-quality pre-K is vital for helping students enter kindergarten ready to learn, it must be followed by strong teaching and learning environments in K-3rd grade in order to build upon the gains made in pre-K. Pre-K is not an inoculation against future academic troubles, but rather the first step in what should be a strong continuum of learning throughout a student’s academic career.
Alabama is one state that has taken steps to build a high-quality P-3 continuum. The state recently launched a “Pre Through 3” initiative dedicated to extending the success of the state’s pre-K program into the early elementary years through improvement in leadership, instruction, and assessment. Other states should follow Alabama’s lead by working to improve communication and collaboration across all of the grades of the P-3 continuum.
The governance structures of state early childhood systems are complex and vary depending on the state. Rather than recommend one type of governing structure, the NCSL report emphasizes the importance of building a system that promotes efficiency through coordination and alignment.
North Carolina is an example of a state that has recently made strides to implement a coordinated system of care and education. The state has established a Birth-3rd Grade Interagency Council made up of members of both the Department of Public Instruction and the Department of Health and Human Services. The council is tasked with implementing a plan for a coordinated system of early care and education, implementing a statewide longitudinal evaluation of the academic progress of P-3 students, and collaborating with all early childhood stakeholders to achieve a coordinated system of early education.
Community and Family Engagement
Because parents are a child’s first and most important teachers, it’s important that any plan to improve early learning include engagement with families and the communities in which they live. The NCSL report specifically highlights the importance of incorporating two generation strategies that aim to eradicate poverty by educating children while also providing needed services to parents.
The report cites Alabama’s rural St. Clair County as an example of a promising two-generation approach. In St. Clair County, a partnership was formed between the local Head Start and community college to enable single mothers to obtain training at the Head Start center while their children attend school. The mothers can eventually earn enough credits to become pharmacy technicians, and the program has led to improved attendance for the children enrolled in Head Start.
The final focus area of the NCSL report is educator development. Students will not experience high-quality early education unless they’re surrounded by teachers and leaders who have a solid understanding of engaging and developmentally appropriate instruction.
The report recommends that states develop specialized teacher licenses for educators planning to work with young children. Narrower state teacher licensing spans, such as a PreK-3 license, can help encourage teacher preparation programs to instill the specialized knowledge needed to teach young children, such as an in-depth understanding of child development.
The report emphasizes that principals and center directors, like teachers, also need in-depth knowledge about the specific needs of early learners. Despite the fact that center directors perform many of the same duties as elementary school principals, they’re typically held to much lower education requirements. In fact, eight states don’t require center directors to have any formal higher education or training at all.
And while states generally require principals to have a master’s degree, only Illinois specifically requires early childhood content to be incorporated into principal preparation. Without experience in early learning, many principals report feeling that they lack the necessary knowledge to promote high-quality instruction in the early grades.
This new report is a helpful guide for states working to ensure all children are ready to learn when they enter kindergarten. A successful state early care and education system doesn’t happen by accident; it is the result of a diverse group of stakeholders coming together and strategically addressing all five of the focus areas highlighted in the report.