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Strengthening Early Learning in a New ESEA Part 3

This is the third post in a three-part series on strengthening early learning in a new ESEA. Find the first two posts here and here.

Last week, I discussed some ideas that could mean significant changes to ESEA. In this post, I put forth some ideas, major and minor, to further incorporate early childhood education into a new bill. We, and others, have talked about many of these ideas before. In 2010, New America sent consensus recommendations with 14 other organizations for the ESEA reauthorization underway at that time. And, you can also find some of them on the special ESEA page on our website that tracks developments in ESEA reauthorization.

Some of the ideas below may be more politically feasible, at the moment, than those I put forth last week. Both approaches together — taking significant steps to expand and strengthen early learning and making clarifications and smaller changes here and there — would really transformteaching and learning in the PreK-3rd grades.

At the very least, Congress should absolutely clarify when teachers of pre-K and pre-K programs can and should be included in ESEA programs. Here are some more specific ideas for Congress. A new ESEA should:

  • Recognize states’ early learning guidelines as part of their PreK-12 academic standards. This would encourage states to pursue true alignment and incorporate the breadth of learning domains common in early learning guidelines at least up through the 3rd grade. Just about every state has multi-domain early learning guidelines (or standards) and many states saythey are aligned, but this change could help bring their assurances closer to reality.
  • Change the funding formulae in ESEA (Title I, II, III, V) to include children ages three and up — rather than beginning at five. Increasingly 3- and 4-year-old children are included in public education through pre-K and special education programs and these formulae should be updated accordingly.
  • Make it explicit that teachers of 3- and 4-year-olds are included in all ESEA programs that seek to improve teacher quality.Amendments to programs such as Improve Teacher Quality State grants, the Teacher Incentive Fund (if it becomes a part of ESEA), and any new programs should be written carefully to include these teachers. And inclusion should not stop with teachers who work in public schools or who are employed by school districts; teachers in community-based programs (such as non-profit pre-K programs or child care centers) should be included too when those programs are heavily funded by public dollars.  For example, many community-based programs are funded by Head Start and the new Preschool Development Grants. All of these teachers should be included in professional development opportunities regardless of the setting in which they teach.
  • Mandate — and support — the integration of pre-kindergarten and other birth-through-age-5 data into state longitudinal data systems. This not only would provide an integrated view of children’s growth starting with their enrollment in early childhood programs and continuing through their postsecondary years, but would also help teachers track students’ progress and intervene with more intensive instruction when appropriate. Further, this would allow policymakers and researchers to better evaluate the long-term results of early childhood investments.
  • Codify early learning as a strategy to be allowed in School Improvement Grants. Congress should require struggling schools to provide full-day kindergarten — equivalent in duration to 1st grade — and pre-K to all students (in addition to other turnaround strategies). Using SIG funds for pre-K and kindergarten has always been allowed, but not explicitly encouraged. And when decisions are left up to elementary schools and school districts facing consequences for subpar test scores in 3rd -5th grades, they will most likely deploy extra resources in those grades. As I discussed last week, echoing the Ounce of Prevention Fund’s recommendations, accountability incentives need to change. In the meantime, it makes sense to be clearer that focusing SIG dollars PreK-3rd is allowed and encouraged. Under new guidance from the Department of Education, early learning is now listed as an acceptable model for school improvement. Congress should follow suit in its ESEA reauthorization.
  • Allow federal charter school funds be used for pre-K programs. This could be made available to standalone charter pre-K programs or for elementary charter schools interested in adding pre-K to the span of grade levels they offer — or to encourage them to expand to full-day kindergarten.
  • Provide examples in the law of allowable or suggested activities more relevant to the years before kindergarten and the early grades of elementary school. Examples: professional development for PreK-3rd grade educators on teaching strategies that develop children’s literacy skills, or dedicated planning time to support vertical alignment of curricula, assessment, and instruction in the PreK-3rd grades.
  • Establish a competitive pilot program to help principals become leaders who understand how to support children in pre-K, kindergarten, first, second, and third grade.As leaders of schools, principals establish the climate, set the vision and priorities, and make known the acceptable classroom practices. If a principal does not understand how young children learn best, she may walk into a kindergarten or first grade classroom, for instance, expecting to see teachers leading students in whole group instruction rather than students participating in center-based activities and learning in small groups guided by the teacher. The principal may not see it as her responsibility to reach out to and collaborate with child care centers and pre-K programs that typically feed into her school.
  • Devote funds to help improve and create new PreK-3rd grade assessments in (but also beyond) reading and math. Congress should also invest in new teacher observation tools for early grade classrooms. While the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS), for example, is a valuable and widely used tool, it only measures a narrow range of teaching practices. The tool zeroes in on the quality of teacher-student interactions. And other commonly-used observational tools — such as the Charlotte Danielson Framework and the Marzano Teacher Evaluation Model have not necessarily been validated for use with early grade teachers.
  • Adjust the law to favor family engagement as opposed to simply requiring parental involvement.This simple shift in language signals something broader and deeper. Broader: it sends the message that parents are not the only caregivers in children’s lives. Grandparents or other relatives often live in children’s homes and have a shared responsibility for their learning and development. Some older siblings also serve as caregivers. The shift in terms also encourages both educators and families to think of school as a place where the entire family is welcome. It’s also a deeper term. For families, family engagement means something more than attending a parent-teacher conference or chaperoning a field trip. For schools, it means more than making those kinds of requests and sending out newsletters or requests for supplies. It encourages schools and families to work together more closely to help ensure the success of their children. This new terminology would better support schools’ and districts’ efforts to reach out to families before pre-kindergarten or kindergarten and throughout children’s years in school.
  • Increase funding to (at least) keep pace with the national growth in the English Learner (EL) population.When No Child Left Behind became law in 2002, it authorized up to $750 million to serve the country’s 4.1 million ELs. This year, Congress appropriated just $737 million to serve the (at least) 4.4 million ELs in U.S. schools. These students are a growing demographic in our schools, and funding should be considerably increased to reflect that fact.
  • Establish stricter rules to ensure that Title III funds go to language supports that actually help ELs develop linguistically and academically.Current Title III funds are inadequate to meet the needs of these students, and worse still, oversight over how they are spent is often inadequate. Congress should tighten the restrictions on how these funds are spent to ensure that they are used for the best research-based programs available — and exclusively to support ELs.
  • Update the law's rules aroundcounting English Learners. Specifically, it should move toward the process of using state-specific data for allocating Title III dollars (and away from the national sampling data in the American Community Survey) to ELs. The ACS data could be used to check states' data, but not as the primary source.
  • Make the Investing in Innovation (i3) program, put into place by the current Administration, part of ESEA and make connecting birth-to-3rd a dedicated priority.
  • Provide funds to expand the use of promising classroom discipline practices already in place in many schools and early childhood programs. There should be special focus on avoiding the use of suspension and expulsion and instead relying on more appropriate, and positive, discipline strategies.
This integrated approach would signal that early childhood (birth through third grade) is an important part of elementary and secondary education. It might also give some districts and schools the critical nudge towards early education investments that they were already weighing. But adopting these changes to ESEA won’t necessarily lead to increased access to high-quality pre-K programs in the way that a Title focused on Pre-K could.

Finally, let’s not forget that this is an opportunity to think about how to better connect ESEA and Head Start.  “Assurances” or “a plan” are not enough. In our Beyond Subprime Learning report, we offer some ideas on how to better connect Head Start for 3 and 4 year-olds to other federally funded pre-K programs — such as those funded under Title I and provided via the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act — and with state-funded pre-K. Also, because there are so many education laws up for reauthorization right now, we point out in the report that it would be a missed opportunity if Congress proves unable to coordinate new thinking about these laws to improve learning outcomes for all children.

It won't be long until we see the fruits of the bipartisan negotiations in the Senate. Check back at EdCentral for updates on ESEA reauthorization progress.

Still want more on ESEA reauthorization? Here is a sampling of ideas from other organizations: Council for Chief State School OfficersGrow America Stronger Coalition, International Literacy AssociationNational Association for the Education of Young ChildrenNational Association of Elementary School Principals, and the National Governor's Association.