To Make the Most of Federal ECE Investments, Remember Kindergarten & Early Grades

Blog Post
Oct. 27, 2021

The country could soon see a significant federal investment in young children. If passed, the Build Back Better Act would dramatically increase access to quality child care and pre-K for families across the country. Families and those working in early care and education (ECE) have needed this investment for a long, long time. The proposed legislation includes funding to boost program quality and supply, increase early educator compensation, and reduce or eliminate the cost of ECE for families. While federal regulators and program implementers still have a lot of details to figure out, expanding access to high-quality child care and pre-K would undoubtedly be good for children, their parents and caregivers, and society at large.

One area yet to be addressed is what the expansion means for how kindergarten and the early grades must transform. To maximize the benefits of investing in and strengthening ECE options for infants, toddlers, and pre-kindergarteners, decision-makers must strengthen what comes next: kindergarten, first, and second grade.

The early elementary years get much less attention than the 3rd-12th grades, the years in which student test scores matter for school accountability ratings. But these early elementary years deserve attention as they are critical for giving students the foundation they need in reading, mathematics, and science as well as for building children’s social and emotional skills that will be essential throughout their schooling and in life. Instead of attending to younger students’ experiences in the early grades, many states and districts emphasize catching kids up once they are already in third grade. But some state and local leaders have taken a different approach, working to better align ECE and K-12 education. And federal officials have made small strides encouraging this alignment through programs such as Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge and Preschool Development Grants.

But more is needed to achieve significant shifts and improvements in K-2. The tumult of the COVID-19 pandemic and the increased federal investment in high-quality ECE provide a moment to reimagine what children and families have access to before kindergarten and reimagine children’s early school experiences, particularly in three related areas.

Transition and alignment between pre-K and the early years of elementary school

As decision-makers plan for the next several school years, effective and supportive transitions from early childhood programs into kindergarten and the early grades will be crucial. Effective and supportive transitions include both the discrete activities that provide information to families and the connections schools make with children and families as they begin kindergarten. They also include ongoing activities to align children’s pre-K experiences with their kindergarten experiences. While these activities happen at the school level, leadership, vision, supportive policy, and careful planning at the state and district systems are key to ensuring seamless transitions. Despite its importance, transition is often overlooked or neglected and too often left to just discrete activities leading up to the start of a new school year.

State and local officials must work together to establish policies and practices that recognize transition as a year-long process that includes collaboration across ECE settings and elementary schools. The federal government can support these changes by better linking federal programs for children before school entry with K-12 and by prioritizing the emphasis on transition and alignment. Federal dollars can also be used for administrator and teacher professional development to deepen how they support all children in their early years and use strategies that help them meet the needs of children from marginalized communities.

Getting kindergarten right

While most kindergarten-aged children attend school, kindergarten is not compulsory in most states. Eight states do not even require districts to offer it. While kindergarten is provided in those states, a full day of kindergarten equivalent to a full day of first grade is not the standard. Some children attend only a half day of kindergarten, while some parents pay tuition for a full day in a public school. States should fund a full day, equivalent to the length of a day in first grade, signaling their commitment to giving all children access to a strong kindergarten experience.

Kindergarten classrooms today in many communities look and feel more like classrooms for older children. It should not be this way. Developmental science tells us that young children learn best through play, inquiry, and exploration (think experiential learning for older kids). Children need kindergarten classrooms that support this kind of learning. State and district officials can support this type of learning by investing in professional development for principals and kindergarten teachers, promoting seamless transitions and alignment between pre-K and kindergarten, and providing funding to ensure kindergarten classrooms have the resources to include space and materials for play-based centers, STEM learning, and at least two educators in each classroom.

The federal government can support those activities by issuing guidance on high-quality kindergarten, identifying exemplary kindergarten programs around the country, and through targeted federal grants. For example, a federal grant program could prioritize states or districts that are ready to build stronger connections between pre-K and kindergarten and that are willing to transform kindergarten by implementing promising practices in a number of areas including curricula, measurement tools, data collection, and classroom environments.

Teaching and classroom environments in K-2

In too many early grade classrooms, a student’s day is limited to constrained skills (such as letter recognition and counting) and reading and math instruction, with very little attention to science, social studies, and other areas. Learning across content areas is essential for young students to build their knowledge about the world, our past, and beyond. Skilled teachers will find ways to incorporate science, history, geography, and so forth into lessons. Still, all teachers need resources and support to ensure their students have well-rounded learning experiences. In addition to the common subject areas included in K–12 state standards, K–3 standards should also include those related to social and emotional development (managing emotions, interactions with peers and adults, and appropriate self-expression) and growth in approaches to learning (curiosity, persistence, attentiveness, etc.).

Assessment is also very important in the early years and grades, with screenings, diagnostic assessments, and summative assessments all playing an important role. But there are many challenges in early childhood assessment, including bias and complexity. Not only can they be labor-intensive for teachers, but they also don’t always provide accurate and consistent information on what students know and can do. Schools often administer too many unnecessary or duplicative assessments throughout the year. Districts should review the assessments being used in schools and work to reduce duplicative measures where possible. Districts should also look at how teachers use assessment results to adapt curricula and instruction and how parents use results to understand their child’s progress.

At the federal level, the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) should do a study of assessment implementation and make updated recommendations to states for appropriate use. This should include reviewing whether assessments in use meet the needs of both monolingual and multilingual students.

There are multiple benefits to having consistent, usable statewide data, particularly about kindergarten readiness. States can and should use these data to inform how they target resources across the state. And, the federal government can provide resources to build and improve data infrastructure that links state early childhood and K-12 data systems.

It’s an important moment for ECE and for children, families, and educators. The proposed federal investments matter not just for ECE programs serving children birth to five, but they also have implications for elementary schools. Decision-makers at all levels have a responsibility for ensuring elementary schools are ready by establishing policies and implementing practices that strengthen transition and alignment, improve teaching and classroom environments in K-2, and value the important role of kindergarten.

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