Dec. 18, 2018
New Years is a special holiday for my family. We spend the day together, reflecting on the previous year, especially talking about our favorite memories. We also look ahead to what we have planned, want to plan, and want to do better in the next year. In that vein, I’m going to offer a few thoughts on the progress made and what’s left to do in early education, where our team plans to focus, and the work we have coming in 2019.
While there continues to be increasing attention at the federal, state, and local level to the importance of children’s earliest years and the knowledge and competencies educators working with young children need, most families still lack access to high-quality care and education options for their infants and toddlers. Most three- and four-year olds still lack access to pre-K programs that lay a strong foundation for their future learning. And too many children in kindergarten and the early elementary grades still aren’t getting high-quality instruction and stimulating learning opportunities in science, math, reading, and social-emotional development. This is especially true for children of color, children with special needs, dual language learners, and low-income children. Additionally, early care and education programs still need predictable, stable, and increased public funding. Programs serving children in their earliest years should be seen as a public good in a similar way to K-12 public education.
When it comes to the early childhood education workforce, many adults do not have the knowledge and competencies they need to teach and guide young children’s development. Too many adults who work with young children make such low wages that they are dependent on public supports. They lack health and retirement benefits, paid time off, and planning time. This is not right. Efforts to increase the workforce’s qualifications must be combined with simultaneous efforts to improve the programs that will equip them with the knowledge and competencies they need. These may be higher education programs, but not necessarily. And, they also must be combined with efforts to rethink the financing of early care and education as I discussed above.
And, there is much more work to do! In 2019 at New America, the Early & Elementary Education Policy team has projects in a few key areas and we’ll also be watching, writing, and/or holding events on a broader set of birth through third grade issues as well.
Pre-K to kindergarten transitions
In July 2017, we wrote about state strategies for easing children’s transition into kindergarten. We will stick with this topic in 2019, focusing on districts across the country that are leading the way when it comes to innovative, effective transition approaches. Pre-K to kindergarten transitions had a strong presence in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and the new Preschool Development Grants competition. Transitions are an important part of meeting children’s need and educators play a central role in ensuring they are smooth. Our work in 2019 will highlight districts that are taking actions to address the transition to kindergarten through initiatives such as joint professional development between pre-K and kindergarten teachers, targeted outreach to families in the district with young children, data sharing between early learning centers and elementary schools, and summer activities for incoming kindergarteners and their families. Our goal is to highlight districts that have gone beyond engagement with children and families to include cross-sector collaboration between pre-K teachers and leaders and their kindergarten counterparts. We’ll also release a report that highlights various federal and state funding streams that can support efforts to improve transitions.
Elementary school principals and center administrators
Over the last several years our team has been exploring the integral role of early learning leaders, both elementary school principals and center directors. Many leaders enter their roles without a strong understanding of early learning and child development and without prior experience teaching young children, meaning they are less-equipped to support teachers of young children. Back in May 2016, we released Principal’s Corner: Perspectives on Teaching and Learning in PreK-3rd Grade, a series of briefs exploring the role of elementary school principals as early education leaders based on focus groups conducted throughout the country. The following year we released a 50-state scan (both in the form of a report and interactive maps) of policies related to building leader preparation, professional learning, and compensation.
In 2019 we’ll continue digging into this important topic in multiple ways. First, we will be writing a blog series on state and local professional learning efforts to strengthen principals’ roles as PreK-3rd grade leaders. Next, we will be writing a brief exploring the policy changes that the state of Illinois has made to its principal licensure to focus more intentionally on early education. Principal preparation programs in Illinois must incorporate early learning into their curricula and provide candidates with internships across the PreK–12 continuum. Lastly, we’ll be researching how to best prepare center directors. We hope to answer questions such as, what knowledge and skills does this largely overlooked group need to effectively lead a pre-K program? And what is the best way to prepare center directors to be instructional leaders?
Quality learning environments
We will be examining and reporting on teaching practices for young children that reflect the Principles of Ideal Learning, a set of principles determined by providers of quality learning environments that include the following: a commitment to play, relationship-based interactions, an ecologically-focused, child-centered perspective; equity; and a strength-based and inquiry-based approach with children, adults, and families. We will publish feature articles and blog posts that showcase how these ideals can be realized in today's early learning classrooms.
The Principles of Ideal Learning are at the center of the work of the Trust for Learning, a funder collaborative focused on wide-scale improvements in quality in children's learning environments. The elements of Ideal Learning emerged from roundtable discussions among leaders of organizations such as Montessori, Reggio Emilia, the Friends Center for Children, Tools of the Mind, Bank Street College of Education, Waldorf, HighScope, and All Our Kin.
What else will our team be doing?
In addition to the projects above, we’ll also continue to write about efforts to improve supports for and increase qualifications and compensation of the early childhood education workforce. (ICYMI: check out our Transforming the Early Education Workforce: A Multimedia Guidebook) We’ll also be writing on strategies for financing an early care and education system that include a qualified workforce. Part of this work will be digging into last year’s “Transforming the Financing” report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Our team will also continue to follow work in three communities in California aimed at improving supports for birth-to-five formal and informal care and education providers. And, you can expect to see more posts in our blog series, “Moving Beyond False Choices for Early Childhood Educators.”
With a new Congress in place, we’ll be watching for new early care and education legislation and looking to see if anything picks up with HEA reauthorization, Head Start reauthorization, and IDEA reauthorization. We’ll also be keeping an eye on what’s happening in states and districts and what leaders are putting in place to improve pre-K program quality, the B-8 early childhood education workforce, and kindergarten through third grade (which continue to not get the attention they need). Finally, as the competition to be the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee intensifies throughout the year, we'll be watching to see how candidates incorporate early education issues into their platform.