On the Cusp in California

How PreK-3rd Strategies Could Improve Education in the Golden State
Policy Paper
Oct. 29, 2009

If children are the future, then looking at a state's educational system is like peering into a crystal ball. California is a state teeming with young children -- 4.7 million under age 8, to be exact. One in every eight young American children lives in California. And many of these children come from minority ethnic and racial backgrounds and speak languages other than English. If Americans want to get a glimpse at our future as a "majority minority" country they don't have to look beyond California.

As we peer into the California crystal ball, the forecast for a well-educated population doesn't look too good. This report on the state's early education system offers a dark assessment, but not a fatalistic one, especially if leaders can seize and build on reform efforts that have already started in patches throughout the state.

Educational challenges often seem particularly daunting in California. In the 1950s, the state had one of the country's best educational systems. But today it ranks among the bottom states in educational outcomes. Only 23 percent of the state's fourth-graders scored "proficient" in reading in 2007, according to the federally administered National Assessment of Educational Progress, placing California behind every state except Mississippi and Louisiana. In math the state does slightly better -- besting Mississippi, New Mexico, and Alabama -- but it still ranks 46th among all states.

In addition to weak overall academic performance, California also has large achievement gaps for poor and minority students. Only 13 percent of black fourth-graders, and 11 percent of Hispanic students, scored "proficient" in reading in 2007, compared with 40 percent of white students. That's particularly troubling in light of the large and growing share of California's student population that racial and ethnic minority youngsters comprise.

Over the past two decades, policymakers and reformers have pursued numerous reform strategies in an effort to improve the state's dismal student outcomes and to narrow achievement gaps. Among other strategies, policymakers and advocates have repeatedly proposed universal preschool to improve student achievement.

In 2006, the state almost got there with Proposition 82, a ballot measure that would have used a tax on wealthy residents to fund universal education for all California 4-year-olds. The measure drew national attention from advocates who saw it not only as a potentially dramatic expansion of pre-K in the nation's largest state, but also as a potential bellwether for successful efforts elsewhere. But the measure failed, and although the state has made some progress since then to improve early childhood education quality and access, it continues to lag behind states that are national leaders in this area. California trails national averages in the percentage of children enrolled in state preschool or Head Start programs, it has low-quality standards for preschool teachers, and until recently it relied on a complex and inefficient collection of programs to deliver early childhood services.

Moreover, early childhood efforts and school reforms in California have rarely been linked together to create seamless, high-quality PreK-3rd early learning experiences for the state's children. Expanding access to high-quality preschool opportunities -- particularly for low-income and minority youngsters -- is critical to raising student achievement and narrowing achievement gaps in the Golden State. But one -- even two -- years of preschool alone won't be enough to narrow the tremendous gap between California and the highest-performing states, or between well-off children and poor, racial or ethnic minority youngsters within California. If California is serious about improving education outcomes for its students, it needs to provide seamless, high-quality early learning experiences -- ideally for all children, but particularly for those from disadvantaged and language-minority backgrounds -- focused on the goal of enabling all children to achieve proficiency in reading, math, English language, and social and emotional skills by the end of third grade.

Doing that requires both expansion of access to high-quality preschool programs and fundamental changes in how the state's elementary schools serve their youngest students -- along with far better linkages and integration between preschool programs and the early elementary grades.

That's a tall order, and particularly so in a state with the kind of budget woes California currently is facing. But it's not impossible. A small but growing number of counties, school districts, and charter schools across the state are making progress to build seamless PreK-3rd early education systems. Even in the current climate, advocates and policymakers are taking steps that lay the groundwork for a more robust PreK-3rd system in the future. These include convening leaders from the state's early childhood and K-12 systems, implementing new preschool learning standards aligned with the state's K-3 academic standards, building a data infrastructure to collect information on children's early learning experiences, and linking that data with K-12 data systems.

There's much more that policymakers, advocates and the state can -- and should -- be doing to work toward a day when all California children have access to seamless early learning experiences that enable them to achieve proficiency by the end of third grade. California is on the cusp, poised to make real improvements. Key state officials, along with early childhood advocates and school reformers, need to exert leadership to raise the profile of and create a sense of urgency around PreK-3rd reform as a strategy to close achievement gaps and boost academic performance.

This report seeks to help policymakers and advocates in California focus more on PreK-3rd -- the promise of the reforms, the hurdles, and the steps the state can take to overcome them. High-quality preschool is a critical component to any PreK-3rd system, and this report begins by surveying the state's current programs, examining their quality, and determining how many children are being served by them. It also looks at efforts over the past two decades to offer slots to more children and improve preschool quality, efforts that have led to both disappointments and signs of progress.

The latter half of this report goes beyond discussions of preschool to address the need for broader PreK-3rd reforms in California. The state is home to some promising local initiatives, as well as some state-level efforts that help lay the groundwork for PreK-3rd. But despite a variety of features that should have encouraged this type of approach, a PreK-3rd movement is just now beginning to emerge in California. This report considers why and examines opportunities for greater linkage and collaboration between the early childhood and school reform movements on shared solutions.

Lastly, this report recommends 13 steps California policymakers should take to improve early childhood quality and access and move toward a more seamless PreK-3rd early learning system in the state:

  1. Replicate and scale up models of effective partnerships occurring between local school districts and early childhood education providers, allowing successful local practices to "trickle up" to the state level.
  2. Create incentives for districts to use Title I funds to build seamless PreK-3rd early education systems.
  3. Study and develop alternative funding mechanisms to ensure that pre-K spending is adequate, stable, and in line with overall K-12 spending levels.
  4. Implement a comprehensive early childhood data system that is fully integrated with the state's longitudinal student data system for public schools and leads to improved support and outcomes for students in PreK-3rd.
  5. Engage families, providers, policymakers, and the media in efforts to improve California's recently consolidated State Preschool Program as a foundation for a seamless PreK-3rd system statewide.
  6. Ensure that providers participating in the State Preschool Program receive per-pupil payments that are at least competitive with those provided through the Alternative Payment (child care vouchers) program.
  7. Establish a PreK-3rd teaching credential.
  8. Allow some outstanding community colleges to offer bachelor's degrees in early childhood education and a PreK-3rd teaching credential.
  9. Use data to identify schools with high rates of chronic absenteeism in pre-K, kindergarten, and the early grades, and target these schools for interventions to reduce early absenteeism.
  10. Implement a voluntary Quality Rating and Improvement System that rewards early childhood programs with higher reimbursement rates if they reach higher levels of quality.
  11. Build capacity of preschool providers, elementary schools, and districts to meet the needs of English-language-learner students and to implement consistent strategies to develop children's skills in both English and their home language throughout the PreK-3rd continuum.
  12. Implement strategies to specifically address the underrepresentation of young Hispanic children in high-quality preschool programs.
  13. Develop and implement a state-level strategy to address early childhood facilities needs.

California has a long way to go before it provides all of its young children with the education they need and deserve, and it faces many obstacles. But by bringing together early childhood advocates and public school reformers today, it has the opportunity to begin working to build the kind of education system that will equip its youngsters to meet the next generation of challenges, offering them a brighter future now.

Check out the full PDF here