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Preschool Matters Today

Putting the ‘Every’ in ESSA: How States Can Prioritize PreK to Grade 3


November 16, 2016
FederalState & Local
by Lori Connors-Tadros, Ph.D.

What would it take for “every child to succeed,” as our new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) suggests?  States can choose to use this major federal education legislation, which at its core is intended to address inequities in educational opportunities, to refocus on the early years–birth to third grade.  State forerunners in addressing early learning in their draft ESSA consolidated state plans released for public comment are Illinois, North Carolina and Washington, and we know that early childhood leaders in several other states are working hard to develop early learning focused recommendations for their states’ ESSA plans.  We propose a bold challenge–what if every state submitted an ESSA state plan that prioritized resources and strategies on children preschool to third grade?

States would use their flexibility in designing their ESSA state plan and guidance for local education agencies to “target universally” their ESSA funding to evidence-based strategies and activities for children in preschool through third grade, using disaggregated data to ensure that every young child succeeded.  Thus by third grade, achievement gaps would be significantly ameliorated and, in many cases, prevented–and every child could be successful in school and life.

What evidence supports such a bold plan? Research indicates that high-quality early learning that is universally available would reduce and possibly erase the achievement gap for minority children.  A recent report by the National Institute for Early Education Research suggests that “establishing a high-quality UPK program is a critical first step toward creating equity in access to early education and ensuring that all children begin kindergarten with an equal opportunity.”  This research found that high-quality preschool would reduce significantly the achievement gaps for African-American and Hispanic children in math, and erase the reading gap for both groups.  With the expansion of state-funded PreK, many states already invest in efforts to start children on a path of school success.  States could choose to make it a priority that districts use Title 1 funds to increase access to preschool. In addition, the U.S. Department of Education’s non-regulatory guidance on ESSA and Early Learning highlights opportunities to increase alignment and coordination from birth through third grade and support the workforce.

ESSA encourages evidence-based decision making. We describe here three policy areas with evidence-based strategies that, if included in every state’s ESSA state plan and supported by districts, would ensure that every young child succeeded and was on a path to thrive through high school and beyond.

Increase Access to High-Quality Preschool
More than 1,200 national scholars last year signed consensus letter on the importance of high-quality early education at scale to reduce achievement gaps.  ESSA calls on states to describe how they will assist school districts and elementary schools that elect to use Title I funds to support early childhood education programs.  We have research-based standards for high-quality preschool programs to ensure that states invest in the ingredients that result in improved outcomes for children, and we have states that have received federal funding in the Preschool Development Grants and Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge that have tested these innovations. These states can sustain their investments in young children by directing resources to high-quality programs. States will also have the opportunity to apply for new Preschool Development funds, and can use the lessons learned and evidence base to ensure their ESSA funds are well spent.

Align and Coordinate Birth to Third Grade Programs
Imagine if every child from birth experienced high-quality programs and education, every day and every year, at least until third grade?  This is the vision a growing number of states are embracing, through a Birth to Grade 3 framework, to implement a seamless continuum of highly effective learning.  The Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes’ Policy Report, Building State P-3 Systems: Learning from Leading States, tells the story of how Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Oregon are leading the way, and provides other states with an evidence base to guide their ESSA planning. The National Association of Elementary School Principals define six competencies for principals to lead Prek-Grade 3 learning, and this evidence base can be utilized by states in guidance for local education agencies.  ESSA state accountability plans and school improvement can utilize the indicators CEELO developed for districts to implement quality PreK-Grade 3 programs, or look to the case studies of how local education districts in Missouri, Massachusetts and Nebraska incorporated effective, evidence-based practices in early learning to turn around low-performing schools.

Prepare and Support Highly Effective Teachers and Leaders
Every state has developed a plan to ensure equitable access to excellent educators and ESSA offers states an opportunity to prioritize the professional development of teachers and leaders of young children, particularly in plans for Title 1, Title 11, and Title 111. We now have a strong evidence-base in the Institute of Medicine, Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth through Age 8 report, to help every state include in their ESSA state plan universally targeted policy to ensure that every young child has well-compensated and well-prepared teachers and leaders. Though most states, a notable exception being Illinois, do not require principals to have content in early childhood as part of licensure, some states have developed sustained professional development models to support leaders and build capacity of superintendents, principals, teachers, and other instructional leaders to increase knowledge and awareness of early childhood pedagogy and best practice in order to improve teaching and learning. CEELO Project Director Lori Connors-Tadros recently had the opportunity to participate in a session of Minnesota’s Prek-Grade 3 Principal Leadership Series. The leadership series is a collaboration of the Minnesota Department of Education and the Minnesota Elementary School Principals Association, and is led by Debbykay Peterson, alumni of CEELO’s 2015-2016 Leadership Academy.  The leadership institute is intended to build and support the capacity of principals and instructional leaders to systematically and effectively lead PreK-3 efforts in their schools and communities to improve the learning outcomes for all children.

As state and local leaders develop their state plans, CEELO’s new tool, A Supplemental Tool for Structuring Your Plan for Preschool to Third Grade, developed to complement CCSSO’s tool for chiefs, provides a number of questions to ensure that preschool to third grade is elevated as a priority.  Two critical decisions are:

  • Will your state plan have a theory of change, vision or principles that prioritizes the importance preschool to Grade 3 to achieve the goals outlined in the plan?
  • Will your state establish a specific section in the state plan for early learning and/or address evidence-based strategies for preschool to Grade 3 throughout the plan?

At CEELO, we take seriously both our name–Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes–and our mission to build the capacity of state education agencies to lead sustained improvements in early learning opportunities and outcomes. For the first time in federal education policy, ESSA places a strong emphasis on early learning throughout the law. This provides an opportunity for state and local education agencies, governors and other stakeholders, to be bold and innovative. We can use the concepts of targeted universalism, and “be proactive and goal-oriented about achievable outcomes” to turn the talk about the value and benefit of early learning into action in state and local ESSA plans.

CEELO is poised to assist states to achieve this goal. See our resources on ESSA and Early Learning and contact your state’s technical assistance lead.

Lori Connors-Tadros, CEELO Senior Project Director at NIEER, leads efforts to provide technical assistance to build capacity of state education agencies to improve outcomes for children birth through third grade. She conducts research and facilitates decision-making to ensure states develop evidence-based policy to support program quality, effective teaching, and developmentally appropriate learning. She previously held the position of Vice President of Children and Family Services at The Finance Project.