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Quality Early Learning Programs Are a Key to Future Success. Why Don’t States Put Them in Their ESSA Plans?

August 11, 2017
Samantha Batel
The 74

Grades are a touchy subject. Understanding how students are doing, and how well schools are serving their students, is an imperfect science. But as states rethink what success looks like, they can use more holistic measures of school quality to improve school and student performance.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the main K-12 federal education law, gives states this opportunity. The new law requires states to look beyond test scores to design school ratings with the whole student in mind. States can use different measures for different grade spans, using age-appropriate ones where it makes sense, and are limited only by their imagination (and some technical requirements of the law).

States can and should take advantage of this flexibility to focus on early learning, which can improve students’ education well beyond childhood.

However, CAP’s analysis of the 17 submitted ESSA plans — from 16 states and Washington, D.C. — found that most focus mainly on college and career readiness in high school. Ten plans, for example, will use performance on college entry exams, such as the SAT or ACT, to classify schools. Eleven states plan to use measures of career preparedness, such as participating in career and technical education courses or earning industry-recognized credentials. Five states intend to use a measure of postsecondary enrollment in high school ratings.

These indicators will help schools better understand whether students are prepared to enter college and the workforce. But preparation for success after high school begins much earlier. In fact, policymakers can look no further than preschool.

Research finds that high-quality preschool and childcare can address the achievement gap before it even begins. In fact, participation in early learning programs increases school readiness by 9 percentage points and improves school success, including increased high school graduation. Children at a greater risk of failing benefit the most: According to a recent study, comprehensive early childhood programs show a 13.7 percent return on investment for disadvantaged children. As adults, they are more likely to stay out of trouble, finish college, and earn higher incomes than their peers.

As a result, high-quality early learning paves the way for college and career readiness and success. Yet of the 17 submitted ESSA plans, only three will use some type of early learning indicator to measure how well schools serve their youngest students.