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The Keys to Student Success Include Starting Early and Following Through

September 13, 2018
Christina Samuels
Education Week

A  good start and a strong finish: State education leaders build a large part of their education policy around ensuring children are equipped for both as they move through the K-12 system and beyond. But how does that play out when 50 state education systems are stacked up against each other—and what kind of picture emerges for the nation as a whole when that mosaic comes together?

Quality Counts 2018 offers some examples and takeaways through the data collected in its Chance-for-Success Index, which looks at both ends of the learning spectrum and what it means for a person’s lifelong trajectory.

First a couple of basics, subjective though they may be, as captured by the 13 indicators selected by the Education Week Research Center for its index.

A good start can take the form of making sure children have access to high-quality early-childhood education, including preschool, public or private, state and locally funded or federally supported, as in the long-established Head Start program.

The strong finish refers to the array of programs available to make sure that students graduate from high school and that those who want to enroll in college are prepared to do so and supported when they do.

In effect, along with 4th and 8th grade achievement, the Chance-for-Success Index captures both the beginning and the end of a student’s educational career, everything from preschool and kindergarten enrollment to high school graduation and college enrollment and graduation.

An examination of a decade’s worth of data suggests there’s no easily discernable connection among these particular indicators. States with notable increases in preschool enrollment, for example, are not necessarily the same states that have boosted high school graduation rates or college-attendance rates. The interplay among all these factors is complex.

However, these are areas where policymakers are expending a lot of energy to try to move the needle of success for young people.

Take preschool, as an example.

Spending on state-funded preschool alone has grown from $2.4 billion in 2002 to more than $7.6 billion in 2017, according to the National Institute of Early Education Research.

Cities have also entered the preschool space, including New York, Philadelphia, San Antonio, and Seattle. And, of course, parents pay money to enroll their children in private preschools.

Those efforts are having an impact, at least as far as individual state participation is concerned.

In Colorado and Connecticut, for example, the percentage of 3- and 4-year-olds enrolled in preschool in both states increased more than 8 percentage points over the past decade. In contrast, the nation as a whole saw growth of just under 2 percentage points in the same time period.

A deeper look shows about 51 percent of Colorado’s young children are enrolled in public or private preschool, compared with about 48 percent nationwide. But 10 years ago, only about 43 percent of Colorado’s young children were attending preschool.

What changed? For one thing, the Colorado legislature in 2014 allocated funds to add about 5,000 slots to the Colorado Preschool Program, which serves children at risk of school failure. Nearly 30,000 children receive services through that program, said Heidi McCaslin, the director of state-funded preschool for the Colorado education department.

In Connecticut, about 66 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds are enrolled in public or private preschool. Ten years ago, it was 57 percent.

In 2013, Connecticut created a Cabinet-level agency, the office of early childhood, to pull together early-care and early-education funding streams that had been scattered across several state agencies.

Bringing those programs under the control of one agency has allowed state dollars to be spent more efficiently, said David Wilkinson, the state’s early-childhood commissioner.

For example, the agency controls the state’s child-care and -development block-grant money, which provides vouchers to low-income families to pay for child care and preschool. That program often has a waiting list.

The early-childhood agency also manages the state-run preschool program, which has sometimes returned unspent funds to the state because not enough children have enrolled.

The power of having those two programs under one roof is that the agency can now refer families who might be on a waiting list for one program to open slots in another.

“In an environment where it’s hard to raise additional revenue, our best opportunity for growth is focusing on how we more intelligently deploy our limited resources,” Wilkinson said.

For this year’s first installment of Quality Counts on how the nation and states fared on a broad range of K-12 categories, click here. For this year’s second installment of Quality Counts on how the nation and states fared on school finance, click here.