The early years of child development offer a still-untapped lever for states to address achievement gaps before they start to grow, and to accelerate school improvement efforts with evidence-based interventions. While there are political, fiscal, and technical challenges to doing so, there are a variety of steps states can take today, aided by the flexibility and opportunities presented by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).
ESSA provides an unprecedented opportunity for states to build bridges among state and local education agencies to enhance alignment between early education providers and K-12 schools, and to create more high-quality learning opportunities for all children, regardless of age.
Working with leaders in state and local education, the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and the Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes (CEELO), have seen remarkable progress and momentum around birth to third grade learning. Expanded access to pre-K and full-day kindergarten, the spread of quality rating and improvement systems, and increased attention to the early childhood educator workforce are all signs of meaningful progress at the state and local levels. Yet, alignment between early education and K-12 in accountability and school improvement, for which state education agencies are responsible, has not been fully explored.
Both organizations recognized education leaders who are tasked with crafting and implementing state ESSA plans, including accountability directors, school improvement specialists, early learning directors, and data managers, needed specialized tools and guidance to tackle this challenge. Since late 2016, CCSSO and CEELO have worked with early education leaders and accountability directors from state education agencies, garnered input and feedback from an advisory group of state and national experts, and commissioned Bellwether Education Partners to draft a Birth to Grade 3 Indicator Framework: Opportunities to Integrate Early Childhood in ESSA, CCSSO/CEELO Toolkit (B-3 Indicator Toolkit) that summarizes the evidence supporting an early learning approach to school improvement, public reporting, and school district accountability for young learners as they transition into the early elementary grades. This toolkit was conceived as vehicle to embed early learning strategies more deliberately into the states’ education reform plans.
The early learning indicators are grouped into three categories: access, academic growth, and engagement. A detailed description of 13 indicators examines consideration and feasibility, potential measures, use cases, and key research. They cover chronic absenteeism, teacher qualifications, access to high-quality prekindergarten, school climate, and social-emotional learning, to name a few.
But the project has not stopped there. Ongoing communication with state and local leaders to identify indicators for young learners and subsequent technical assistance is the next phase of the CCSSO/CEELO collaboration.
A K-2 Indicator Workgroup, commissioned by the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE), already has reached out to both organizations for assistance with discussing and defining K-2 indicators for potential inclusion in school quality ratings.
Other states have already included some aspects of early education in their state plans. The D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) is using school quality ratings and teacher-student interactions that connect to their state plan and overall accountability vision. D.C.’s ESSA plan includes the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS) for prekindergarten as one measure in their indicator of school environment.
The Louisiana State Department of Education (LADOE), which uses CLASS as a quality measure in all publicly funded early childhood settings, Birth to Pre-K, is considering piloting CLASS in early elementary grades, with scores eventually being incorporated into the elementary school quality ratings.
Outside the strictures of a high stakes accountability system, several states have incorporated critical early childhood indicators in their public reporting, namely school report cards. ESSA requires all states to report pre-K access for the first time. Even before ESSA, Michigan’s school report card at MISchoolData.org included early childhood data such as program enrollment, kindergarten readiness, and K-3 chronic absenteeism rates. The Ohio Department of Education (ODE) and the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) have shared detailed kindergarten readiness information online, which is designed to identify incoming kindergarteners’ school readiness skills and behaviors at the outset of their school career and to inform local early childhood programs about areas of strength and weaknesses in teaching young children’s school readiness skills.
The Delaware Department of Education (DOE) has taken it a step further and worked K-2 assessment information into their ESSA accountability plans. Using a prorated concept, DOE, when implementing their ESSA plan, will track third grade students to the school that provided instructional services from kindergarten to second grade. When fully enrolled students take the grade 3 assessment, the school that provided kindergarten gets 10%, the ones that provide first, second, and third grades receive 20%, 30%, and 40%, respectively.
As the examples illustrate, state education agencies looking to improve student outcomes, accelerate educational progress, and close achievement gaps are looking more closely at the years before third grade. When Congress passed ESSA in December 2015, state educators took notice of the numerous references in the law to early childhood education. The law intended the focus on early learning, including the early years in elementary school, as an invitation to jumpstart student achievement by targeting both resources and attention in the years when children learn most. CCSSOs and CEELO’s B-3 Indicator Toolkit offers valuable resources to those looking to make a significant impact on early learning outcomes.
Rolf Grafwallner is Program Director for Early Childhood Initiatives at the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) in Washington, D.C. where he works with states to improve learning opportunities and outcomes for young children. Prior to joining the Council, Dr. Grafwallner worked on early childhood policy and school reform as an Assistant State Superintendent at the Maryland State Department of Education.