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Early Childhood and Early Learning

Research clearly shows that achievement gaps start early, and chiefs are committed to identifying ways to invest in the youngest learners through high quality prekindergarten and early elementary school programs to reach the overarching goal of college and career readiness. While states are working to build on the accomplishments and lessons of education initiatives such as the Race to the Top/Early Learning Challenge and the Preschool Development Grants, the Council is now focusing on the states' capacity to amplify efforts to strengthen, expand and improve school readiness and the quality of pre-kindergarten aligning with Kindergarten to third grade to ensure all students develop the skills and knowledge necessary for school success and to graduate college and career ready.

To provide clear focus and recommendations for action, the Council developed a policy statement, Equity Starts Early, to outline the leadership level actions and system changes that are imperative to increasing access to high quality early learning programs in states. With this paper, many chiefs have taken a more direct leadership role in identifying opportunities and programs that can increase success and foundational skill building in the early grades. The Council will translate the chiefs' needs and interest into action.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), as well as a new version of the Preschool Development Grants Program, offers significant opportunities to target funding to expand access to high quality Pre-K programs, improve the early childhood workforce and build stronger connections between Pre-K and Kindergarten-Grade 3 standards, assessments, curricula, data systems, family engagement and professional development efforts.  The Council is leading efforts with chiefs and their leadership team on ESSA implementation and will seize this opportunity to strengthen early learning programs. To that end, the Council worked with the Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes (CEELO) to establish a clearinghouse on tools and guidance document designed to assist states in integrating early learning into their consolidated state ESSA plans.

Early childhood education is a critical component of any equity agenda and is a key strategy in the Council's support to states. During CCSSO's Annual Policy Forum in November 2016, the Council introduced Leading for Equity: Ten Opportunities for State Education Chiefs which outlines 10 commitments states chiefs across the country are taking to advance equity. Starting early and investing in the youngest learners is among the ten commitments.

We recognize the complexities of early learning systems that exist within our nation; however, we believe that in order to address the inequities in our education system, we must begin by ensuring high quality early learning opportunities are available for all children, in particular for our students for whom ESSA is intended to serve.  Following is a description of our proposed scope of work, incorporating the three overarching strategies above, which we believe will raise the profile of early education, birth to third grade, as an equity-promoting component of the states' education reform effort.

I. Increasing chiefs' leadership and SEA capacity to implement one or more of the Equity Starts Early recommendations.

The Council will establish action networks designed to identify specific problems of practices that lead to the development of state actions plans, including policy recommendations.  One such action network is currently being implemented through July 2017:

  • CCSSO's Implementing College and Career Standards (ICCS) collaborative has created an Early Learning workgroup (more details about this workgroup may be found on page 5 of this document) focused on pre-kindergarten through third grade to ensure students build the foundational knowledge and skills in the early grades necessary for future academic success.
  • The following states have joined this workgroup as a first cohort, committing to advancing policies to increase the effectiveness of early childhood and early learning in their states: Delaware, Idaho, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Washington. We anticipate that more states will join this network.
  • CCSSO has helped state teams conduct a self-assessment to identify strengths and challenges that can inform the development of an early learning specific problem of practice encompassing at least one of the five policy areas outlined in the Equity Starts Early paper:
  1. School Readiness and Transition to Elementary School
  2. Accelerating Improvement and Innovation in Early Learning Programs
    a.) Assessment, intervention, prevention of retention, instruction, and social/emotional learning
  3. Building a Unified Early Education Workforce
  4. Family and Community Engagement
  5. Advocating for Expanded Access to High-Quality Early Childhood Programs

This is the second program year that ICCS has managed workgroups. During the previous program year, a majority of states in each workgroup were able to make progress and put into place policies designed to address their problems of practice with support from colleagues across the state education agency. For example, one state sought to work across divisions to scale up professional development for districts to improve capacity and sustainability and ensure that all students received high-quality instruction and intervention. This state was able to bring this problem of practice back to the agency and develop a cross-agency task force to address this issue collectively.

II. Generating and promoting a shared, research-based vision of equity-promoting teaching and learning in Pre-K programs and K to 3rd grade classrooms.

There is a critical opportunity to strengthen early childhood programs and policy in this country. Fortunately, chiefs and SEA leaders enter this dynamic policy landscape with a deep knowledge base of the components and outcomes of high quality Pre-K, including convincing evidence of:

    • Glaring achievement gaps in the early childhood years, tied to long-term detrimental consequences for children.
    • Strong relationships between high quality Pre-K and positive near-term and sustained benefits for children, as well as the importance of linking Pre-K with high quality Kindergarten-3rd grade education.
    • Uneven, sub-par and inequitably distributed quality in Pre-K programs and Kindergarten-3rd grade schooling, as well as a crisis in the preparation, compensation and supports for the early childhood workforce.
  • Therefore, over the next few years, chiefs will work with Federal and state policymakers to establish action networks improving practices in early childhood programs prior to school entry and in the lower grades, framing family engagement as a critical component in promoting equity, and to enhance the capacity of early learning offices in state education agencies a transform and sustain high quality early childhood initiatives.   
  • The Council will facilitate cross-state briefings and convenings of chiefs and leaders in early childhood education, leading researchers, senior State Education Agency staff, higher education faculty, and outstanding teachers and administrators to provide research based recommendations around teaching and learning in the early childhood and early elementary school classroom. The recommendations will encompass specific policies around family and community engagement, instructional and assessment practices, and leadership development for school leaders. 

III. Improving the federal-state partnership in managing and improving early childhood programs.

With the de-emphasis of the Federal role in education under ESSA and the arrival of a new administration, the Council's support of the chiefs and the states' education reform includes a newly defined partnership in early childhood education.  The Council will:

  • work with chiefs on early childhood education policies that impact early childhood practices in the aforementioned policy areas highlighted in Equity Starts Early. One of the priorities for the Council will be the support to states in completing ESSA plans, including strategies for early learning across the Title programs (e.g., joint professional development, investments in programs for young dual language learners,  and establishing or expanding high quality prekindergarten.)
  • mobilize the Chiefs to serve as the collective voice of state education leaders in working with Federal agencies on early childhood policy issues such as high quality prekindergarten, workforce development, and family engagement.
  • work with states to convene local school district and community-based early childhood administrators in their states to pinpoint opportunities to improve coordination and minimize administrative burdens in state and federal policies and management systems.  These discussions will address issues including child and program quality standards, accountability and program improvement efforts, data systems and reporting requirements, as well as professional development and workforce initiatives that intend to improve teaching practices.
  • produce policy briefs and toolkits to recommend improved approaches to state-federal leadership of early childhood programs, including reforms that can occur within the parameters of existing legislation, and reforms that will require legislative changes.

The Council will coordinate its activities with national partners and philanthropic organizations.