In January, the Early Education Initiative released the report Subprime Learning: Early Education in America Since the Great Recession. We found that during the last five years the federal government and states focused on building infrastructure and improving coordination across early childhood programs. This attention was sorely needed, but now it’s time to turn the focus to teaching and learning in the early years and up through third grade.

Our new report, Beyond Subprime Learning: Accelerating Progress in Early Education, calls for policies that are aimed at improving the quality of interactions between teachers and children, a critical component of learning. We point to two approaches that will spur the most impact towards that goal: 1) streamlining programs, standards, and eligibility requirements and 2) tapping into sources for predictable, sustainable, and increased public funding. Without taking these actions the country will never truly be able to accelerate access to high-quality education, birth through third grade. Beyond Subprime Learning calls for upgrades to federal laws and outlines many new paths for state leaders who are working to build more robust PreK-12 systems throughout their states.

Without taking these actions the country will never truly be able to accelerate access to high-quality education, birth through third grade.

In the report, we outline our vision for early education as a learning staircase: “Each year of their lives, children and their families should have the benefit of ascending a sturdy, well-lit staircase of development and learning rather than navigating disconnected and uneven platforms where they can easily fall through the cracks.” And we offer examples of what this looks like in practice. For instance, families would have opportunities to participate in kindergarten available in hours-per-day equal to first grade, and principals and directors of pre-K programs would know each other and work together to develop transition plans for shared families.

The report is graphically organized to help policymakers at all levels — federal, state, and local as well as teacher preparation programs — clearly see changes they should make. Specific policies and the responsible parties are described under eight overarching action items:

  • Bridge the Continuum: Streamline Systems Across the Birth-through-Third-Grade Years
  • Upgrade Educators: Professionalize and Improve the Early Education Workforce
  • Emphasize Families: Develop Dual-Generation Strategies for Children’s Success
  • Intentionally Support Dual-Language Learners: Embrace Children’s Languages as Assets
  • Rethink Standards and Assessment: Coordinate Teaching and Learning for Young Children
  • Strengthen and Improve Accountability Systems: Design Them with Children’s Learning and Development in Mind
  • Collect and Use Data Responsibly: Inform Educators’ and Policymakers’ Practice
  • Bring Research Closer to Policy and Practice: Use Implementation Science and Openness

In the report, we make several recommendations under each of the action items above. Below is a sampling of our ideas:

  • Enact policies for teacher preparation, professional learning, accountability, and teacher evaluation systems that put a premium on the quality of interactions between adults and children and the learning that results. Too often, policies emphasize credentials and seniority, for example, without examining how well teachers teach. Yet children’s advancements academically and socially are most significantly associated with having teachers who interact with them at a high level.
  • Revamp state teaching licenses to make sure that all PreK – 3rd grade teachers have the knowledge and skills they need in order to teach young children successfully and make sure principals know how to identify effective teaching in the K-3 classrooms. States should eliminate  their omnibus (K-5 or K-6) teaching licenses and replace them with at least two different licenses, one beginning with birth or pre-K and ending at 3rd grade, and another starting at 3rd or 4th and extending through the middle grades. This would help to ensure that early grade classrooms are staffed with teachers who have more specialized degrees.
  • Re-envision Head Start for 3- and 4-year-olds. Create Head Start 2.0 by streamlining Head Start standards, experimenting with Head Start grants to states that meet criteria for quality and access using a Race to the Top — Early Learning Challenge model, and making stronger linkages between Head Start and programs housed in the U.S. Department of Education serving similar children.
  • Borrow the Pell Grant model which helps students from low-income families afford college. Apply that model in the child care realm to increase access for low-income families and ensure child care is of high-quality.  There are no waiting lists for Pell Grants; students from low-income families gain access to the grants based on a sliding scale. If the Child Care and Development Fund functioned this way, as an entitlement program for all eligible families, more low- and middle-income families would receive subsidies. Lawmakers have gone to extreme lengths to find the dollars they need to help send students from low-income families to college. Parents with young children deserve the same support.

The report, available here, and made possible by the Alliance for Early Success, was written by Laura Bornfreund, Clare McCann, Conor Williams, and Lisa Guernsey of the Early Education Initiative in the Education Policy Program at New America.

[Cross-posted at Ed Central]

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Laura Bornfreund

Laura Bornfreund is deputy director for New America's Early Education Initiative. Before joining New America, Ms. Bornfreund consulted for a number of education policy organizations including the Forum for Education & Democracy, Institute for Educational Leadership, and Common Core. She began her career as a 4th grade teacher. Ms. Bornfreund holds a master's degree in public administration from the University of Central Florida.