This is the second post in a three-part series on strengthening early learning in a new ESEA.

In my first post, I discussed a new opportunity to incorporate ways to strengthen early education, PreK-3rd grade, in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). In this post, I’ll explore a few ideas that would require big changes in the law but could greatly benefit young students.

Generally, early education—and pre-Kindergarten in particular—is relegated to nothing more than mentions in ESEA. There are minimal requirements or incentives, especially since the defunding of Reading First more than five years ago. That left almost no focus in the law on kindergarten through second grade, much less what comes before school entry, other than the allowance of Title I funds to be used for children from low-income families beginning at birth. (But fewer than 3 percent of children receiving Title I funds are under the age of 5.)

First, we suggest writing a new title—jargon for a big part of a law—that focuses primarily on pre-K education, but that could also bring focus to kindergarten and the early grades. A new title could be a home for Preschool Development Grants, the current program first funded by a bipartisan appropriations process more than a year ago. This new funding is helping to build states’ capacities to provide more 4-year-olds from low-income families with high-quality pre-K. Specifically, it supports states that agree to meet certain indicators of quality—things like requiring all pre-K teachers to have bachelor’s degrees and paying those teachers comparably to K-12 teachers. PDG also requires states to offer full-day pre-K, which helps ensure that children have ample time to develop literacy and math skills, play, explore, and interact with other children and adults. The PDG program also requires participating states to develop a plan to connect their newly developed or expanded programs to the K-3 grades.

The challenge with PDG is that it is currently a competitive grant program, which means that only some states’ children are benefiting from these research-based federal incentives. A new Early Ed ESEA Title could make these rules more comprehensive through formula funds to any state that agrees to meet at least the base quality criteria as well as to coordinate and connect what comes before and after. Additionally, requiring states to develop a plan is a weak lever for ensuring that they develop and implement strong, effective plans. A new Early Ed Title could encourage better design and alignment of these plans in accordance with strong early ed research.

Of course, the devil is in the details, and implementation is key. True alignment is complex and federal funding should be allocated for not only the continuation and expansion of pre-K, but also to help make full-day kindergarten a priority for states. In fact, a new ESEA should state explicitly that kindergarten should be provided at the same duration and funded at least at the same rate as 1st grade. Additional federal funds could help states meet this goal and to better connect and coordinate pre-K, kindergarten, and the early grades through:

  • standards and assessment at the state level;
  • curricula at the local level;
  • instructional strategies in the classroom;
  • professional development opportunities for educators; and
  • data collected across PreK-3rd.

It’s also essential that more attention is paid to K-2nd grades. NCLB brought increased accountability for student proficiency in math and reading beginning in 3rd grade, but the preceding elementary grades have not always gotten their share of attention. The new law also established the Reading First program, which required the use of scientifically based reading programs and had the goal of ensuring children were able to read by the end of 3rd grade. The program was last funded in 2008. Regardless of your take on Reading First, marred by allegations of favored contracts and conflicts of interest, its focus on the early grades was important.

At present, NCLB does very little to encourage states to focus significant resources beyond the tested grades and subject areas. And guess what? This means that states generally don’t spend much money, energy, or reflection on those grades. Right now, most federal incentives are primarily targeted at 3rd grade and above. That’s where NCLB’s famous annual assessments kick in. Schools are held accountable for student achievement in these grades. Elementary schools are not held accountable for what happens in the early grades and pre-K if it is under their purview. Unless principals are playing the long game, they are more likely to put precious resources and effort into the upper elementary grades.

This is a salutary caution for those who believe a new ESEA should give states more flexibility around how they use federal funds. We believe that it is necessary to devote some funding to help states build well-coordinated, high-quality PreK-2nd grades that lay a strong literacy foundation. Doing so would also support children’s background knowledge and vocabulary in English language arts, math, science, geography, and history. And last, but certainly not least, it would foster the development of student’s skills for success, which research has found can benefit students’ academic achievement.

Another complementary way to encourage schools to pay more attention to the earlier years and grades is to rethink the accountability incentives. Earlier this year, Elliot Regenstein and Rio Romero-Juardo at the Ounce of Prevention put out a framework for a new smarter system of incentives and accountability spanning early childhood through 12th grade. It includes multiple measures of professional practice (at the classroom and school level) and child outcomes across the spectrum, giving more weight to certain metrics depending on the grade level.

Source: A Framework for Rethinking State Education Accountability and Support from Birth Through High School, The Ounce of Prevention

How might these metrics be weighted at different grade levels? In children’s earliest years, “child outcomes” might account for 20 percent of the overall score and “professional practice,” including things like classroom observations and school climate, might account for 80 percent. A child outcome for kindergarten could include student attendance or perhaps the use of formative assessment to inform a teacher’s instruction. At 3rd grade through 8th grade, these metrics might be more equal and then at the high school level, graduation rates might get more weight over professional practice metrics.

Regenstein and Romero-Juardo call for schools’ progress on the professional practice metrics to be assessed through external review. While external review is fairly common in birth-to-five early learning programs, that is not the case for K-12 in the U.S.. In many states, external observations or monitoring are required for state-funded pre-K and Head Start programs. Also, as The Ounce makes clear, support for school improvement is a necessary piece of any accountability system.

This type of system would be a clear—and welcome—departure from our current accountability structures. The approach would offer a more holistic view of student learning and success, and would elevate the pre-K through 2nd grades to the same level as currently tested grades. Providing this example of an alternative accountability system as an option for states and allowing them to reserve more funds to build capacity for this kind of system would be a way to allow some experimentation.

I’m sure the smart folks at The Ounce would be more than happy to help state leaders think through the implementation of this kind of new accountability system.

In my last post, I’ll discuss ways to make clearer when pre-K can and should be included in the law and other ways to strengthen teaching and learning PreK-3rd grade.

[Cross-posted at Ed Central]

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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.