By Alison May
Representatives from about 30 states joined an NCSL webinar June 30 to learn more about steps to promote high-quality early education.
The webinar, “Equity Starts Early: Strategies to Consider in Promoting High-Quality Early Education,” examined the March 2016 publication by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) entitled “Equity Starts Early: How Chiefs Will Build High-Quality Early Education”. The report provides five action steps for states to take to prevent achievement gaps in the early learning years. Action steps include:
- Engage families and communities in early learning.
- Connect early childhood programs and elementary schools.
- Accelerate improvement and innovation in early childhood programs.
- Build a high performing early childhood workforce.
- Increase investment to provide quality, voluntary early childhood education for all time children.
CCSSO program director Tom Schultz kicked off the webinar with an overview of the recent report, paying particular attention to the key role of the legislature and legislators. Schultz noted low income students tend to be roughly one year behind their more affluent peers in language development and literacy and this creates an achievement gap that increases as they approach kindergarten age.
Schultz hammered the point that legislative support and involvement is crucial. He suggested that state legislators can lead by:
- Tracking progress on how young children are doing.
- Making it easier for parents and local agencies to use multiple early childhood programs.
- Connecting early childhood and K-12 goals, planning, and data to build shared accountability.
Attendees also heard from Jenna Conway, assistant superintendent for Early Childhood at the Louisiana Department of Education, and W. Clayton Burch, chief academic officer for the West Virginia Department of Education, who were able to share on the ground experiences.
Conway pointed out that five years ago only half of students were entering kindergarten ready to learn. In response, the Legislature passed a transformative piece of legislation, Act 3 of 2012, aimed at bridging the achievement gap and progressing toward a unified Early Childhood System. Louisiana works at the local level to empower parents to select quality options to help their children prepare for kindergarten.
In West Virginia, Burch pointed to passage of W. Va. Code §18-5-44, which required the state to expand access to preschool education programs, making prekindergarten available to all 4-year-old children by 2012-13. Legislators knew that to get things right with quality it would take time and even though some members would no longer be in office it was important to set long-term goals.
As of 2012, the West Virginia Department of Education Office of Early Learning, which encompasses pre-K through 5, was established. Today, 75 percent of West Virginia 4-year-olds participate in prekindergarten. And as of 2016, the state is slated to meet all 10 National Institute for Early Education (NIEER) quality benchmarks, a great accomplishment.
Schultz concluded by noting that change can happen with genuine partnerships of strong leaders in legislatures, strong leaders in state agencies and a strong early learning community.
View the webinar and PowerPoint presentation.
Alison May is a staff coordinator in NCSL’s Children and Families program.