By Patrick Lyons
NCSL’s State Policy and Research for Early Education (SPREE) bipartisan working group met in a virtual three-day summit to discuss COVID-19’s impact on early learning systems and the methods state policymakers can use to address the challenges.
SPREE includes state legislators, legislative staff and early learning researchers from around the country and was formed in 2016 with the support of the Heising-Simons Foundation.
The summit began with a legislative panel discussion on the importance of early education and how different states are addressing the current challenges to early learning programs from the COVID-19 pandemic. The panel featured Senator Raumesh Akbari (D-Tenn.), Representative Robert Behning (R-Ind.) and Representative Lillian Self-Ortiz (D-Wash.). All meeting participants then shared what they hoped to accomplish in their state by the year 2022 regarding early education, establishing goals that were revisited throughout the summit.
Day two featured a series of presentations on pressing early education issues from researchers in the field. SPREE members Jennifer Stedron, executive director of Early Milestones Colorado, and Hanna Melnick, research analyst and policy advisor at the Learning Policy Institute (LPI), discussed using data collection to measure the pandemic’s impact on the quantity and quality of early learning and care programs.
This presentation focused on using newly collected data to ensure that states maintain an adequate number of early care programs to meet the needs of children and families–a significant concern as many providers have struggled financially during the pandemic either from decreased enrollment or forced closures and may eventually be forced out of business completely.
Next, participants learned about Khan Academy Kids as an example of one developmentally appropriate online learning platform for early learners. Demand for similar resources may grow this fall as many students could begin school remotely or with a hybrid in-person/online model.
Khan Academy Kids provides free online lessons for children ages 2-7 and is a nonprofit organization. The online lessons are aligned with existing curriculums and include lesson planning and student assessments for parents and teachers. Caroline Hu Flexer, vice president of Khan Academy Kids, and Sophie Turnbull, head of partnerships and strategy, presented an overview of the online education resources and explained the processes they undertake with developmental researchers, teachers and families to ensure that their online offerings are impactful and appropriate for young learners.
The second day concluded with the option to attend one of two breakout sessions. The first was a discussion on educating early learners with disabilities and English language learners during the pandemic featuring presentations from Sheldon Horowitz, senior advisor of strategic innovation, research and insights at the National Center for Learning Disabilities; and SPREE members Iheoma U. Iruka, chief research innovation officer and director of the Center for Early Education Research & Evaluation for HighScope, and Conor P. Williams, a fellow at The Century Foundation.
The second breakout session was led by Nick Yoder, director of policy and practice for The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. This session focused on the importance of social-emotional skills for early learners generally and in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The final day opened with small group discussions about standout lessons from the prior two days and an opportunity for legislators to revisit their personal vision for early education in their state with colleagues.
The session focused on the pandemic’s impact on state and local funding for early education. LPI’s Michael Griffith, senior researcher and policy analyst, and Hanna Melnick presented on current and projected early learning funding levels across the country and identified strategies to stabilize state systems amid the pandemic-driven recession. Finally, legislators brainstormed with colleagues and researchers on how to achieve their 2022 visions for early learning in their state and where to incorporate lessons learned through this summit.
SPREE will continue to meet and ensure that legislators have the most up-to-date research and best practices to maintain and improve early learning systems during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. You can find more information on preschool through third grade legislation, research and resources on NCSL’s Early Learning and Support webpage.
Patrick Lyons is an early education policy specialist in NCSL’s Education Program.