A Fair Start: Ensuring All Students Are Ready to Learn


Findings from the State Policy and Research for Early Education (SPREE) Working Group

Cover of the report "A Fair Start"If a child’s education is considered to be a marathon, then it is imperative that each student begins the race at a fair starting line to ensure they have an equal chance to succeed. In the U.S., however, where children start, and their eventual educational success, can often be predicted their by race and socioeconomic status.

Large gaps often exist in reading and math skills for poor students or those of color when they enter kindergarten, and these gaps persist, if not widen, throughout the student’s education. This is not the case in other industrialized countries that outperform the U.S. on international comparisons of student achievement, such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) exam.

In 2016, NCSL formed the State Policy and Research for Early Education Working Group (SPREE) with support from the Heising-Simons Foundation to develop a bipartisan framework to guide and assist state policymakers as they work towards the goal of ensuring that every child is ready to learn.

SPREE includes 16 members: a bipartisan composition of eight state legislators, two legislative staff and six early learning researchers. Initial meetings included presentations and working sessions where SPREE members heard from several early learning experts and deliberated top priorities for the framework. 

SPREE members concluded that addressing educational equity, the opportunity gap, school readiness and other complex challenges facing children birth to age eight is a critical task facing this country, and state policymakers are in a unique position to help produce impactful outcomes for children and youth. SPREE members deeply explored important questions: How can we ensure that all children begin their education at a fair starting line? Who are the student groups most in need of support? Why is this the most opportune time for action? What tools, evidence and resources do state policymakers and legislative staff need to effectively hold these discussions?

SPREE members have created a framework for policymakers to consider their policy options to improve early learning for all students. The report provides an impetus for bipartisan and impactful policy and intentional leadership that improves access and opportunity for all young learners. The approach highlighted in this report is reinforced by a 2016 NCSL publication, No Time to Lose, resulting from the work of NCSL’s International Education Study Group who studied top-performing countries to determine the most critical elements for state policymakers to consider.

Research shows that high-quality early learning programs successfully prepare students for their education marathon. They often reduce retention rates and special education placements and improve graduation rates. The opposite is also true. When low-income students do not have access to high-quality early learning programs, they are more likely to drop out of school, never attend college, be arrested for a violent crime or become a teen parent

State policymakers can ensure that each student has access to an effective “starting position” through state policies and practices that support high-quality early learning opportunities. In considering the policies that are best for each state, the State Policy and Research for Early Education (SPREE) working group created the SPREE framework that legislator’s might use to guide their work which includes policy strategies and examples. 

Matt Weyer is a senior policy specialist in NCSL's Education Program.