Equity in Early Education: The Strategies

by Susan Baxter


“For a prosperous economic and social future in the United States, all children should have an equitable place at the starting line.”
A Fair Start: Ensuring All Students Are Ready to Learn, SPREE Working Group Report

In our previous post, “Equity in Education: The Principle,” we discussed the State Policy and Research for Early Education (SPREE) issued report, A Fair Start: Ensuring All Students Are Ready to Learn, and introduced Principle #1 of the SPREE Framework, Equity, along with a summary of each of the three strategies outlined for the principle. Here we’ll dive deeper into each strategy named in Principle #1.

Three Strategies for Achieving Equity in Education

For each of the five principles identified in the SPREE Framework, the SPREE working group also outlined a number of strategies for accomplishing that principle. These strategies represent actionable steps that, if followed, increase the likelihood of moving toward educational equity.


One of the fundamental positions of the SPREE working group is the belief that in order to achieve success in early childhood education, education leaders and policy makers must understand and address the varied and complex forces that affect how children learn, including poverty, mental and emotional health, hunger and nutrition, social skills, and self-regulation.

The principle of social equity as a critical component to educational equity is not new, but there is a growing recognition of its value and importance. One of the key insights of the most recent PISA results reveals that countries that work to overcome social inequities generally achieve better education outcomes, and in contrast, countries that fail to do so remain stagnant or drop in the rankings.

Many Americans Left Behind by Economic Boom

While it is true that the recent economic boom has brought opportunity to large numbers of Americans, it has nevertheless left many others behind. History teaches us that education paves the way to upward mobility, and as such it is more important now than ever. But it is more than the great leveler; it is also vitally important to the future of our country.

In today’s technology-fueled global economy, the need for high-level skills has never been so keen, and our nation’s ability to compete in this economy depends on an educated workforce. Of course, the more educated the workforce, the greater the success we will experience both individually and collectively as a society.

Need Education System that Give Underserved Groups a Lift

As the SPREE report notes, it is critical that we work toward an education system that not only supports all students, but gives underserved groups the lift they need to achieve a fair and equitable experience. Any policies created to support early learning must be adaptable enough to address the varied and often difficult environments that children come from including poverty, dual language learners, family context, underserved populations, and more.

The better these challenges are understood and addressed through policy, the more equitable and effective the outcome for those children who need it the most. By creating a more equitable and inclusive educational experience for all students no matter their starting point, we begin to chip away at poverty by creating a more educated workforce that is more productive, earns more, and creates economic growth.

States around the country are finding different ways of attacking poverty through education. Illinois recently passed a state bill that targets chronic absenteeism, which is directly linked to drop out rates. The bill mandates that any school district receiving public funds must track and analyze its chronic absence data and use that analysis to create programs or resources that reengage students and their families. The bill specifically identifies the early education years as the optimal time to establish behaviors that prevent chronic absence issues.


One of the keys to equity is removing barriers and increasing access to early childhood education resources that are crucial to mitigating early learning and development gaps. The challenges are many. Parents are often unaware of the many benefits and advantages that early childhood learning provides. Even if they are, finding and accessing resources can be problematic and affordability can be an issue.

Removing these barriers and creating more access to early learning options can make all the difference in a child’s education. High-quality PreK programs provide the opportunity for screening that can shed light on a child’s development in key areas such as literacy, language, math, cognition, and motor skills as well as social and emotional development. Insights gained from screening can produce differentiated learning experiences that help each children existing development gaps.

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) specifies a number of actions that can help education leaders and state policy makers identify barriers to early childhood education, improve access to high-quality resources and programs, and improve the jump from PreK to kindergarten and elementary school. For instance, state education agencies are required to assist local Title I-funded schools and districts as they support early learning programs and help children prepare for the transition to elementary school.

Programs like Waterford UPSTART Increase Access to Education in Homes

Many states around the country are already well underway in offering programs or embracing policy changes that increase access and remove barriers. In Utah, for example, a bill was passed in 2008 that set aside state funds to offer a technology-based, in-home early learning program to help children prepare for kindergarten. Known as Waterford UPSTART (Utah Preparing Students Today for A Rewarding Tomorrow), the program uses Waterford’s adaptive software to offer children a personalized reading, math, and science curriculum that is designed to improve school readiness for under-resourced children and families living in rural parts of the state. The Waterford UPSTART program also includes comprehensive parent training and engagement support.

Results so far have been impressive, as the program has generated consistent and positive gains as measured through a randomized control trial evaluation. After seven years of implementation, research showed that students who used Waterford UPSTART in the year before entering kindergarten were able to outperform state averages in preliteracy skills and state tests all the way through fourth grade. The results spanned the overall student population and were particularly beneficial for under-resourced groups such as special education, under-resourced families, English language learners, and minorities.


The difference between equality in education and equity in education is subtle yet significant. Where equality aims for equal treatment of all students with access to the similar resources, equity strives for giving each student the resources they need to compete on equal footing. Knowing where each child is in their development and what resources they need to close gaps depends on data, and this is why the third strategy outlined in Principle 1 of the SPREE Framework is so important.

Data Should Drive Education Plans

ESSA stipulates that states must gather performance data on all their students, and then analyze that data to determine where achievement gaps exist. High-quality early learning programs should provide this type of key data. The Waterford Early Learning program, for example, tracks student progress at the individual, class, school, and district level, making it possible for educators personalize the learning experience to close gaps, or identify students in need of intervention.

Ideally, gathered data would be rich enough to be parsed by other key indicators such as income level, race or ethnicity, language status, family context, and more to gain deeper insights into equity issues and give educators and policy makers a better understanding of challenges that might exist around early learning access, readiness, and development gaps, giving them vital information they can use to adjust or refine their plans.

Collected Data Offers Insight to Effectiveness

Furthermore, ESSA instructs states to issue report cards that track and measure the performance of various segments of the student population. These report cards can be used by educators, parents, state policy makers, business groups, the community, and more to get a clear read on the effectiveness of their education efforts. Because these report cards must provide data on the number and percentage of students enrolled in preschool programs, they provide an ideal opportunity to better understand how early childhood education programs factor into improvement initiatives.

According to the SPREE report, states around the US are expanding their efforts to gather and analyze data around equity issues. Louisiana recently passed a bill that requires the state education leadership to create a report that assesses student access to quality public education in the state. The bill stipulates the kinds of data that the report must contain, including percentages of economically disadvantaged students, racial or ethnic minorities, English language learners, highly effective teachers, and more.

The Importance of Embracing Equity in Education as a Core Value

Each of the three strategies outlined in Principle 1 provides an actionable guideline for achieving equity and addressing the critical economic, social, and global issues that are invariably connected to equity in early learners. The choice of equity as the foundational principle and the heart of the SPREE Framework is noteworthy. Equity is vital to improving school readiness and creating a fair start for early learners, and only when all participants in the education experience embrace equity as a core value, and use it to shape policy and practice, will we see meaningful progress toward those goals.

In our next blog post, we’ll dive into the second principle of the SPREE Framework, “High Quality P-3 Education.”


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