In December 2017, the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) held its annual NCSL Capitol Forum in Coronado, California. At the conference, the State Policy and Research for Early Education (SPREE) working group gave a preview of the findings of their two-year long research effort on early education best practices.
In 2016, the SPREE grouped was given two broad objectives: 1) study effective early education strategies around the world to better understand what is working and why, and 2) take those insights and craft a framework that would guide US state legislators, policymakers, and education leaders as they make important decisions that shape the educational outcomes of the children in their state.
Last week, the SPREE working group released the findings of their work, a report entitled “A Fair Start: Ensuring All Students Are Ready to Learn.” This landmark report promises to reshape how we look at early education by offering new insights, best practices, and recommendations that individual states can adapt or adopt to optimize education for their youngest learners. In this blog post, we will take a big-picture look at the report—its high-level findings and general recommendations. In subsequent posts, we will examine its components in more detail.
The Importance of High-Quality Early Learning
As the SPREE report notes, in the U.S., the academic performance of a child is all too often connected to their race and socioeconomic standard. For minority students or those who come from poorer families, significant knowledge gaps exist in math and reading skills from the moment they enter kindergarten, with these gaps typically holding, and even widening, over time.
Compared to academically high-performing countries around the world, the United States has fallen substantially behind in the percentage of children attending any preschool and currently stands 35th among developed nations in preschool enrollment of 3- through 5-year-olds. “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,” says Matt Weyer, Senior Policy Specialist in the National Conference of State Legislatures’ Education Program. In fact, the SPREE working group found that among international education leaders, early education is not only a priority but also right.
Understanding these challenges, SPREE members posed several key questions that guided their study project. These included: “How can we ensure that all children get a fair start? Which student groups are most in need of support? What evidence and resources do state policymakers and legislative staff need to effectively hold these discussions? Why is now the time to act?”
The result of their two-year effort is the full SPREE report, which introduces the SPREE Framework, a strategic approach for improving early learning designed specifically to support policymakers and education leaders. This framework, which consists of five strategic principles for early learning, offers a starting point for bipartisan collaboration and planning which can help states improve or expand the educational experience for early learners.
As the report notes, a substantial body of research indicates that high-quality early learning programs can be effective at preparing students for their educational career, helping to reduce special education placements, lower retention rates, and increase graduation rates.
At the heart of the SPREE Framework is the core principle of equity. Despite gender, race, socioeconomics, family background, language, or other factors, students have a higher chance of success when they have access to the right educational resources at the right time. The other four strategic principles introduced in the framework include program quality, governance, family and community engagement, and educator development.
Closing Opportunity and Learning Gaps Among Early Learners
In addition to the five strategic principles outlined in the SPREE framework, the report makes a strong argument for the importance of creating a positive and enriching learning environment for children in their early years.
We know from neuroscience that the first three years of a child’s life are critical to brain development, as the brain constructs neural pathways for future development. If a child does not receive the proper stimulation to develop these connections, gaps in their development begin to form that can persist and even worsen over time, with adverse consequences on education and life.
Research also tells us that the education and economic standing of parents can affect early learning gaps in their children. In such instances, a range of challenges such as inadequate parental literacy skills, lack of time to engage with the child in reading, neglect, violence, hunger, instability in the family environment, and others can undermine a child’s development.
On the other hand, there are a number of areas of development that, when attained, help create a fairer start for young children as they prepare for school. These include overall healthy physical development, motor skills development, language skills development, preliteracy and premath skills, social-emotional factors, family engagement, and more.
As the SPREE report notes, these areas can be developed in a range of environments such as the home, childhood care, early education programs, and in the classroom. The goal for policymakers and education leaders should be to bring these together into a cohesive and aligned approach that makes early learning gains possible and sustainable through kindergarten, first grade, and beyond.
The Many Benefits of High-Quality Early Learning
For young children, the opportunity gap starts to appear when there is inadequate developmental and educational experiences early in life—experiences such as enrichment opportunities, high-quality early learning programs, and positive parent-child interactions. This opportunity gap translates into achievement gaps for children.
High-quality early learning (such as the Waterford Early Learning program) can make a significant difference in closing achievement gaps for early learners. It helps increase language, early literacy, and numeracy skills, and helps children learn self-regulation and executive functioning skills. The benefits are especially advantageous for at-risk groups such as low-income, Hispanic/Latino, African-American students, and dual language learners.
Of course, the challenge is that low-income and minority children usually have far less access to these types of early learning programs, a situation that both perpetuates and exacerbates opportunity and achievement gaps. According to the report, providing all children with access to some kind of high-quality early learning experience can help ensure a more equitable and fairer start to their education. This kind of early learning might include technology-based, in-home programs for children, outreach efforts to help parents acquire the skills they need to support their early learners, and additional support for families with limited resources who cannot afford some kind of high-quality early learning program.
As the report further notes, an added benefit to closing early opportunity and learning gaps is the potential to reduce intergenerational poverty. Moving out of poverty into a higher income level is difficult and perpetuates opportunity and learning gaps and their related disadvantages. The report cites the disheartening statistic that 43 percent of children from families in the bottom 20th percentile of income remain in the same quintile when they become adults. Obviously, closing gaps wherever possible could make a huge difference in the lives of millions of people.
The SPREE Report: Looking Forward with Hope
Despite the seriousness of these challenges, the overall tone of the SPREE report is positive and hopeful. Not only does the SPREE Framework introduce an approach for strengthening early learning, but it spotlights states that are successfully closing opportunity and learning gaps with innovative early learning programs. In many instances—including Waterford’s UPSTART program in Utah —these programs are producing significant, measurable gains through the third grade, putting young learners on a path to long-term success in academics and in life.
The SPREE Framework can be used by educators, policymakers, and legislators to guide them as they assess and strengthen the pre-K through third grade (P-3) education initiatives in their states. Included with each principle are a number of actionable strategies that are designed to enhance P-3 education. Actual case studies are also presented to illustrate how communities are achieving positive results with their P-3 initiatives and to guide discussions around policy and implementation.
Right now, legislators and education leaders have an opportunity to adopt policies and practices that support high-quality early learning as an effective strategy for closing gaps and giving all students a fair start. The SPREE framework is an ideal blueprint that can be used to create innovative and effective approaches to early learning. Additionally, while the five principles in the SPREE Framework offer a cohesive approach to boost early childhood education, they are nevertheless flexible enough to adapt to the varied political and economic climates in any state.
In the next five blog posts, we will take a closer look at each of the five principles in the framework in order to better understand what they are, their importance, the actionable strategies suggested within each principle, and how each contributes to a cohesive vision of early learning.