School districts and communities across the nation are doing a poor job of keeping track of how many kids attend publicly-funded preschool and kindergarten programs, leading to an inability to analyze those programs to make sure they are meeting students' needs, according to a new report released this week.
The issue brief from the New America Foundation's Early Education Initiative, "Counting Kids and Tracking Funds in Pre-K and Kindergarten," makes the case that even in this data-conscious age in public education, "the American education system suffers from an acute lack of some of the most basic information about publicly funded programs for young children."
"City leaders, school board members, superintendents, and elementary school principals often have no idea how many 3- and 4-year-old children in their districts' borders are enrolled in publicly-funded pre-K programs, let alone whether these children are prepared for kindergarten," wrote authors Lisa Guernsey and Alex Holt. "State policymakers cannot make sound comparisons between districts or shine light on disparities in access in low-income areas."
In their brief, Guernsey and Holt focused on the lack of data at the local level, noting that other research has documented issues with collecting early-education data at the state level, as part of the New America Foundation's Federal Education Budget Project. The project collects and displays information on federal education funding.
The researchers found that the diversity of funding—including local, state and federal—for pre-K programs increases the challenges of collecting data about those programs. And disparities in enrollment requirements, length of programs, and ages of enrolled children only add to the problem.
Efforts to collect kindergarten data face some of the same issues. Funding, the length of the school day and school week, as well as enrollment criteria, can vary from district to district.
Why is collecting accurate data so important?
"The movement toward better public early education in the United States is predicated on issues of equity. Policymakers and the public recognize the unfairness inherent in a system that provides some children access to full-day pre-K and full-day kindergarten programs and other children with no such opportunities," Guernsey and Holt wrote. "Making comparisons between school districts and localities is critical to understanding which children are excluded."
They recommend creation of a panel of national experts to figure out what states and the federal government should do to improve the collection of early-education data at the district level.
"Getting the data right is a critical step toward providing better learning experiences for all young children, laying the groundwork for alignment across the pre-K-3rd grade years, and building a strong foundation for their success in school," the authors said.