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Regional Educational Group Calls For Increased Early-Childhood Investment

pre-k-classroom-head-start-kentucky-300.jpgThe Southern Regional Education Board—a coalition of 16 states that start as far north as Delaware and extend west to Texas and Oklahoma—released a report Wednesday outlining the steps it believes states should take to support early-childhood education. 

Building a Strong Foundation: State Policy for Early Childhood Education outlined five issues where states can take a leadership role: program quality, teacher quality, accountability, access, and governance. The board's work was at the behest of Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, the immediate past chairman of the SREB. 

"Our understanding about early childhood development has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years," said Beshear, who chaired the SREB commission tasked with developing the report, in a statement. "Now it's time to put what we've learned into practice so that our young children get the best start possible."

Among the recommendations of the report: 

  • Boost the quality of programs: Set high standards for early education from birth to 3rd grade. Evidence-based curricula should be aligned from pre-K into elementary school so that children's learning builds over time. Rating systems can help families find high-quality child-care options and can offer incentives for providers to raise quality.
  • Develop more-effective teaching: Ensure teachers have specialized training for working with young children—and require continued learning for those who work in early-childhood programs.
  • Focus accountability for results: Measure students' progress and prioritize funding for early education on performance and quality. 
  • Provide greater access: Work toward serving as many children as possible in high-quality programs—especially those who may be at risk for not being ready for school.
  • Coordinate governance and budgets: Build a statewide policy framework to serve children from birth to age 8. Establish a statewide council to coordinate policy and make better use of all available public and private funding, which in many cases is spread across many government agencies, nonprofit entities, and budgets. 

The document lays out familiar arguments from economists about the return on investment that comes from money spent on early childhood. But it also examines research that opponents of increased funding have frequently used, such as the Head Start Impact Study, which found that gains from that program "faded out" by 3rd grade

Mark Emblidge, the SREB's vice president of special projects and a former Virginia state board chairman, said the group that put together the report wanted to confront criticism head on. Legislators who are lobbied against early-childhood education hear a lot about the Head Start impact study, he said. 

The SREB report outlines the Head Start study's findings and some weaknesses in the findings, such as the fact that many of the "control group" children who were compared to Head Start children had also participated in Head Start or another preschool program themselves. That happened because, though the control group children were not assigned to a Head Start program by researchers, nothing prevented their parents from finding another Head Start program and enrolling them there.)

The SREB report then goes on to say that the impact study should not be generalized to state pre-K, which has has school readiness as a focus. Head Start has a broader mandate

The findings may seem common sense, but sometimes there's a focus on spreading early-childhood programs universally, rather than paying close attention to quality, Emblidge said. Researchers who raised concerns earlier this year about Tennessee's state prekindergarten program  have hypothesized that the program may be seeing poor results because officials were more focused on expansion rather than program quality.

"You've got to look at the credentialing of your teachers, you've got to make sure the quality is there, and that the curriculum is aligned in pre-K to kindergarten," Emblidge said.

File photo: Students eat lunch in a pre-K classroom at the Helen Sears Family Development Center in Owensboro, Ky. in 2014. Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, the immediate past chairman of the Southern Regional Education Board, led the organization in producing a report on the state's role in early-childhood education.—Philip Scott Andrews for Education Week


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