A FutureEd report released earlier this year analyzes the problems facing early childhood education offerings across the country and how some states have tackled them. Written in part to address the devastating effects the pandemic had on enrollment in these programs, which dropped from 61 percent to 36 percent at the beginning of the 2020–21 school year, the report is also meant to serve as an example of how states can better align their often-fragmented childcare and prekindergarten data systems, as well as improve enrollment in early learning programs and strategically spend federal Covid-relief funds.
The report identifies three main issues facing early childhood education in most states, all of which existed well before the pandemic. First, these programs are often offered by several different agencies, causing data sharing and access to be an incredible hurdle to overcome, and forcing state organizations to rely on data-sharing agreements to track student information. According to the Data Quality Campaign, this lack of coordination has led most states to struggle with assessing basic metrics like student enrollment in early childhood programs at the district level. The report highlights how Virginia addressed this issue by unifying all publicly funded early childhood and K–12 education systems under the Virginia Department of Education and creating the Early Childhood Advisory Committee.
A second issue is states’ lack of means to measure the quality of these programs, leading to ineffective assessments of individual student needs. A separate FutureEd report from 2021 found that most states do not require their publicly funded early childhood programs to use universal quality measurements, with many states not having measurements at all. States that do collect these data usually don’t break it down by race or income, preventing crucial policies from carrying targeted effects. A 2019 study by the Education Trust showed no state with a system in place that could track data to measure students’ access to quality early childhood programs. Virginia is an outlier here, too, as it recently developed a system for measuring the quality of all early learning programs called Virginia Quality Birth to 5 (VQB5), and required that all publicly funded preschool classrooms serving four-year-olds administer the state’s composite kindergarten readiness assessment. This system allowed school leaders and state policymakers to identify students who will need more support as they enter elementary school and provide the necessary resources to make it happen. Likewise, this streamlined data sharing allowed for better coordination between services, a clearer picture of the pandemic’s effects on student enrollment, and more targeted funding to certain childcare subsidy programs to increase enrollment in early childhood programs.
Finally, only seventeen states and the District of Columbia have data systems that connect information on students from early childhood education through their entry into the workforce. These comprehensive systems, often referred to as P-20W data systems, include information on test scores, student demographics, attendance, grades, course enrollment, educator characteristics, school climate, funding information, and more. The report demonstrates that these systems are critical for the districts currently serving students, as well as state policymakers, as it allows for better identification of areas of need at the district and city level. For example, Massachusetts, with the help of a Seattle-based organization called 3SI, developed an index designed to identify marginalized children and calculate how well state funding targets them and their level of access to services. The system allows this information to be seen at the school or legislative district level, as well as by census tract. One final benefit of these comprehensive data systems is the data they provide researchers interested in basing studies in those states.
The report argues that these systemic improvements to data collection and sharing have provided a clearer picture for the states. This allows them to improve their prekindergarten and kindergarten enrollment rates, address the needs of their students as they leave elementary school, and target funding to areas of need, especially in the wake of the pandemic.
SOURCE: Lynn Olson, “Invisible Students: The Information Crisis In Early Education,” FutureEd (January 2022).