Colorado Essentials for Childhood is a partnership of stakeholders who are committed to a future where children and families thrive in the places where they live, learn, work and play. Our ultimate goal is to prevent and reduce child abuse and neglect in our state.
The needs of our nation's littlest learners have garnered increasing attention in 2015. Although early learning still takes a back seat to K-12 education and higher education in national policy debates, state and national politicians are incorporating calls for early childhood investments into their stump speeches, philanthropic funders are targeting resources to early learning and, according to a new First Five Years Fund poll, average Americans increasingly recognize the importance of early learning for children's long-term success.
Here are some of the early childhood stories that captured attention in 2015 – and what they might mean for the year ahead:
1. Expansion of full-day, universal pre-K in New York City.
Sure, Mayor de Blasio wrestled Gov. Cuomo for $300 million to expand pre-K back in 2014, and the first full-day slots funded with that money opened later that year. But 2015 was the year the rubber hit the road on universal, full-day pre-K in New York City, with nearly 70,000 4-year-olds enrolled in the city's school- and community-based publicly funded preschools this year.
To put things in context, NYC's universal pre-K serves more children than state-funded pre-K programs in all but six states and exceeds the total enrollment of all but the nation's 51 largest school districts. In other words, NYC's pre-K expansion represents an unprecedented effort to rapidly scale up quality preschool, one that will be closely watched for years to come. Whether NYC's universal pre-K succeeds in boosting outcomes for children – particularly disadvantaged students – will have significant implications for the future of preschool expansion nationally. And whatever the outcome, NYC's experience in rapidly scaling preschool offers lessons for policymakers in other cities and states nationally.
2. Examination of preschool quality after Tennessee pre-K study.
Few early childhood storiesgarneredmorepress this year than Vanderbilt University's evaluation of the Tennessee preschool program, which found no evidence of lasting gains for elementary students who had participated in the program as preschoolers. The study's methods have garnered criticism from early childhood experts (including this one). But proponents of new pre-K investments are still going to be facing questions about this study for years to come.
Moreover, the Tennessee pre-K study has forced hard conversations about preschool quality among early childhood advocates themselves: Although the program rates well on input measures of quality, such as capping class sizes and requiring teachers to have bachelor's degrees and certification, research suggests the quality of children's actual preschool experiences in Tennessee classrooms is poor – meaning that more work is needed to identify the structures, systems and policies that really support implementation of quality early learning at scale.
3. Overhaul of Head Start performance standards.
In June, the Administration for Children and Families within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services proposed a major overhaul of the Head Start Performance Standards – the federal rules that govern day-to-day practice in thousands of Head Start centers across the country. This is a big deal: Head Start, serving more than 1 million children annually, is our nation's biggest early childhood program, and one that focuses exclusively on the most at-risk students. And this is the first time the standards have been revised in 17 years!
Moreover, many of the proposed changes would mean major shifts for Head Start programs – extending Head Start programs for preschoolers to a full school day, elevating the importance of early education, incorporating research-based requirements for teaching and curriculum, strengthening requirements for teacher professional development, increasing coordination with other early childhood programs and placing an increased emphasis on using data to inform ongoing improvement – all while seeking to streamline the 1,400 existing rules and requirements, reduce bureaucratic burden on programs and shift the focus of standards from compliance to quality. Although the final standards have yet to be released, the proposed changes have already provoked a conversation about quality in Head Start – one that's ultimately likely to affect other early childhood programs as well.
4. Institute of Medicine report on early childhood teaching as a skilled profession.
In April, the Institute of Medicine and National Academy of Sciences released a report calling for the transformation of the early childhood workforce. Deeply grounded in the large body of research on how young children learn and the adult behaviors and skills that help them do so, the report makes a powerful case for early childhood teaching as a skilled profession – one demanding training and compensation commensurate with the skill required. Most significantly, it calls for all lead teachers of children ages 0-8 – regardless of setting or funding stream – to hold a bachelor's degree with training in early childhood – a radical departure from current practice that would require significant effort, resources and policy change to accomplish.
While this report is hardly the first to call for the professionalization of the early childhood field, it marks a significant milestone in the growing recognition of early educators as professionals, and its publication under the auspices of the Institute of Medicine confers an added credibility on its analysis and recommendations.
Numerous Silicon Valley tech companies have added or expanded parental leave benefits this year, cities like Portland and Washington, D.C. are pursuing mandated parental leave and Hillary Clinton has made parental leave a key campaign goal. 2015 could be remembered as the year when the U.S. began the process of joining the rest of the developed world in providing parental leave as a right rather than a privilege.
What might these disparate stories mean for the future of early childhood in 2016 and beyond? First, the Head Start Performance Standards, Tennessee Study results and Institute of Medicine report all point to the need for a much more sophisticated conception about quality going forward – and a need to develop better strategies for how to ensure and support quality. Second, the expansion of pre-K in New York City, as well as local efforts to expand parental leave, suggest that local governments will play an increasing role in driving progress on early childhood in the coming years. Finally, the conversation about early childhood education is expanding beyond pre-K to include a recognition of the crucial importance of supporting children's development from birth through the early grades and the crucial importance of supporting parents during children's early years. Whatever happens, I'll be paying close attention to how these developments continue to unfold in 2016.