Policy is changing for K-12 schools.
Here in Massachusetts, districts and schools are unpacking newly released MCAS and PARCC scores and deciphering what these scores mean for learning and accountability. At the same time, Massachusetts is developing a next-generation MCAS that will be administered in the spring.
On the federal level, the “No Child Left Behind” law was reauthorized as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA); and state officials are working on our plan for this new law.
All of this is activity is important, but K-12 can’t achieve the success we all want without integrating early learning.
Learning begins at birth; the research on this point is clear. Children need a strong early learning foundation and a range of supportive efforts that stretch through their first eight years, from birth to third grade.
Despite the proven power of early learning, there are very few government mandates to provide these early learning supports. This absence does, however, create an opportunity for K-12 stakeholders to engage with community partners and develop innovative strategies that shift our attention to the early years. These efforts can focus on preventing educational lapses, instead of trying to remediate them later.
The Pre-K – 2 grades aren’t part of state testing or accountability. This can create a disconnect with the more than 100 early elementary schools statewide that don’t go past second grade, but still have to prepare children to start taking the MCAS in grade three. How can policy help to improve teaching and learning in these foundational years? One best practice at the preschool level is joint professional development among teachers from public and private settings so that they stand on common professional ground and reinforce the same academic standards.
It’s also crucial for our state ESSA plan to include early education throughout — and not treat the early years as an afterthought. We have to look at how much Title I funding is being used locally to support preschools. How many children enter kindergarten each year with no prior preschool experience? Let’s figure these things out as a state and provide guidance to districts that want to build out their early learning strategies.
The state could also provide guidance for schools and districts on how to collaborate with the early childhood “mixed delivery” system of preschool programs that includes schools, centers, and family-owned settings.
Expanding K-12’s focus on the early years will boost children’s success in elementary, middle, and high schools. A strong ‘Birth to Grade Three’ strategy could close the achievement and opportunity gaps that are a persistent drag on children’s potential. And there’s an entire early childhood ecosystem of community partners that would be happy to help K-12 schools with this goal.
Building bridges between early education and schools promises to connect children — and their families and communities — to better and brighter futures.