A report released today by the New America Foundation finds that New Jersey has made tremendous strides in improving disadvantaged children's access to high-quality early learning experiences, enabling some districts to nearly erase the achievement gap.
The report, Education Reform Starts Early: Lessons from New Jersey’s PreK-3rd Reform, doesn’t just focus on New Jersey’s pre-k programs: It provides a blueprint for how to create a high-quality, well-aligned education system that helps children sustain their learning gains up through the third grade and beyond. And it draws lessons from New Jersey’s experience that can inform federal and state policy efforts to improve quality in early childhood program, raise student achievement, and narrow racial and economic achievement gaps.
But the report also sounds a cautionary note about the fragility of New Jersey’s progress, and urges state leaders to act now to sustain and build on early learning reforms to date -- or risk undoing what the state has achieved so far.
As a result of a 1998 state Supreme Court ruling, New Jersey has implemented one of the nation’s highest quality state pre-k programs. Research shows that children participating in these programs are making significant gains in language, emerging literacy, and other skills, and that these gains last through at least second grade. Just as important, the state and several forward-looking school districts have taken steps to link high-quality pre-k and the early elementary grades, enabling children to acquire a solid foundation of reading, math, and social skills by the end of third grade.
Education Reform Starts Early describes how New Jersey became a national leader in early education and PreK-3rd reform and identifies challenges that could threaten the state’s continued progress. New Jersey’s success in raising pre-k quality offers lessons that are particularly timely now, when Congress is on the verge of passing legislation to provide an infusion of federal funding for states to improve the quality of their early childhood programs. And as Congress moves to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, they can also learn from New Jersey’s effort to improve early literacy and build seamless PreK-3rd systems linking high-quality pre-K with early grades reform.
Education Reform Starts Early offers the following key lessons for policymakers at the federal level and in other states:
- Integrate pre-K and other early childhood investments into a broader education reform agenda that seeks to improve student learning outcomes from preschool through college.
- Invest in building state-level infrastructure for pre-K, instead of just expanding slots.
- Create systems of data collection, analysis, and accountability to drive ongoing quality improvement in early childhood and PreK-3rd programs.
It also recommends that New Jersey policymakers take the following steps to consolidate early education gains and build a truly aligned a high-quality system of PreK-3rd education:
- Maintain commitment to pre-k expansion in non-Abbott districts.
- Extend the Abbott preschool program’s approach to improving quality up into kindergarten and the early grades.
- Reaffirm and sustain the state’s commitment to early literacy.
- Strengthen New Jersey’s teacher credential for the early years (known as the P-3 credential) by improving standards and quality in teacher preparation programs.
The report is a project of New America’s Early Education Initiative, which is supported through generous grants from the Foundation for Child Development, the W. Clement and Jessie K. Stone Foundation, and the Strategic Knowledge Fund, co-funded by the Foundation for Child Development and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.