Currently, it is impossible to know how many children are enrolled in publicly funded pre-K within the boundaries of any given district. This is a serious impediment, not just for local superintendents and principals who are in the dark about the educational backgrounds of their schools’ incoming kindergarteners, but also for policymakers, who can’t effectively discuss issues of equity and access without good data to make comparisons.
The Early Education Initiative released a report in September entitled Counting Kids and Tracking Funds in Pre-K and Kindergarten: Falling Short at the Local Level, which showed that, as of now, there are major holes in pre-K data collection. The findings in the report emerged from our efforts at collecting data from states on funding and enrollment for state-funded pre-K programs, IDEA Preschool, and Head Start that could be analyzed at the school-district level. The data we collected are available in our database.
Our paper recommends convening a national task force of experts on pre-K and K-12 data systems to determine what states and the federal government can do “to create a more logical, systematized approach to early education data at the district level.” This recommendation is similar to that of Don Hernandez in his 2012 policy brief from the Foundation for Child Development, "PreK-3rd: Next Steps for State Longitudinal Data Systems."
We argue that the task force should examine two critical issues that currently plague data collection on early childhood education:
1) Incorporating pre-K data from both Community-Based Organizations (CBOs) and school districts into existing education data systems; and
2) Capturing better data on enrollment, funding and dosage for both pre-K and kindergarten* at the school, school district and state levels.
The data collection process here at New America has made clear that even those basic data points – who is being educated, and how many state and federal dollars are being spent – are very difficult to come by, because of missing data and non-comparable data sets that are labyrinthine and disorganized. It is impossible in most cases to use the data for any comparative analysis, and that means there is no opportunity for empirical discussions about equity and access at the school district level. Furthermore, as discussed in an earlier blog post, unless pre-K data are formally incorporated into the existing K-12 organizational data structure, pre-K programs themselves will continue to be misunderstood as something more akin to daycare than early learning.
The federal government has taken some initial steps to encourage states to better integrate pre-K into their existing data systems through requirements and invitational priorities in Race to the Top grants. And the Early Childhood Data Collaborative (ECDC) has helped to put a spotlight on the need to ensure that additional data points – such as information on children’s demographics and the backgrounds of early educators – are captured as states build out their systems. However, challenging states to expand longitudinal systems and create better P-20 alignment without any guidance or best practices on collecting very basic data on funding and enrollment within school district boundaries seems like a good way to ensure that pre-K data will only become even more complicated. So while it is a great step for the federal government to encourage states to improve their data systems, states need data experts to help them redesign them in a workable way. A task force comprised of data experts – including stakeholders from school districts, community-based organizations and state and federal officials, as well as policy experts from ECDC and the non-profit world – would determine the best practices of pre-K data before states overhaul their existing data structures.
*Holes in kindergarten data are a problem too. No national data source exists that can tell policymakers how many children across the country attend a full day of kindergarten, how many attend a half day, how many attend a kindergarten program that charges parents for the second half of the school day, etc. More information about the problems in kindergarten data is available in the Counting Kids and Tracking Funds report.