Before taking a holiday break, Early Ed Watch has a tradition of looking back at the most significant issues we have covered over the past year. Many of these topics generate worry and a feeling of discouragement, especially over the lack of funds to improve children’s access to high-quality pre-K and full-day kindergarten programs. But some signal hope, providing educators and policymakers new ideas for making improvements despite constrained resources.
Here are at least 13 issues that came up repeatedly. Do you agree that these are the top 13 issues of 2012? What would you add?
Happy holidays, The Early Ed Team
1. Tight Budgets and the Fiscal Cliff
When it comes to education funding – whether it is for elementary schools, kindergarten expansion, Head Start, special education preschool services or state pre-K programs – this was the year of big question marks. The fiscal cliff could have severe effects on certain school districts, and the U.S. Department of Education has started to make plans for the potential sequester of federal funds. Earlier this year President Obama released a budget showing what he would like to see funded, leading to our annual list of questions here in the Education Policy Program. But Congress, which has begun its budget bill-making in the Senate, has yet to pass a full 2013 budget until things are resolved. (At the moment, the federal government is operating under a stop-gap measure called a continuing resolution, funding programs at 2012 levels.)
2. Struggling Families and Children in Poverty
Whether it is the annual KidsCount report or the Child Well-Being Index (CWI) just released this week by the Foundation for Child Development, it is clear that families are struggling. The CWI report shows that their struggles, while worsened by the Great Recession, are rooted in problems that existed long before, with declines since 2001 in the number of parents with secure jobs. The CWI report also showed that more than 21 percent of American children are now in poverty, and that families with children ages 0–18 have sustained a large decline in median family income, from $62,796 in 2001 to $55,918 in 2011—a drop of $6,300 (in real dollars). Areport this summer showed that 10 percent of American children are living in households making less than $11,057 per year for a family of four, the highest levels recorded since 1994. That number was even higher for African-American children (20 percent) and Hispanic children (15 percent).
3. Head Start Reform
Anyone who works within a Head Start program is well aware of the monumental changes underway in the federal government’s largest pre-K program. At the end of 2011, the Office of Head Start launched a new process called “re-competition” for funding the preschools and child care centers that enroll Head Start children. Re-competition allows newcomers – non-profits, school districts and others – to apply for Head Start grants in the regions where current Head Start programs are not measuring up to the federal government’s new standards. Some Head Start providers have already sued to stop the process, though a federal judge threw out the complaint. A New America policy brief released last week, Reforming Head Start, explains what is at stake. We also added new resources explaining Head Start to our Federal Education Budget Project, and included Head Start data within our interactive database of state and school district funding. Click here for all that we’ve written about Head Start this year. UPDATE: On December 21, the Department of Health and Human Services released third-grade results from the Head Start Impact Study, leading to more heated conversation on what the results mean and whether they will affect Head Start's future.
4. Need for Improved Data on Programs for Young Children
Data may be a dry topic, but it received a lot of ink this year, and for good reason. Without a clear picture of how many children are enrolled in pre-K, for example, it can be nearly impossible to craft smart policies to address disparities, make sure public funds are going where they are needed and help educators prepare for kindergarten and first-grade students with little to no early learning experiences. Moreover, there is the very real prospect of the annual Preschool Yearbooks from the National Institute of Early Education – an important resource -- becoming a shadow of their former selves in the coming year. And here in the Federal Education Budget Project at New America, where we have added pre-K data for the first time, we unearthed yet more challenges that accompany the collection of good pre-K and kindergarten data. The Early Childhood Data Collaborative has pressed for more attention to data issues, and we have put forward a recommendation for convening a group of experts to standardize definitions and outline steps for coherence. It may be time, for example, to consider collecting comprehensive pre-K data (inclusive of non-school providers like non-profit organizations) according to school district boundaries, as is possible in Florida.
5. All Eyes on the Presidential and Congressional Elections
The presidential race between President Obama and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney never focused on early childhood education – an omission decried by many of us who work in education, including those who attended our event on the Presidential Election and Child Care, which was covered on C-SPAN in September. We also highlighted news outlets that talked about successes and stalled efforts Obama’s first term and we made prognostications for his second, offering suggestions to U.S. Secretary Arne Duncan on what should come next. New America also produced a U.S. map showing how congressional and gubernatorial elections would affect early education.
6. Disparities in Access to Pre-K and Full-Day Kindergarten
Pre-K funding is stagnating and even falling in many states, and kindergarten is coming to be known as the forgotten year of school, as new research shows how little we know about whether children have access to a full-day of kindergarten or whether their schools and school districts offer only a few hours in the morning or afternoon. A map released by the Children’s Defense Fund in March shows the very few states that require districts to provide a full day of kindergarten. As we explained in Ed Week this month, this lack of full-day kindergarten will create a problem for kindergarten teachers who are supposed to bring their children up to the kindergarten standards of the Common Core by the end of the school year.
7. Holding Back Third-Graders Based on Reading Scores
Several states are moving ahead with plans to hold children back from advancing to the fourth grade if they receive low reading scores at the end of third grade. For many in early education, as we discussed in a recent podcast, this is a troubling development, given the research on the negative impact of retention and the costs to school districts of paying for this additional year. We’ve written several times this year about the smarter approach taken by states that invest in early literacy programs, focus on elementary instruction and improve teacher training.
8. English Language Learners
This spring we released Starting Early with English Language Learners: First Lessons From Illinois, a paper that spotlights the need for PreK-12 approaches to educating children who know little English or whose families speak another language at home. Research shows that children benefit from bilingualism, furthering the case for stronger dual-language instruction and better training for dual-language teachers throughout our education system. Yet even in states like Illinois, which is pushing for more dual-language credentials for preschool teachers, there is a disconnect between what is needed and what is possible given current funding and training options.
9. The Early Learning Challenge and Race to the Top for Districts
Late last year, nine states were named as winners of the first-ever Race to the Top for early childhood, known as the Early Learning Challenge. In a six-part blog series, we examined what these winners plan to do with their new funds. (We pulled the blogs together in one easy-to-read PDF report.) This month, another five states were added to that list. Other federal competitions also made news, including the Department of Education’s district-level Race to the Top competition, which drew nearly 9,000 applicants, prompted much discussion among school districts and ed-policy types, and kept the door open for districts to gain an edge if they implemented PreK-3rd reforms. Lastly, we provided some analysis of states that are “triple winners” in education competitions across the birth to 3rd age span – those states have won federal home-visiting grants, Early Learning Challenge grants and the original K-12 Race to the Top grants.
10. Observing and Evaluating Teachers
At the end of 2011 we published a policy paper, Watching Teachers Work, on the implications of new tools for gathering data on what teachers do in the classroom (from infant/toddler programs up through the PreK-12 system). These tools, we argue, can help to build a “common language” of good teaching across the birth-through-3rd grade spectrum of education, as well as up through the entire public education system to the 12th grade. In 2012 we held events in Washington DC and New York, as well as a recent national webinar, to discuss the ideas within in paper. Panels included the voices of teachers from infant-toddler programs up through high school who have benefited from professional development that uses detailed observations. Two discussions led by Rae Pica on The BAM Radio Network have also focused on what it means to be observed in the classroom.
11. Growing Interest in the PreK-3rdApproach to Education Reform
For many years, people in early childhood have talked about how to consider the needs of children from birth through age 8, instead of stopping at age 5. This was a year in which policymakers could start to see more concrete examples what that sort of broader bridging looks like, with growing momentum for approaches that include PreK-3rd grade reforms. The PreK-3rd Grade National Work Group has been holding a series of webinars on PreK-3rd efforts, ranging from better use of assessment data to descriptions of family-engagement initiatives spanning preschool and elementary school classrooms.
12. Technology, Early Childhood Programs and Young Children
This was a big year for technology issues in early childhood, as finally, after more than two years of drafts, discussion and often heated debates at annual meetings, the National Association for the Education of Young Children published a new statement on how educators should use technology with young children. Following that, the Education Commission of the States published a New America report on Technology in Early Education and the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading published a report we wrote with the Joan Ganz Cooney Center on Pioneering Literacy in the Digital Wild West. Much more on our technology coverage throughout the year can be found here.
13. Waivers for States on No Child Left Behind
Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act has been long stalled, and not many Washington, DC insiders expected any progress in 2012. They were right. In the meantime, the U.S. Department of Education proceeded with its plans for waivers to states that wanted to avoid the sanctions of the No Child Left Behind version of the law. We found many missed opportunities for early education in the new requirements for states to receive waivers.