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Opportunities to Improve Early Learning Under ESSA: Q&A With Janice Keizer

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) provides opportunities for states to strengthen the contribution of high-quality early childhood education in school reform and improvement efforts. To learn more about these new opportunities, we asked Janice Keizer to provide an overview of the early learning components of ESSA and ways that states can use the law’s flexibility to improve early learning. Keizer is the alliance liaison for REL Southwest’s Arkansas Prekindergarten Research Alliance and New Mexico Prekindergarten Research Alliance.

Q:  How does early learning fit into the components of ESSA?

A:  The ESSA components provide many opportunities to support the great work that states are already doing. Expanding access to high-quality early learning to improve equity for children in a variety of underserved areas, encouraging and supporting vertical alignment of early learning and elementary education standards, and supporting efforts already underway in the states to strengthen early learning are a few of the ways to include early learning in ESSA state plans. Additionally, conducting comprehensive needs assessments to promote close collaboration within communities, including leveraging existing state advisory councils on early childhood education and care, can help to ensure existing federal, state, and local resources are used effectively to promote quality early learning programming. Integrating early learning into states’ plans will help to ensure that children enter kindergarten ready to learn within K–12 systems that are fully communicating with each other so that every student succeeds.

Q:  How do we encourage school districts to use the added flexibility in ESSA to focus more resources on early learning?

A:  States can encourage local education agencies (LEAs) to use the added flexibility of ESSA in a number of ways. First, states can help build LEA capacity by providing technical assistance on the availability and use of ESSA funding sources, such as Title I, Title II, and Title III for service of prekindergarten students. Next, states can share information on high-quality early learning, early learning standards, and early childhood teacher and administration preparation. Last, states can provide information on how to braid and blend various funding streams in order to implement best practices, support model programs, and encourage collaboration partnerships with programs such as Head Start and community-based early childhood programs.

Q:  What are some benefits of aligning and coordinating early learning programs with elementary education and how can these benefits be achieved?

A:  There are many benefits of aligning early learning programs with elementary education! Alignment helps to ensure that all teachers are working with the same goals and objectives with regard to what children should learn and when they should learn it. Aligning learning guidelines also encourages states to collect data at the state and local levels and regularly assess what children know, how they know it, and when they know it.

The alignment of early learning programs with elementary education includes the integration of early education data with state longitudinal data systems. This alignment allows elementary teachers to use data from early childhood assessments to inform their planning and teaching while also being aware of how students in similar grade levels are performing across the state. In addition, access to data enables community-based early childhood programs to receive feedback on children’s progress in elementary grades so they can adjust their planning and program implementation as needed to continue to meet the goal of helping children to be school ready when they enter kindergarten.

Last, a strong continuum of learning is achieved through the alignment of professional development for preK through grade 3 teachers. Again, this helps keep educators on the same page, discussing the same goals and objectives for children’s growth and learning, and working together to adjust, change, and account for the changing needs of young learners.