Delaware Can Deliver on Early Learning
Although the proof will be in the results we deliver for our kids, praise for Delaware’s leadership in early learning and K-12 education reinforces we’re on the right path. And Sara Mead’s opinion in The News Journal on March 31 “Can Delaware deliver for its littlest learners?”, below, points to a number of strengths we can celebrate.
One of the most encouraging is the coherence of our developing P-20 system, including our approach to strengthening collaboration between early childhood providers, families, and schools to ensure Kindergarteners enter schools ready to learn. The Kindergarten Readiness teams proposal in the Race to the Top—Early Learning Challenge builds on lessons from schools throughout Delaware and initiatives including the Getting School Ready initiative in Washington state. It holds the promise of bringing traditionally disjointed systems together to build a common understanding of what it means to be “ready to learn”. The next steps are to select an organization to manage this process and identify the schools that will be invited to participate.
As Mead advocates, Delaware will have a survey of Kindergarteners (called a Kindergarten entry or readiness assessment) beginning this fall. We already have underway the research process to design the framework for this assessment. This framework will inform the selection of an outside organization that can offer comprehensive assessments that meet teachers’ needs. And a Committee has been formed, which includes representation from nine Kindergarten teachers, the DSEA, district leaders, and early childhood advocates. This group will ensure that the implementation of the assessment is all we intend: informative for teachers’ practice, useful for policymaking, and supportive in building a common understanding about what it means to be “ready”.
Delaware, as Mead points out, is ready to demonstrate that we can deliver.
Can Delaware deliver for its littlest learners?
Imagine if every Delaware child entered school ready to succeed, and if every third grader could read on grade-level. Delaware students have made impressive learning gains, but the state still falls short of these goals. Twenty-eight percent of Delaware 4th graders lack basic reading skills. The state doesn’t track kindergarten readiness—a problem in itself—but national data show that many kindergarteners lack key skills, such as the ability to recognize letters or pay attention in class.
Fortunately, Delaware has the power to change this. Delaware is one of only two states to win a federal Race to the Top grant, which supports public school reforms; an Early Learning Challenge Grant, to improve quality in early childhood programs; and a Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting Grant, which supports high-risk children and families starting before birth. These grants provide significant resources to improve early childhood and K-12 education in Delaware. They also acknowledge Delaware’s national leadership on both early childhood and public school reform.
Over the past decade, Delaware policymakers invested resources and political will to implement standards-based, data-driven school reform and promote young children’s learning and development. Delaware has created a state-of-art student data system, begun building a rigorous educator evaluation system, and adopted policies to turn around low-performing schools. It has adopted evidence-based early learning standards, invested in developing early educators, and created Delaware Stars for Early Success to improve childcare quality and help parents make informed choices. While other states have cut early childhood spending in recent years, Delaware increased investment by $22 million to improve quality—and brought in another $49 million in new federal funds.
Now Delaware has the unique opportunity to combine its early childhood and public school reforms to yield even greater benefits for children. Abundant research shows that children’s—particularly poor children’s—changes of success are greatest when they have rich early childhood experiences followed by high-quality public schools. But, in my work studying early childhood and school reforms across the country, I’ve seen that this is all too rare. “P-20 alignment” has become a buzzword in education—38 states have established councils to coordinate early childhood, K-12, and higher education systems. But these initiatives rarely create truly seamless experiences for students. Having demonstrated national leadership on K-12 reform and early childhood, Delaware now must show the nation what can happen when a state truly integrates the two.
The first step is providing all children with a seamless, high-quality Prek-3rd early learning experience, to ensure that all students read on grade level and have strong social and math skills by 3rd grade—a critical turning point that predicts children’s later school and life success. Delaware is creating the necessary components of PreK-3rd—support for high-risk families from birth, expanded access to quality childcare and preschool, and improved elementary instruction. Now the state needs to bridge the gap between disparate early childhood and elementary systems. To help do this, Delaware is creating “Readiness Teams” of principals, teachers, preschools, and partners in high-need communities. But more is needed to get early childhood programs, elementary schools, and parents in all communities to really work together.
Delaware also desperately needs a kindergarten entry assessment, and the state has assembled a committee to begin working on this in the fall—a pivotal development for a number of reasons. First, kKindergarten entry assessments provide a picture of what incoming kindergarteners can do, so their teachers can design instruction that builds on children’s strengths. And while these assessments never have consequences for individual children or teachers, the data they generate about local and statewide trends, strengths, and weaknesses can inform policy and help target state resources to improve school readiness. As Delaware moves to adopt Common Core Standards in grades K-12, kindergarten entry assessments are particularly important to create common expectations for what all preschoolers—whether in pre-k, childcare, or at home—should learn to be ready to meet Common Core standards.
Finally, Delaware must foster entrepreneurial problem-solving across the P-20 continuum. Delaware has made incredible progress in the past decade largely by implementing strong statewide systems for both K-12 and early childhood education. But maintaining its role as a national education leader will require the kind of innovation best driven by creative individuals working in schools, community-based early childhood organizations, and as social entrepreneurs. Delaware must identify ways to encourage and support high-quality innovation in all these settings.
Delaware’s Race to the Top and Early Learning Challenge wins show that the state is a national leader on early childhood and K-12 school reform. Now Delaware must show the nation the benefits that a truly aligned P-20 education system can yield for children.
Sara Mead is an associate partner with Bellwether Education Partners.
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