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Commentary: Take care with ECE planning

Van Schoales, head of A+ Denver, makes a case for careful planning of early childhood education programs.

I recently completed a backyard construction project that got me thinking about early childhood education systems. My project has been a bit of an odyssey that began four or five years ago when I thought that with limited resources, unskilled labor and no clear long-term vision I could slowly but ultimately upgrade the quality of my backyard.

Several summers of moving flowerbeds and regular trips to Home Depot resulted in a yard that was marginally better at best. I thought that each of these small short-term improvements might add up to an overall improvement.

I was so wrong. You’d think I’d know better. Last summer I finally hired an architect and built a work plan with budget to redesign my backyard. The yard has just been completed, and wow what a change. The obvious missing ingredient the first time around was a plan that was built from design criteria tied to the use and aesthetic of the yard – and resources to get it done. Duh!

I’m a bit worried that with some of the increased interest and some funding for ECE we may inadvertently be building a new ECE system without the clarity about design principles that is needed.

Thankfully, ECE is finally getting more program support as the feds, some cities and a few school districts like Denver step up to invest more for programming from birth to kindergarten. As an aside, it’s still remarkable to me that such a supposedly educated state like Colorado still does not provide full-day kindergarten for those that need or want it – but that’s another blog post.

It’s also amazing to me that with all that we know about child development, including the fact that a child’s brain develops 85 percent of its capacity for cognitive and social-emotional learning skills before age 5, that we would not being doing more to set a design and invest in supports to ensure that children are on track to being productive learners and citizens at ages 3, 4 and 5. Instead we wait until they are 6 years old and play catch up. Our current public policy practices on ECE remind me a bit of my haphazard approach to fixing my yard.

While others more qualified than me should work through what the characteristics and blueprint should be for ECE in Colorado (the current state planning framework for ECE policy is here), I thought I’d throw out a set of design principles.

School quality indicators

These get fairly tricky for ECE, given that there isn’t publicly-available data on student outcomes available in Colorado or most places. The serious problem with today’s data on specific schools or programs is that they are tied to inputs such as facilities and the quality of teachers. While this is of value it does not really help a family make an informed decision about whether preschool X is likely to prepare their student for kindergarten or first grade. The Qualistar rating system is a bit like rating high schools on whether they have a gym or certain course offerings. It’s helpful but still not a true measure of the effectiveness of a school. As an example, the range of Developmental Reading Assessment scores for Denver schools with the Qualistar four-star rating (the highest ranking) varies from the 30s to the 90s. Colorado and Denver’s ECE system must have a complete set of assessments for student learning – inputs and outcomes – the results of which are reported to policy makers and the public.

School and program diversity

Denver, unlike many parts of Colorado, has a wide variety of public and private preschools. A rich diversity of offerings is critical, given different family needs, not to mention the fact that we really do not know what some of the most effective programs are for different populations of children. More diversity with quality data on student outcomes would be helpful in determining the most effective models. From my perspective, the ECE world has a huge advantage over K-12 because there are so many different options. Many of us have been working for decades to create more choices and to break the one-size-fits-all design of most K-12 systems, ECE can build on the existing diversity with the advantage of not needing to break down an entrenched monopoly.

Equitable and adequate funding tied to quality

Funding for ECE is complicated and fragmented. The Denver Preschool Program provides a great exemplar of the sort of model we need by providing additional public funding to students on a sliding scale based on need. The program also ties funding to quality while building on other funding sources. It’s critical that as more funding may come available that it be tied to students rather than institutions so that we are able to support expansion and replication of quality schools. I suspect the challenges for increasing quality will be very similar to those in K-12, so it’s critical to have funding more connected to students than to institutions.

Parent and guardian learning

We know that the most important lever in a child’s development outside of school is parent support. We also know the best opportunity for parents to be engaged in their child’s learning is at the ECE level. Any ECE system should be built to support parents in developing high expectations and parenting skills with programs like Baby College, Parents As Teachers and other home visiting programs so that parents can fully support the learning provided in school. These supports should be reinforced with well-defined ECE quality standards that include measures of how well programs support parents, all tied to performance-based funding.

Too frequently, the discussions about ECE seem to be driven by funding or program expansion . I think we need to spend a bit more time being specific on the end design for a coherent ECE system that’s driven by the needs of kids.

As I was reminded with my backyard, the lack of a plan often leads to a very mixed bag of improvements that may be more difficult and expensive to fix over time. Colorado ECE leaders have invested many years laying the foundations of an effective system. But up to now they have not had the high-level political and business support or funding that is needed to pull all the pieces together. But let’s spend the time and money to get a detailed set of plans before we embark on expansion of existing programs in Denver or elsewhere in Colorado.

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