Research confirms that children who attend high-quality early care and education programs are better prepared for kindergarten, have stronger language skills in the first years of elementary school and are less likely to repeat a grade or drop out of school.23 High-quality early care and education offers one of the highest returns of any public investment—more than $7 for every dollar spent—by reducing future expenditures on special education, public assistance, and the criminal justice system.
Yet a recent RAND Corporation study found that only 40 percent of eligible 3- and 4-year olds are being served by state-subsidized early learning programs. And just 13 percent of low-income children are enrolled in high-quality programs that promote school readiness and later achievement.24
In California, a student's academic trajectory is substantially determined by his or her third grade reading proficiency level. Without the strong, early start that high-quality early childhood education provides, students who are not proficient in reading by the third grade may never catch up—in fact, the gap increases as they move through the K-12 school system. Unfortunately, children who are socio-economically disadvantaged are more likely to start school behind and stay behind.
California has already begun work to raise quality, improve accountability and better prepare our children to succeed in school. In 2008, the legislature created the Early Learning Quality Improvement System (ELQIS) Advisory Committee. In December 2010, the Committee released a report outlining a comprehensive quality rating scale policy and implementation plan, which was to be the foundation for the recently established California Early Learning Advisory Council. The Council, though currently unfunded due to recent cutbacks, is also ultimately to develop a comprehensive system and policy plan for early learning and preschool services in California, begin coordination of standards and an early childhood data system that connects with K-12, and work toward developing a coherent preparation, training and professional development system.
The implementation of a recent reform of kindergarten education policy gives California a significant opportunity to expand access to kindergarten readiness. The Kindergarten Readiness Act of 2010 creates transitional kindergarten, the first year of a two-year kindergarten experience for students born between September and December. The Act also gradually changes the kindergarten entry date from December 2 to September 1, so all children will enter kindergarten at age 5 by 2014. This historic legislation means that more than 120,000 children will receive access to an additional year of high-quality early learning and, as a result, be better prepared to succeed in kindergarten and beyond.
The California public school system has experienced serious reductions over the last few budget cycles leading to reduced educational services and personnel. Current budget proposals include significant cuts to California's early care and education programs. It is critical that we maintain the basic infrastructure of the early learning and development programs that serve our youngest learners, including high-quality preschool programs, so that the system can expand when funds are available.
Early Childhood Education Key Recommendations
In tomorrow's California, we envision that all children will thrive in preschool, be ready for kindergarten, and academically proficient in third grade by growing up healthy and having opportunities for high quality early learning. The four essential components of this vision are (1) building a high-quality early learning system; (2) connecting early learning with K-12; (3) increasing access to quality, and (4) providing comprehensive support for the development of the whole child. To accomplish these goals, CDE should:
- Develop an infrastructure for a birth-to-grade-three system that includes readiness data, and aligned standards/assessment, curriculum, and professional development.
- Develop a comprehensive system of supports for children, including maternal education and infant home visitation programs to support parent information about health and education supports for their children; and developmental screenings in early childhood settings.
- Preserve First Five State Commission and County Commission funding so programs and services vital to children birth to age five are not significantly reduced or eliminated.
- Implement a Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS) to guide standards and supports for early learning settings, and align curriculum, assessment, and teacher development initiatives to support its implementation.
- Design and fund early learning programs and professional development systems that use both the research-based Preschool Learning Foundations and the K-12 California CCS.
- Develop an early childhood data system linked to the K-12 system to track children and the educator work force and guide decisions about investments and supports.
- Improve pre- and in-service training for early childhood teachers and classified staff by setting standards, evaluating workforce needs, and developing strong training models.
- Design and fund universal transitional kindergarten programs that are culturally and linguistically appropriate and inclusive in all local districts.
- Build support for innovative funding models by helping programs access and learn to integrate “braided” strands of funding from multiple sources. Take advantage of federal funding initiatives, including the inclusion of early learning in a new Race to the Top competition and the potential expansion of Early Learning Challenge grants.