It’s not enough to just give young children access to early learning opportunities — the programming must be built on curriculum frameworks and quality professional development, said participants in a Monday webinar hosted by the Learning Policy Institute and the National Institute for Early Education Research.
Using the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s recently released research on early childhood education and care in 26 countries and 41 jurisdictions as a discussion starting point, webinar participants highlighted early childhood education’s funding and policy barriers in the United States, as well as the post-pandemic opportunities for improvements to birth-to-5 early learning programs.
While there is momentum to make transformative changes in early learning opportunities, challenges include governance reforms, as well as roadblocks for sustained funding, workforce development supports and learning standards for the youngest students, the speakers said.
The pandemic slowed preschool enrollment growth, according to the NIEER's The State of Preschool 2020 report. In fact, preliminary numbers released by the National Center for Education Statistics on Monday show a 22% decrease in pre-K enrollment during the 2021-22 school year compared to the year before.
Many educators, however, anticipate early learning enrollment demands will begin to increase again next school year at the same time localities are receiving COVID-19 relief funding to expand equitable pre-K opportunities.
The federal funding is critical in providing states a boost to support state and local pre-K initiatives, said Steven Barnett, senior co-director of NIEER, during the webinar. The NIEER report said $30 billion is needed to expand access to high-quality, full-day preschool to all 3- and 4-year-olds from low-income households.
The status of local and state preschool funding has made it difficult for early learning programs to advance the quality of education, Barnett said. For example, early learning professional development is often focused more on health and safety rather than pedagogy.
“Funding is simply not adequate to support access to quality,“ Barnett said.
While there are several areas of investment for high-quality pre-k programs, the webinar speakers focused on workforce development and learning standards to support children’s academic and social development. Pre-K curricula are often chosen locally, but state-level frameworks and standards for early learning can help guide professional development approaches and resources, the speakers said.
Barbara Cooper, secretary of early childhood education in Alabama, said the pandemic gave the state an opportunity to look at strengthening early learning programs for the birth-to-5 age range and how to improve support for local programming.
One pre-pandemic initiative Cooper called the state’s “secret sauce” is the Alabama Reflective Coaching Model, which embeds a pre-K coach in classrooms to offer lead and auxiliary teachers immediate feedback on lesson planning and delivery, communication with parents and more.
The coaches also gather to discuss the barriers they are seeing in classrooms, and the state uses that information to inform its practices and support to localities, Cooper said.
“With us having multiple ways that we provide curriculum in our local areas, we recognize that this is an area that we need to determine best how we use state dollars to really learn what is needed to best move the levers in those classrooms,” Cooper said.