Quality Counts 2015: Preparing to Launch - Early Childhood's Academic CountdownNWEA
Published Online: January 2, 2015
Published in Print: January 8, 2015, as Executive Summary: Playbook for Youngest Learners

A Playbook for the Youngest Learners

Educators and policymakers work to assure a strong start and sustained momentum from preschool onward

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In a polarized education policy environment, support for early-childhood education—at least in concept—has become a rare point of consensus along the ideological and political spectrum.

From President Barack Obama's push for a $75 billion, 10-year federal preschool commitment to efforts by governors, mayors, and state legislatures for new and expanded programs, momentum continues to build. In some cases, that support has been prodded along by the business community's long-term concerns about workforce preparation and by advocates touting research on the value of such programs for later academic success.

A Continuum

But while prekindergarten draws much of the attention and public money, early-childhood education includes far more than traditional preschool, day care, and other programs that support developmental and academic skills from birth to age 5.

Increasingly, educators and policymakers view early education as a continuum that extends well into the first years of formal schooling—kindergarten through 3rd grade in particular. The stakes are higher than ever, raised by the advent of the Common Core State Standards and rising demands for academic rigor in the schooling of younger children.

At the same time, educators and policymakers are wrestling with how to assure that young students receive the skills they need to tackle ever-more-complex tasks in a developmentally appropriate context. And they are looking to do so in a way that offers room for the playful creativity seen as crucial to assuring children's engagement in the classroom.

Surveying the Landscape

This 19th annual edition of Quality Counts takes a broad look at the issues and forces shaping the discussion around early-childhood education. It examines how new academic demands and the push for accountability are changing the nature of early-childhood education for school administrators, teachers, and children alike.

Education Week's reporters delve into the policy debates surrounding publicly funded programs; examine cutting-edge research focusing on the early years, as well as milestone studies that continue to resonate throughout the field; and examine the academic and technological changes in store for the youngest learners as they move further along the educational pathway. They delve into the shifting nature of kindergarten, and the multigrade challenge of assuring a seamless English/language arts transition across the pre-K-3 spectrum.

Complementing this package is original analysis from the Education Week Research Center with specific relevance to this year's theme in the form of a new feature called the Early Education Index. It examines multiple years of data through 2013 to offer a comprehensive portrait of states' participation in early-childhood programming, public and private. The index touches on both preschool and kindergarten trends, with a specific emphasis on low-income families. The nation as a whole received a barely passing grade of D-plus, likely because early-childhood education varies dramatically across states, spanning the public and private sectors with an elaborate patchwork of programs, institutions, and laws.

State of the States

This year's Quality Counts also marks the return, after a one-year break, of a signature element of the annual report: summative grades for the nation, each of the 50 states, and the District of Columbia on key indicators. The year's hiatus provided an opportunity for the creation of a new, streamlined grading presentation that focuses exclusively on educational outcomes, rather than process and policy.

The 2015 summative grades are based on three key indices created by the Research Center: the K-12 Achievement Index, consisting of data first published in Quality Counts 2014 and counting as one-third of this year's grading; the Chance-for-Success Index, using fresh data to gauge the lifelong impact of education on personal outcomes; and a school finance analysis that examines the most recently available information on overall spending and the equitable distribution of K-12 funding within states.

Based on those three indicators, the nation as a whole earns a C grade, with a score of 74.3 out of 100, a slight decline from C-plus in 2013, which was earned under a different framework the last time summative grades were awarded.

Among the states, Massachusetts took the top spot with a B and a score of 86.2, followed by three other states with slightly lower scores that also received a B: New Jersey, Maryland, and Vermont, in that order. This year, Wyoming reached the top 10 for the first time, with a B-minus. At the other end of the spectrum, Mississippi was last, drawing a grade of D and a score of 64.2. New Mexico and Nevada also received a D, with only slightly higher scores.

Chance for Success

This year's Quality Counts report once again includes the Education Week Research Center's Chance-for-Success Index, which comprises a wide range of learning indicators from the early years to adulthood. The nation as a whole earned a C-plus on the index, the same as last year, although the numeric score rose slightly to 77.5 from 77.3 last time around, out of 100. The indicators touching on early childhood improved slightly this time, but participation at the postsecondary level dropped slightly.

As for individual states, Massachusetts took the top spot with an A-minus, scoring a 91.9, joined only by New Hampshire in earning an A-minus. By contrast, Nevada had the lowest Chance-for-Success grade, with a D. In all, 30 states posted higher scores than in the previous Chance-for-Success Index reporting cycle.

School Finance

In the school finance arena, based on data from the 2011-12 school year, the nation as a whole received a C grade, as it has for several years. This broad category captures indicators that reflect both per-pupil spending levels and funding equity.

A closer look at the data for individual states, however, reveals complex—and sometimes contradictory—patterns in how much specific states spend on K-12 aid and how equitably it is put to use.

When all these factors are weighed, Wyoming ranks highest on school finance nationally, with a B-plus, down from an A-minus last year. But while seven states earned a B-plus in the combined school finance category, none received an A. Idaho, meanwhile, was the only state to receive an F.

On spending alone, the United States as a whole posted a per-pupil average of $11,735. Vermont topped the list in the spending category, at $18,882 per pupil, while Utah was at the bottom, with $6,688. In the equity category, the nation overall earned a grade of B, with a score of 85.1. But Alaska was the only state that gave more funding to property-poor districts than to wealthier ones.

Notably, individual states may at the same time earn widely differing scores on spending and on equity. Florida, for example, was second in the nation in how equitably it distributed its education funding, but 46th on spending, while Vermont, though first in the nation on spending, was 45th in the equity category.

Vol. 34, Issue 16, Page 4

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