Special Report
Early Childhood

The Keys to Student Success Include Starting Early and Following Through

Tackling both ends of the education spectrum
By Christina A. Samuels — September 05, 2018 8 min read
Preschool teacher Leesandra Arreaga plays with children at the Charles B. Tisdale Early Learning Center in Bridgeport, Conn. The state has shown a notable increase in its preschool enrollment, based on data compiled by the Education Week Research Center.
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A good start and a strong finish: State education leaders build a large part of their education policy around ensuring children are equipped for both as they move through the K-12 system and beyond. But how does that play out when 50 state education systems are stacked up against each other—and what kind of picture emerges for the nation as a whole when that mosaic comes together?

Quality Counts 2018 offers some examples and takeaways through the data collected in its Chance-for-Success Index, which looks at both ends of the learning spectrum and what it means for a person’s lifelong trajectory.

First a couple of basics, subjective though they may be, as captured by the 13 indicators selected by the Education Week Research Center for its index.

A good start can take the form of making sure children have access to high-quality early-childhood education, including preschool, public or private, state and locally funded or federally supported, as in the long-established Head Start program.

Deciding Where to Focus

The strong finish refers to the array of programs available to make sure that students graduate from high school and that those who want to enroll in college are prepared to do so and supported when they do.

In effect, along with 4th and 8th grade achievement, the Chance-for-Success Index captures both the beginning and the end of a student’s educational career, everything from preschool and kindergarten enrollment to high school graduation and college enrollment and graduation.

An examination of a decade’s worth of data suggests there’s no easily discernable connection among these particular indicators. States with notable increases in preschool enrollment, for example, are not necessarily the same states that have boosted high school graduation rates or college-attendance rates. The interplay among all these factors is complex.

However, these are areas where policymakers are expending a lot of energy to try to move the needle of success for young people.

Take preschool, as an example.

Spending on state-funded preschool alone has grown from $2.4 billion in 2002 to more than $7.6 billion in 2017, according to the National Institute of Early Education Research.

Cities have also entered the preschool space, including New York, Philadelphia, San Antonio, and Seattle. And, of course, parents pay money to enroll their children in private preschools.

Those efforts are having an impact, at least as far as individual state participation is concerned.

Khalil Stewart, 3, attends preschool at the Charles B. Tisdale Early Learning Center in Bridgeport, Conn. His center is funded through a mix of federal funds and state money that flows through Connecticut’s office of early childhood, created in 2013. Connecticut is among several states that have shown notable increases in preschool enrollment, according to data from the Education Week Research Center.

In Colorado and Connecticut, for example, the percentage of 3- and 4-year-olds enrolled in preschool in both states increased more than 8 percentage points over the past decade. In contrast, the nation as a whole saw growth of just under 2 percentage points in the same time period.

A deeper look shows about 51 percent of Colorado’s young children are enrolled in public or private preschool, compared with about 48 percent nationwide. But 10 years ago, only about 43 percent of Colorado’s young children were attending preschool.

What changed? For one thing, the Colorado legislature in 2014 allocated funds to add about 5,000 slots to the Colorado Preschool Program, which serves children at risk of school failure. Nearly 30,000 children receive services through that program, said Heidi McCaslin, the director of state-funded preschool for the Colorado education department.

In Connecticut, about 66 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds are enrolled in public or private preschool. Ten years ago, it was 57 percent.

Overall State Grades

Catch up on how the nation and states fared on a broad range of K-12 categories, including school finance, as reported in this year’s first installment of Quality Counts, published Jan. 17.

In 2013, Connecticut created a Cabinet-level agency, the office of early childhood, to pull together early-care and early-education funding streams that had been scattered across several state agencies.

Bringing those programs under the control of one agency has allowed state dollars to be spent more efficiently, said David Wilkinson, the state’s early-childhood commissioner.

For example, the agency controls the state’s child-care and -development block-grant money, which provides vouchers to low-income families to pay for child care and preschool. That program often has a waiting list.

The early-childhood agency also manages the state-run preschool program, which has sometimes returned unspent funds to the state because not enough children have enrolled.

The power of having those two programs under one roof is that the agency can now refer families who might be on a waiting list for one program to open slots in another.

“In an environment where it’s hard to raise additional revenue, our best opportunity for growth is focusing on how we more intelligently deploy our limited resources,” Wilkinson said.

Kindergarten Challenges

While preschool has drawn most attention from lawmakers, kindergarten has not received the same level of attention. Slightly more than 78 percent of kindergarten-age children are enrolled in some form of program, but it may only be a half day, with parents paying tuition to make up the difference.

Only 17 states, plus the District of Columbia, require children to attend kindergarten. Just 13 states and the District of Columbia require schools to offer full-day kindergarten programs.

Still, full-day kindergarten has become a popular goal, said Bruce Atchison, the principal of early-learning initiatives for the Education Commission of the States. “Every state wants to have full-day kindergarten, but it’s not necessarily funded through their school funding formula,” he said.

Some states have been making moves to increase the availability of free full-day kindergarten, sometimes in creative ways.

In New Hampshire, Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, made state funding for full-day kindergarten a centerpiece of his first term. About 70 percent of the state’s school districts already offer it, accounting for about 80 percent of the state’s kindergartners. But districts get half as much state aid for kindergarten pupils as they do for those in grades 1-12.

Last year, however, New Hampshire legalized and taxed electronic-gambling machines and is using that tax money to provide additional funding to districts that offer full-day kindergarten programs.

“Full-day kindergarten is good for children and families and a critical tool in retaining our future workforce,” Sununu has said.

High School Diplomas

Turning to a latter part of the age spectrum, education leaders are also engaging in initiatives to support high school graduation.

Jennifer Zinth, a director of high school programs at the Education Commission of the States, said some examples include a renewed focus on career and technical education, which allows students to graduate with training or an industry-recognized credential; work-based learning, which connects them with mentors in fields that they are interested in; early-warning systems that allow schools to spot and intervene with students at risk of dropping out; and curbing reliance on suspensions and expulsions, which have been linked to higher dropout rates.

Overall, the nation’s high school graduation rate has been on the rise. In 2017, it was around 84 percent, reflecting data compiled from the 2015-16 school year. That was the highest since the U.S. Department of Education started requiring states to track the number of 9th graders who earn a diploma four years later. Prior to that requirement, states were using varying methods to calculate graduation, making it hard to compare states and monitor trends.

John Bridgeland, the chief executive officer at Civic Enterprises, which works with other groups to monitor and report on the graduation rate in its annual “Building a Grad Nation” report, notes that the graduation-rate increases are being driven by Latino students and black students, who in previous years had been at higher risk of dropping out. And states have increased the rigor of their diploma requirements and seen graduation rates still go up.

At the same time, Bridgeland said that credit-recovery programs and alternative schools, where many students earn credits to graduate, are question marks.

“I’ve been to really high-quality ones and I’ve seen ones that would make you tear your hair out,” said Bridgeland. The same is true for alternative schools—some are excellent, others are “dumping grounds,” he said.

College Pipeline

Black and Latino students are also behind some of the increased numbers of youths ages 18 to 24 who are either enrolled in college or have completed their degrees. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the overall college-enrollment rate for young adults increased from 35 percent in 2000 to 41 percent in 2016. But while the enrollment rate increased by 3 percentage points for young white adults, it rose by 6 percentage points for young black adults and by 17 percentage points for young Hispanic adults.

States with high numbers of first-generation college students or students from traditionally underserved minority populations are stepping up efforts through their higher education systems to support these students.

California State University, Northridge, in Los Angeles, has seen a burgeoning population of students who are the first in their families to enroll in college. About half its students are eligible for Pell Grants, meaning they come from families that earn less than $30,000 a year. About 60 percent are first-generation students, and about half are Latino, said Elizabeth T. Adams, the university’s associate vice president of undergraduate studies.

The university has found that students need support at two critical inflection points: the second semester of their freshman year and the gap between their freshman and sophomore years. Students who leave at that point are unlikely to earn a college degree, she said.

The university has hired graduation and retention specialists to focus specifically on those areas, Adams said. She also said the university works to create cohorts where students feel connected to others who are taking the same classes.

“If there are things that we are doing that are disadvantaging some of our students, because we are not thinking about cultural differences or generational differences or access to technology, it’s not [the students] who have failed. We’ve failed them,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the September 05, 2018 edition of Education Week as How States Seek to Make Gains Among Younger, Older Students


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