Early Education: Ups and Downs Since the Great Recession

Recent years have shown an increased interest in early learning for children in the birth-through-eight age span. However, this increased interest coincided with the Great Recession in the United States, and the funding levels for programs for children in pre-K and the early elementary grades have fluctuated wildly since the start of the recession.  New America’s Education Policy Program recently released “Subprime Learning”, a report summarizing the triumphs and trials of early education in the last five years.

One of the largest areas of improvement in the last five years has been in the development of new systems and programs to support birth-to-eight learning. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 included close to $11.2 billion for early education (including K-3) and $6.3 billion for birth-to-five programs. Infrastructure is improving across the board with the introduction of competitive programs like Race to the Top that encourage improving data and evaluation systems. The creation of the Common Core Standards means that states are more on the same page than ever before with regard to early education standards, and have been working to create infrastructure that should encourage more collaboration and sharing of information between birth-to-five programs and elementary schools.

There has also been some progress in pre-K access.  Although funding has been cut in many states, universal programs such as those in Oklahoma and Georgia have increased access and Mississippi started a small pre-K program in 2013. Approximately 42% of four-year-olds in the United States are enrolled in some type of public preschool (either pre-K, Head Start, or a special education preschool program), which is up from 40% of four-year-olds in 2009.

Although there is no national testing of children before the age of eight, there are improvements being seen when students are tested at the end of this age spectrum.  Fourth-grade math and reading scores have improved on the NAEP over the last five years, but there still exists enormous achievement gaps between low-income and non-low-income students. This is especially concerning since there are increasing numbers of American children living in poverty: the percentage of children living in poverty increased by five percentage points in the last five years.  Furthermore, little progress has been made with regard to dual language learners and special education students, as their achievement scores have remained stagnant over the last five years.  These are some of the students who would benefit most from early interventions and extra support in the early years of their education, so it is of the utmost importance that our schools make these students a priority moving forward.

Another hurdle for early education is that school improvement programs such as the federal School Improvement Grant program do not require improvements to pre-K-3rd grade, and limited data makes it difficult to determine if there has been any true impact on children in early elementary grades as a result of school improvement programs. Additionally, implementing standards for teachers in early grades where students are not tested has proved difficult.  Since teachers educating children up to age eight are teaching grades and subjects that are not covered by standardized tests, schools have been seeking alternative ways to show student progress in the early grades, but in many states observational tools have not been validated for use in the early grades either.

While there have certainly been some things to celebrate in early education in the last five years, such as improved test scores for fourth-graders, some disconcerting trends came out of this report as well. Just because students are not tested in the younger grades doesn’t mean that early elementary grades should be neglected when it comes to school improvement and teacher quality, as learning and building upon the fundamentals in pre-K-3rd is an extremely important period for a child’s emotional and intellectual development. Furthermore, the lack of progress for special education students and dual language learners is disheartening. While these are two populations facing some of the biggest challenges to learning, they would also benefit the most from increased support in the early years. I certainly hope that as the economy continues to recover, schools and districts will be able to dedicate the funding and resources necessary to help these students achieve.

Check out CPE’s research on pre-K and kindergarten, English language learners, and special education for more information.

-Patricia Campbell

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