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America’s Early Education System is Struggling. How to Fix It

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By Yasmina Vinci and David Medina

It’s a crisis within a crisis: The pandemic has badly frayed America’s patchwork system of early education and child development. In Virginia, pre-kindergarten enrollment declined nearly 20 percent between the 2019 and 2020 school years—most dramatically among children in low-income families. San Antonio, Texas, saw the number of 4-year-olds enrolled in pre-K programs drop 30 percent. Many other cities and states have seen similarly alarming enrollment declines.

From a childhood development and equity perspective, the drops in enrollment are a national tragedy. During the pandemic, children are also losing learning opportunities, experiencing more trauma and facing additional health risks; children from lower-income communities are most at-risk for these negative effects. Quality early education is a powerful means of closing achievement gaps and is tied to positive outcomes — like high school graduation and higher adult wages — realized far beyond a child’s early years.

The latest federal stimulus package rightly seeks to restore and expand early learning opportunities, setting aside $40 billion for child care providers and $1 billion for Head Start and Early Head Start. And the American Families Plan, proposed by the Biden-Harris administration at the end of April, presents a “once-in-a-generation” investment of $425 billion in early childhood care and education.

“Build Back Better”

Money matters. And across the country, many early childhood programs are doing incredible things. But to “build back better” and develop an effective national early education strategy, the federal government needs to systematically develop, implement and evaluate increasingly effective approaches for supporting our nation’s children. By building knowledge in the field of what works best, for whom, how, where and why, and making sure educators and decision-makers have access to this evidence base, we can move beyond individual success stories to ensure that funding is being wisely invested to make progress at the scale that our early education crisis — and future — demands.

The federal government can and should address national challenges such as this one, and Head Start presents a unique opportunity. As the one early education program entirely funded by the federal government, Head Start can provide important lessons about what works — and what works better — for young children from economically vulnerable families. Considered a national laboratory, Head Start has, since its establishment in 1965, provided leadership for the early childhood field. But funding for Head Start research and evaluation has been flat at approximately $20 million for more than a decade. This is less than one-fifth of one percent of the total Head Start budget.

Our two organizations, the National Head Start Association and Results for America, have worked together in recent years to improve the building and use of data and evidence within Head Start. We’ve seen real progress in the use of evidence to improve services for children and families. And in this moment, the federal government is well-positioned to advance an early childhood education agenda.

What Works Better

Identifying what works and what works better in early learning necessitates collaboration across the various organizations providing education, health and early childhood development services.

We urge the Biden-Harris administration to continue the momentum of Head Start and other early childhood efforts to focus on outcomes and evidence by:

  1. Developing a dynamic, cross-government early learning agenda focused especially on children with the greatest needs. It should identify what practitioners and policymakers want to know about effective practices and interventions, and link to existing evidence. The learning agenda should also establish research priorities, inform funding decisions and encourage collaboration among parties within and outside the federal government.
  2. Increase funding for early learning evaluations. We recommend that the Administration for Children and Families’ Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, in collaboration with other federal agencies, invest at least another $100 million in building evidence to improve early learning practices and for sharing evaluation results and other evidence with practitioners and policymakers in user-friendly ways. These priorities should be aligned with the learning agenda described above. A portion of any new funding should be dedicated to research-practice partnerships. These partnerships between Head Start providers and researchers would provide a platform for regular evaluation of which practices, policies and conditions contribute to success for children and families.
  3. Create an early childhood evidence repository. The early childhood learning field needs an evidence repository that is accessible, understandable and actionable for practitioners. This repository would meet the needs of frontline educators and other decision-makers, advance the use of evidence to inform practice and ultimately improve early childhood programs.

The current moment of crisis can be an inflection point for early learning in the U.S. — but only if adequate federal resources are committed and more collaborative approaches are cultivated.

Now is the time to intensify efforts to improve our collective understanding and skill for how to advance learning and improvement across early childhood programs, including Head Start.

Yasmina Vinci is executive director of the National Head Start Association. David Medina, Head Start Class of 1972, is COO and co-founder of Results for America.