Improving Early Learning Outcomes During Unprecedented Times

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If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.

– Martin Luther King, Jr.

2020 has brought countless surprises, hardships and feelings of helplessness to many. The country’s youngest students are no exception:

    • Preschool and kindergarten enrollment is significantly down as parents and guardians struggle to balance the health and safety of their children with providing access to education.
    • Learning loss is at increased levels because of the pandemic and is likely disproportionately affecting young students and those from families with low incomes.

Yet these early years are a critical time for children to develop strong academic, social and emotional skills that lay the foundation for future success.

From research on early brain development to the benefits of high-quality pre-K education, the importance of the early years is hard to ignore. More recently, the K-3 years have come into focus because these years act as sustaining environments for gains made prior to kindergarten.

To help state policymakers support K-3 students, Education Commission of the States recently released an updated 50-State Comparison: “State K-3 Policies” and a new Policy Guide: “State Policies to Enhance Transitions Into Kindergarten”.

Our 50-State Comparison examines statute and regulation across 25 components of state K-3 education policy to provide comparative data to identify commonalities, gaps and innovations toward improving outcomes for young students. This comparison includes policies that are relevant to the COVID-19 pandemic like assessment, mental health, social and emotional learning, and trauma-informed supports and practices:

    • Assessment: Thirty-seven states plus the District of Columbia require assessments outside of the federally required third grade assessments, including screeners, diagnostic, summative and formative assessments.
    • Mental health and trauma-informed practices: Twenty-seven states plus the District of Columbia require or encourage teacher training and professional development in student mental health and trauma-informed practices.
    • Social and emotional learning: Thirty-two states plus the District of Columbia define social and emotional learning in statute or regulation, and 28 states have preservice or in-service standards that require knowledge of the social and emotional learning of students.

Having a better grasp of a state’s K-3 education policy landscape can help policymakers understand resources, supports and policies to work toward outcomes like student achievement, especially as states grapple with identifying and providing the most critical supports for these students during the pandemic. Transitions into kindergarten are complex and variable, as are the policies in place during the K-3 years. Together, these resources help make sense of the complexity and variation and provide tangible examples and strategies for improvement.

It is also important to consider the connections of K-3 to the birth-to-age-5 system in states to create a cohesive and aligned birth-to-grade-three system. To better understand and improve the connection between the birth-to-age-5 system and K-3, focusing on research, policy strategies and state examples can help state policymakers improve alignment, collaboration and coordination in this space.

The kindergarten enrollment decline around the country is the perfect example of an emerging policy issue that can be addressed in the coming months as states enter the legislative session; others include assessing and addressing potential learning loss and the social and emotional challenges young students are facing as a result of the pandemic.

The policies included in our 50-State Comparison and Policy Guide are by no means comprehensive. Nonetheless, they are resources to better understand your state’s policy landscape to improve outcomes for students, especially during this difficult time.

In the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr. we will keep moving forward, for the betterment of our youngest students and our future.

Author profile
Senior policy analyst at Education Commission of the States | mweyer@ecs.org

As a senior policy analyst, Matt focuses on early learning issues. Prior to joining the Education Commission of the States, Matt worked for over four years covering early learning issues for the National Conference of State Legislatures, earned his doctorate in educational leadership and policy studies from the University of Denver and was a kindergarten teacher in a bilingual classroom for Denver Public Schools. When Matt is not working, he can be found snowboarding or trail running in beautiful Colorado.

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