Maintaining a Systems-Focus in Early Ed

Early Learning

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Systems-thinking may not be top of mind during a time when widescale budget cuts as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic have required state policymakers to make difficult decisions, but it may provide a means to mitigate the unprecedented challenges of unemployment, social isolation and an unstable economy.

Created as part of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the Preschool Development Grant Birth Through Five (PDG B-5) program is a competitive, federal grant designed to strengthen states’ early childhood systems by focusing on improvements in quality, alignment, data collection and use, and workforce preparation and support. Early childhood systems include pre-K, child care, home visiting programs and more that serve children up to age 5. The PDG B-5 grants enable states to assess pressing needs within their birth-to-age-5 (B-5) systems and invest strategically in infrastructure and initiatives that will strengthen their overall efficiency, effectiveness and impact.

In 2018, 46 states and territories were awarded PDG B-5 grants to complete needs assessments and strategic plans. A total of 23 states were awarded renewal grant (PDG-R) funding in late 2019 and early 2020 to further invest in existing B-5 programs, governance systems and the infrastructure and transitions that support them.

From January to March 2020, Education Commission of the States completed an analysis of the proposals from each of the states awarded renewal grants. These proposals outlined bold, new plans to significantly strengthen early childhood systems, and they contained innovative ideas that could be used by other states as they improve programs and services and refine their investments.

After careful consideration and review of the content, we decided to compile a report that outlines states’ strategies. As states aim to rebuild and stabilize their B-5 systems, the information, trends and state examples gleaned from our analysis could be beneficial to policymakers in states that have received renewal grants and even those that didn’t. Acknowledging that the plans states originally outlined will change to respond to the new reality, this report includes systems-focused actions that may still be particularly pressing now, including:

    • Building more effective data systems, which can streamline operations and free up funds for expanded access, as well as more responsively meet needs.
    • Developing innovative workforce development strategies aligned to the skills states now need as they rebuild.
    • Creating comprehensive trauma-informed approaches that are all the more relevant for families, young children and early childhood professionals.
    • Providing supports to parents and families that pay attention to the whole child, including nutritional, health and developmental screening services.

States’ B-5 systems were already fragmented. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, early childhood programs now have new requirements to adhere to social distancing and small group sizes. Families also may be reluctant to return to care, all of which stretch an already financially fragile industry. This is a tough time for states with increasingly limited budgets forcing tough decisions about balancing health and safety, children’s learning and supporting parents returning to work. A systems-building approach may be one method to start the rebuilding process.

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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