This is shaping up to be a big year for early childhood education, at both the national and state levels. President Obama has made early learning a central issue for his second term, and funders like the W.K. Kellogg Foundation have mobilized for a big advocacy push.
At the state level, events in Texas illustrate the momentum around EC education. The Lone Star State has one of the largest pre-kindergarten populations in the country, more than 200,000 children. Pre-kindergarten in Texas mainly serves low-income children, English language learners, children from military families, and children in foster care. The state’s new governor, Republican Greg Abbott, has made early childhood education a priority for his administration and has urged the Republican-dominated Legislature to increase funding to provide quality full-day pre-K.
That's something we don't see every day: A Republican governor calling for expanding any form of public spending. That gives you a sense of just how much momentum is behind early childhood education right now. While Democrats love this area for all the familiar reasons, many Republicans see ECE as a good investment—while showing that they do care about how unequal America has become.
Still, one question overshadowing the entire ECE frenzy is this: What does quality pre-kindergarten actually look like?
Solid answers are not as plentiful as you might think. And even basic facts can be hard to come by. Recently, an alliance of Texas-based funders called attention to the issue by pointing to the dearth of reliable data on the quality of the state’s pre-kindergarten programs. In an op-ed piece published in multiple Texas newspapers, the funders pointed out that private philanthropy is second only to government in funding pre-K in Texas. While these foundations invest in programs that collect good data, the state spends hundreds of millions on pre-K without a full understanding of what those dollars are buying.
The authors of the op-ed, Mary Jalonick of the Dallas Foundation and Caroline Sabin of the Powell Foundation in Houston, noted that the state has no data on the average number of children in pre-K classrooms (state law sets no limits on pre-K class sizes); what assessments, if any, are given; and only minimal information on whether school districts offer full- or half-day pre-K.
In other words, it's now hard to nail down some of the most elementary facts about pre-K in Texas.
Jalonick and Sabin urged Texas lawmakers to pass pre-K legislation that includes requirements for school districts to report data on class sizes, student-to-teacher ratios, length of program days, and assessments administered. They further called for the Texas Education Agency to make these data available to the public.
We live in the era of Big Data, in which collection, storage, and analysis of increasingly large amounts of data can supplement management experience and intuition in decision making. Research has demonstrated the efficacy of quality early learning, and with the growing interest in EC and pre-K programs, more data related to key metrics, such as those outlined by Sabin and Jalonick, can do much to help funders and policymakers identify effective practices.
Let’s hope lawmakers in Texas and across the country take heed.