Access, quality & alignment in early childhood education
More than 24 million children ages 5 and younger live in the United States, and about one in eight of them—a little over 3 million—lives in California. Given the rapid brain development during a child’s first five years of life, which lays the foundation for all future learning, California has a compelling interest and responsibility to ensure that programs for young children provide a safe, socially supportive, and effective educational environment.
Considerable research shows that children attending high-quality preschool programs receive significant benefits. California has many good providers; but for a state that once led the nation in early childhood education, early childhood education today is marked by diminished investments in quality, low wages, and highly fractured oversight and implementation.
PACE’s work related to early childhood education is designed to help policymakers understand the challenges in current state policies and develop paths forward toward a high-quality, aligned early childhood system that benefits all California children.
California once led the nation in early childhood education, but a significant decline in investment has resulted in an underfunded, fragmented early childhood education system that is inefficient for providers and families. Research on the implementation of early childhood education in California has shown that our state has a dizzying array of programs, funding sources, and regulations, and that many students and families do not have access to programs or services that they need. While Governor Newsom is committed to improving this system, policy approaches will need to focus on ensuring that all students have access to high-quality instruction that sets them up for success in elementary school and beyond.
Aligning instruction in preK and early elementary grades is critical to realize the full benefit of preschool programs, as skills developed in one grade must be built upon and reinforced in later grades. In a recent PACE report, researchers took stock of current alignment activities across the state, identifying the main barriers that districts encounter when attempting to align preschool and the elementary grades. Despite these challenges, some districts across the state are engaged in promising practices, which are detailed in another PACE report, along with policy recommendations for how to support the implementation of these strategies at scale.
Despite strong evidence that high-quality early education programs can have a powerful impact on children’s future success, results from the PACE/USC Rossier poll show that California voters rank new investments in prenatal and early childhood services below other educational priorities, including improving the quality of K-12 education and making college affordable. Building public support for aggressive investment to expand access to and improve quality of early education programs is likely to require more active engagement on this issue by the Governor and his allies.
Early identification of disabilities and delays can make an important difference for children. Intervention can reduce developmental delays and lessen the adverse developmental effects of risk factors and disabilities. Effective early screening and assessment systems can result in earlier provision of intervention services. However, not all eligible children are not receiving early intervention. Only 10 percent of children with delays were receiving services nationwide. And in California, the percentage of children 0-3 years old receiving early intervention services is lower than the national average.
To receive services, a child must first be identified. A child must first be screened by a professional (e.g. a pediatrician). After a failed screen, the child must be referred, undergo intake, receive a multidisciplinary evaluation, be determined eligible, and finally, receive services. At every step along the way there is fallout of children and families from the process. Many eligible children do not receive early intervention services due to the following issues:
- Children do not receive regular physician checkups.
- Physicians do not consistently screen children for developmental challenges.
- Physicians do not refer all potentially eligible children for formal evaluations
- Parents do not follow through on physicians’ referrals
- Parents who try to follow through on referrals become discouraged before their children receive services
And when children who were eligible for infant toddler services turn three years old, only 1.8 of them are clearly eligible for preschool services. The low eligibility rates for preschool services, and the failure to make timely transitions to preschools has put California under federal watch for not meeting compliance standards.
Read more in Identifying Young Children for Early Intervention in California by Nancy Hunt and The Transition to Preschool for Children with Disabilities by Connie Kasari, Amanda Dimachkie, and Maria Pizzano for more on support and services for students with disabilities early childhood. These briefs were produced as part of the PACE Policy Research Panel on Special Education.