The just-released Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) study of early childhood programs provides some high-impact, low-cost recommendations for improving our early childhood system. Voices considers several of the recommendations to be “no brainers” ― excellent ideas that just need a commitment or investment to move forward.
However, several of the recommendations are “head scratchers” ― pieces of the early childhood puzzle requiring more thought and research if we want to put together the best plan.
Finally, while the report lays out some options for implementation and resources, it is missing “all of the available information.” Our policymakers should consider these three categories before moving ahead with recommendations in the upcoming legislative session.
Put All of the Information on the Table
Grounded in research, Voices always goes back to the data to assess our legislative priorities. For example, the PALS-K data, which focuses on early literacy awareness, provides us with the trends in kindergarten readiness in Virginia localities. The trends are troubling: after steady increases in school readiness prior to the recession, school readiness has decreased in recent years.
This decrease in school readiness is most likely related to the increase in the number of economically disadvantaged students and English language learners and to slower growth in enrollment in the Virginia Preschool Initiative. While it is helpful to look beyond literacy skills to understand a full picture of school readiness, we need to take immediate action to address why students are missing the early-learning opportunities that lead to mastery of the appropriate literacy skills by kindergarten entry.
We must also consider Virginia Preschool Initiative (VPI) funds. While significant state resources (made available through the lottery) fund public preschool, the identified need for these funds outpaces actual spending for VPI each year. State policymakers and budget writers typically calculate VPI “nonparticipation” and then claim these lottery funds for other K-12 educational purposes, rather than using these funds to provide additional resources to early learning. These funds total $25-30 million annually, roughly equal to the potential savings from the proposed child care tax deduction. We should consider investing these resources in early learning as well.
Start with the “No Brainers”
Along with looking at this kind of additional information, our policymakers should focus on several recommendations with momentum and a clear path forward.
These initial steps are generally low-cost and could become immediate priorities of state agencies or the Northam administration.
Think Through the “Head Scratchers”
The JLARC staff and members spent significant time discussing the Virginia Kindergarten Readiness Pilot (VKRP). This multi-domain assessment gives a more complete picture of kindergarten readiness than the PALS-K literacy data alone. VKRP reports a larger percentage of students ― over one-third ― not ready for kindergarten compared to 15 percent without the necessary literacy skills as identified through PALS-K alone. While it is helpful to have this information, we should not pause on the opportunity to make investments in the “no brainers” to improve school readiness given that our outcomes have worsened over the last few years.
Implementing a kindergarten readiness assessment is not a simple task, and consideration has already been given to identifying the best approach for Virginia. Participating teachers reported frustration with an assessment that was not linked to strategies for instructional improvement or interventions for struggling students. Experts at the Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes (CEELO) have recently released a report of key considerations to weigh when considering widespread implementation of a readiness assessment.
With social-emotional and self-regualtion skills as the weakest areas, our state early childhood program leaders should look to a variety of evidence-based and tested social-emotional training and intervetions to immediately provide more instructional tools for kindergarten teachers. Several well-regarded social-emotional curricula and interventions, such as BEST in CLASS and Al’s Pals, could be promoted and adopted in preschool and kindergarten classrooms to meet these needs.
A comprehensive look at Virginia’s early childhood programs is a useful gift to the early childhood field. When it points to some “no brainer” recommendations that are ready to be lifted up as priorities for implemention, our policymakers must act with urgency to move the needle. Virginia cannot expect a fully prepared future workforce if our school readiness outcomes continue to worsen each year.
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