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If children are the future, then looking at a state's
educational system is like peering into a crystal ball. California is a state teeming with young
children -- 4.7 million under age 8, to be exact. One in every eight young
American children lives in California.
And many of these children come from minority ethnic and racial backgrounds and
speak languages other than English. If Americans want to get a glimpse at our
future as a "majority minority" country they don't have to look beyond California.
As we peer into the California
crystal ball, the forecast for a well-educated population doesn't look too
good. This report on the state's early education system offers a dark assessment,
but not a fatalistic one, especially if leaders can seize and build on reform
efforts that have already started in patches throughout the state.
Educational challenges often seem particularly daunting in California. In the
1950s, the state had one of the country's best educational systems. But today
it ranks among the bottom states in educational outcomes. Only 23 percent of
the state's fourth-graders scored "proficient" in reading in 2007, according to
the federally administered National Assessment of Educational Progress, placing
California behind every state except Mississippi and Louisiana.
In math the state does slightly better -- besting Mississippi,
New Mexico, and Alabama -- but it still ranks 46th among all
In addition to weak overall academic performance, California also has
large achievement gaps for poor and minority students. Only 13 percent of black
fourth-graders, and 11 percent of Hispanic students, scored "proficient" in
reading in 2007, compared with 40 percent of white students. That's
particularly troubling in light of the large and growing share of California's student
population that racial and ethnic minority youngsters comprise.
Over the past two decades, policymakers and reformers have
pursued numerous reform strategies in an effort to improve the state's dismal
student outcomes and to narrow achievement gaps. Among other strategies,
policymakers and advocates have repeatedly proposed universal preschool to
improve student achievement.
In 2006, the state almost got there with Proposition 82, a
ballot measure that would have used a tax on wealthy residents to fund
universal education for all California
4-year-olds. The measure drew national attention from advocates who saw it not
only as a potentially dramatic expansion of pre-K in the nation's largest
state, but also as a potential bellwether for successful efforts elsewhere. But
the measure failed, and although the state has made some progress since then to
improve early childhood education quality and access, it continues to lag behind
states that are national leaders in this area. California trails national averages in the
percentage of children enrolled in state preschool or Head Start programs, it
has low-quality standards for preschool teachers, and until recently it relied
on a complex and inefficient collection of programs to deliver early childhood
Moreover, early childhood efforts and school reforms in California have rarely
been linked together to create seamless, high-quality PreK-3rd early learning
experiences for the state's children. Expanding access to high-quality
preschool opportunities -- particularly for low-income and minority youngsters -- is
critical to raising student achievement and narrowing achievement gaps in the Golden State. But one -- even two -- years of preschool alone won't be enough to
narrow the tremendous gap between California and
the highest-performing states, or between well-off children and poor, racial or
ethnic minority youngsters within California.
If California is serious about improving education outcomes for its students,
it needs to provide seamless, high-quality early learning experiences -- ideally
for all children, but particularly for those from disadvantaged and
language-minority backgrounds -- focused on the goal of enabling all children to
achieve proficiency in reading, math, English language, and social and
emotional skills by the end of third grade.
Doing that requires both expansion of access to high-quality
preschool programs and fundamental changes in how the state's elementary
schools serve their youngest students -- along with far better linkages and
integration between preschool programs and the early elementary grades.
That's a tall order, and particularly so in a state with the
kind of budget woes California
currently is facing. But it's not impossible. A small but growing number of
counties, school districts, and charter schools across the state are making
progress to build seamless PreK-3rd early education systems. Even in the
current climate, advocates and policymakers are taking steps that lay the
groundwork for a more robust PreK-3rd system in the future. These include convening
leaders from the state's early childhood and K-12 systems, implementing new
preschool learning standards aligned with the state's K-3 academic standards,
building a data infrastructure to collect information on children's early
learning experiences, and linking that data with K-12 data systems.
There's much more that policymakers, advocates and the state
can -- and should -- be doing to work toward a day when all California children have
access to seamless early learning experiences that enable them to achieve
proficiency by the end of third grade. California
is on the cusp, poised to make real improvements. Key state officials, along
with early childhood advocates and school reformers, need to exert leadership
to raise the profile of and create a sense of urgency around PreK-3rd reform as
a strategy to close achievement gaps and boost academic performance.
This report seeks to help policymakers and advocates in California
focus more on PreK-3rd -- the promise of the reforms, the hurdles, and the steps
the state can take to overcome them. High-quality preschool is a critical
component to any PreK-3rd system, and this report begins by surveying the state's
current programs, examining their quality, and determining how many children
are being served by them. It also looks at efforts over the past two decades to offer
slots to more children and improve preschool quality, efforts that have led to
both disappointments and signs of progress.
The latter half of this report goes beyond discussions of
preschool to address the need for broader PreK-3rd reforms in California. The state is home to some
promising local initiatives, as well as some state-level efforts that help lay
the groundwork for PreK-3rd. But despite a variety of features that should have
encouraged this type of approach, a PreK-3rd movement is just now beginning to
emerge in California. This report considers why and examines opportunities for greater
linkage and collaboration between the early childhood and school reform
movements on shared solutions.
Lastly, this report recommends 13 steps California policymakers should take to
improve early childhood quality and access and move toward a more seamless
PreK-3rd early learning system in the state:
- Replicate and scale up models of effective partnerships
occurring between local school districts and early childhood education
providers, allowing successful local practices to "trickle up" to the state
- Create incentives for districts to use Title I funds to
build seamless PreK-3rd early education systems.
- Study and develop alternative funding mechanisms to ensure
that pre-K spending is adequate, stable, and in line with overall K-12 spending
- Implement a comprehensive early childhood data system
that is fully integrated with the state's longitudinal student data system for
public schools and leads to improved support and outcomes for students in
- Engage families, providers, policymakers, and the media
in efforts to improve California's
recently consolidated State Preschool Program as a foundation for a seamless
PreK-3rd system statewide.
- Ensure that providers participating in the State
Preschool Program receive per-pupil payments that are at least competitive with
those provided through the Alternative Payment (child care vouchers) program.
- Establish a PreK-3rd teaching credential.
- Allow some outstanding community colleges to offer
bachelor's degrees in early childhood education and a PreK-3rd teaching
- Use data to identify schools with high rates of chronic
absenteeism in pre-K, kindergarten, and the early grades, and target these
schools for interventions to reduce early absenteeism.
- Implement a voluntary Quality Rating and Improvement
System that rewards early childhood programs with higher reimbursement rates if
they reach higher levels of quality.
- Build capacity of preschool providers, elementary schools,
and districts to meet the needs of English-language-learner students and to
implement consistent strategies to develop children's skills in both English
and their home language throughout the PreK-3rd continuum.
- Implement strategies to specifically address the
underrepresentation of young Hispanic children in high-quality preschool
- Develop and implement a state-level strategy to address
early childhood facilities needs.
has a long way to go before it provides all of its young children with the
education they need and deserve, and it faces many obstacles. But by bringing
together early childhood advocates and public school reformers today, it has
the opportunity to begin working to build the kind of education system that
will equip its youngsters to meet the next generation of challenges, offering
them a brighter future now.