Supporting School Readiness Through Early Childhood Policy

School readiness is a strong predictor of later education, health, and adult achievement. Children’s earliest experiences contribute to their kindergarten readiness. High-quality early childhood care and education supports children’s brain development and school readiness. In Memphis, many children do not have access to high-quality early programs and struggle when they reach kindergarten. A new federal grant program is intended to support states’ efforts to increase levels of access to high-quality care for young children who need it most. In Tennessee, this grant would expand our community’s efforts to support our youngest children.

High-Quality Early Childhood Care Matters

With the 2011-2012 school year well underway, now is a great time to ask how well prepared our children are to thrive and excel when they reach school. Just how well prepared are new kindergartners entering school this fall? Memphis City Schools tries hard to identify children’s strengths and weaknesses as early as the first day of kindergarten because when children are ready for school they have a leg-up on later academic and life success.1 There are many factors that contribute to school readiness. These include language development, general knowledge, approaches to learning, physical well-being and motor development, as well as social and emotional development. In other words, during early childhood, children develop the skills that become the foundation for school readiness. These skills develop through their interactions with family and playmates and through their interactions with the world around them.

Parents, peers, nutrition, and stress all matter when it comes to a child’s readiness on that first day of school. But, one of the most important inputs to school readiness is the early educational experiences of young children: did they attend high quality early childcare and education programs? High-quality early education helps to prepare young children to succeed when they reach kindergarten. In Memphis, we know that children who attend Memphis City School Pre-K programs, Head Start programs, or other center-based care services reach school with stronger verbal and math skills than children who don’t attend a similar program.2

Fewer than Half of Memphis Children Attend High-Quality Early Care and Education

Unfortunately, high quality early care and education is expensive, and there are far fewer affordable slots than there are low-income children in our community. This means that too many children in Memphis do not have access to quality childcare and education. While there are many centers available, only 4% of childcare centers in Shelby County have national accreditation (the gold standard for early care and education services). Research tells us that high quality early care and education makes the most positive difference for children in poverty.3 Additionally, there are typically only slots available for fewer than half of the children who need them in high-quality local pre-kindergarten programs, such as Head Start and Memphis City Schools Pre-K.1  In order to increase the number of kids who enter kindergarten ready for school, the community needs more slots in high-quality childcare and education programs that are affordable for even our poorest families.  However, as is often the case for programs aimed toward young children and their families, funding is limited and neither Tennessee nor Shelby County are in positions to increase spending. There is hope; a new federal grant may be able to help increase the number of children who have enriching experiences from birth to kindergarten, in turn, preparing them to enter school ready to learn.

Opportunity on the Horizon

The federal government has initiated a state challenge, Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC), to improve the learning conditions for children birth to five, with rewards estimated to range between $10 million-$100 million! The goal of this funding is to improve early learning and development programs for young children by reinforcing states' efforts to:

  1. Increase availability of high-quality early learning programs for low-income and disadvantaged infants, toddlers, and preschoolers;
  2. Plan and implement a coherent and integrated system for high-quality early learning services; and
  3. Adhere to the National Research Council's recommendations for early childhood assessments.

Never before has such an opportunity to focus so intensely on the early learning and development of children birth through five been available to states. This challenge encourages states to build a more unified system to early learning while supporting young children and their families with the goal that more children enter kindergarten with skills and knowledge to thrive. This challenge supports the notion of school readiness as more than just children’s development; it requires a systemic approach. The challenge encourages states to establish standards to prepare schools, communities, health and education services, and families to support their children. In this way, the federal government and states prepare to address school readiness gap between low-income and disadvantaged young children and their more affluent peers.

To address improvements, the RTT-ELC competition is structured around five key areas. These areas are to:

  1. Build a Successful State System. Numerous early learning and development service systems co-exist within states, and each of these systems has its own requirements, standards, and procedures.  While each one has valuable strengths, multiple systems can be inefficient and it can be difficult to determine overall standards for children across the systems once they enter kindergarten. As such, the RTT-ELC challenges states to develop a coordinated set of standards based on the strengths of the various systems and such that common supportive experiences can be transferred to school success.
  2. Ensure High-Quality, Accountable Programs. The RTT-ELC will support states that show a commitment to developing and implementing a wide range of high-quality services and supports that young children and their families need to be ensure positive development. Quality services are stable, connected, and consistent across levels of care and education, including a tiered Quality Rating and Improvement System. Such a system sets progressively higher program standards to evaluate the quality of early learning and development programs and supports program improvement.
  3. Promote Early Learning and Development Outcomes for Children. In essence, the RTT-ELC will support states that aim to increase school readiness for all children and help close the achievement gaps between disadvantaged kids and their peers. As such, learning programs are not the only elements to be addressed; health services and family supports in early childhood also help prepare children for school entry.
  4. Establish a Great Early Childhood Education Workforce. States must collaborate with colleges, universities, and others to define a set of workforce competencies that are evidence-based and connected to the state’s early learning and development standards. They must also support their workforce with opportunities for professional development and career advancement.
  5. Measure Outcomes and Progress. Finally, in order to be competitive, states should implement comprehensive, longitudinal, individual level data systems that can improve practices, and policies for early learning and beyond. Such a data system would include statewide school readiness assessment at kindergarten entry, with essential domains of:
    • Language and literacy development
    • Cognition and general knowledge (e.g., math and science development
    • Approaches toward learning
    • Physical well-being and motor development (including adaptive skills)
    • Social and emotional development

Although these RTT-ELC areas seem extensive, the benefits can far outweigh the efforts required. Improvements in these five key areas of early education at the state level would not only have the potential improve access to quality early care in Memphis, but also the quality of care provided. And we know that investing in young children provide us with great returns by promoting better health, education, and skills throughout the lifetime.

Act Now to Increase the Availability of Early Care in Our Community

The deadline for RTT-ELC for states is just five weeks away (October 19t). Although the funding and efforts made to acquire this funding would greatly improve the quality of early experiences for our youngest children, Tennessee still needs to submit a notice of intent to apply. Tennessee is a leader in establishing statewide Early Learning Guidelines and a Quality Rating and Improvement System,  but we have work to do in other areas (like developing a statewide school readiness measure). Now is the time to let our governor know that early childhood education is important to us.