ESSA and Opportunities for Texas to Improve Early Learning

By Stephanie Rubin and Diane Ewing

On the horizon is a fantastic opportunity for Texas to improve early learning. It’s called ESSA, or the Every Student Succeeds Act, which is the new federal education law replacing No Child Left Behind. 

More than ever before, the law includes provisions that explicitly speak to the roles that schools, districts, and state education agencies can play to support the learning and development of children before kindergarten. It also offers state leaders more leeway to design their approaches to accountability, supporting educators, and ensuring success for all children, including those in early education programs. 

Specifically, the law provides Texas with flexibility to prioritize our ESSA funding to build a stronger and more coordinated pre-k through 3rd grade system. The state’s process over the next few months to complete a state plan also provides an unprecedented opportunity for TEA, school districts, schools, and community-based partners to work collaboratively to design solutions that strengthen and better integrate early learning into our K-12 system. This is potentially all great news for Texas communities if we take the opportunity seriously and focus on what’s best for kids. 

We have been digging into the many terrific resources available for state agencies, advocates, and communities interested in taking full advantage of ESSA to promote early learning. Below we highlight seven key ways ESSA offers Texas opportunities to boost student success through increased access to high-quality early learning:

  1. ESSA requires each state to describe in its state plan how it will assist school districts and elementary schools that elect to use Title I funds to support early childhood education programs. For example, schools may use Title I funds to expand access to pre-k programs to under-served children, expand part-day preschool to full-day, or offer summer learning opportunities. 
  2. ESSA sets clear expectations that states must raise school achievement for all students and specifically encourages prioritizing evidence-based interventions as part of school improvement efforts. This is an opportunity to focus on improving achievement for at-risk, low income, and Dual Language Learner (DLL) students. In addition to clarifying that Title I funds can be used to expand or improve early learning, Title III funds for family engagement can also support DLL family engagement in early childhood programs in both the school and community settings.
  3. ESSA requires states to publish annual “report cards” describing how public schools are performing. Among other data, these state report cards must include the number and percentage of students enrolled in preschool programs. This requirement appears to include any programs (in schools and communities) serving children under age six.
  4. Under ESSA, states can prioritize the professional development of teachers of young children. We certainly have some excellent resources in Texas for early educators, but do we have enough teachers, principals and superintendents who are well-trained in best practices for educating young learners and ensuring pre-k programs are aligned with the K-3 curriculum? At the local level, are professional development opportunities offered to schoolteachers also accessible to Head Start and child care educators? Going forward, districts can allocate Title II funds to address these issues. Those that use Title I funds for early learning can also include educators from child care and Head Start in professional development opportunities. 
  5. ESSA stresses greater coordination among programs that serve young children, including Head Start/Early Head Start, public school pre-k, Early Childhood Intervention, and private, non-profit, and faith-based child care homes and centers. Ensuring coordination among these varied groups with the public elementary school system will help with (a) seamlessly transitioning pre-k students to Kindergarten; (b) aligning standards, curricula, and assessments from pre-k through 3rd grade; (c) identifying and better serving children with disabilities; and (d) sharing of data and other school information with parents and the community.
  6. ESSA establishes a new Preschool Development Grant program, which is a ripe opportunity for Texas to continue its path towards high quality pre-k. The grant funding will be available for states on a competitive basis for improving coordination, quality, and access for early childhood education for low- and moderate-income children from birth to age five. Preference will be given for proposals that address early learning gaps in rural communities. 
  7. Finally, ESSA emphasizes the importance of developing and maintaining a positive school climate. Training and support provided to improve school climate will be beneficial to pre-k students and teachers.

So where is Texas in developing its ESSA state plan and how is TEA engaging education leaders, advocates, communities and parents in the process?

This Fall, TEA sought public input on ESSA implementation by disseminating an online survey. The results are available here. While the survey is closed, comments can still be offered through the TEA web page on ESSA. Many other states have approached community engagement in ESSA by partnering with key stakeholders to create working groups or task forces on key aspects of ESSA including early learning, school climate, improving outcomes for at-risk students such as DLLs, homeless, foster youth, and Native Americans, and/or held public meetings around the state. In fact, new ESSA regulations released in November require states to include early childhood educators and leaders as required groups to participate in the stakeholder engagement process. We hope there are additional opportunities for early learning, education, business, and community stakeholders to collaborate with TEA as the agency develops its state plan, which is due mid-2017. 

As Texas looks to create and eventually implement a strong ESSA state plan, the Governor and TEA can take advantage of ESSA to prioritize early learning, enhance our pre-k quality improvement efforts via HB 4’s new grant program, promote better coordination and linkages between early learning and our K-12 systems, and improve early educators’ skills and knowledge across all early childhood settings.