The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
April 24, 2018

To create evidence-based preschool policy, we first need to democratize the evidence

April 24, 2018

Last week, the National Institute of Early Education Research released its annual State of Preschool Yearbook, the definitive source for information on state-funded preschool programs. The yearbook highlights spending, enrollment, and features of program quality reported directly by state preschool administrators. This information is critical for early childhood research, policymaking, and advocacy.

But why is the yearbook the only source for annual, comprehensive programmatic information on preschool? How can the classroom quality data, child assessment scores, and detailed student characteristics many states already collect be made available as they are for K–12 education?

The problem

Public preschool has seen a massive expansion in program funding and enrollment over the past two decades, with states serving 1.52 million preschool students with $7.6 billion last year. But research on how to maximize the effectiveness, efficiency, and equity of these programs has not kept pace. The field benefits from many new studies each year, but even the most comprehensive analyses capture a fraction of all programs or examine preschool broadly, unable to separate public and private offerings or tease out “active ingredients” of preschool quality.

A major reason for the inability of evidence to drive improvement in preschool policy is the lack of widely available, easily accessible, valid, and reliable data on preschool and early elementary school student outcomes. Robust assessments of young children’s growth and development are costly to develop and implement. Many are proprietary, and even those that are freely available require assessor training, validation, and the development of accessible data systems to house and process new information.

States and school districts increasingly use kindergarten entry assessments and measures of classroom quality to guide practice, but these data are generally not publicly available. Governance issues and privacy concerns can pose barriers to access. Data requests often involve complex data-sharing agreements, permissions processes, and links between administrative systems. New data collection can be prohibitively expensive. (For a recent proposal, I priced out the administration of a set of assessments common in preschool research. The cost: about $400 per student.)

Moving toward solutions

The first step in solving the preschool data problem is, not surprisingly, gathering more data. We need to know more about routine data collection in states and large school districts, including the types of data most likely to inform research, policy, and practice.

Groups like the Early Childhood Data Collaborative and the Quality Compendium catalog aspects of early childhood systems central to building the knowledge base around early learning, such as links between preschool and K–12 data systems or features of early childhood accountability and quality improvement efforts. But they do not allow us to answer questions about how programs are faring or how children are doing in preschool and beyond. The US Department of Education collects some information on preschool through its Civil Rights Data Collection, though this information is limited to preschool delivered in school buildings and provides an incomplete and potentially misleading picture of public programs. Surveys of preschool administrators and others can help fill gaps in knowledge and prepare the field for action.

Second, we need to raise awareness about the importance of data sharing and remove barriers to doing it. This effort will require conversations among state and local program administrators, child and parent advocates, scholars from within and outside academia, and experts on student privacy laws, database infrastructure, and psychometrics. Because preschool programs are often administered by multiple agencies (including departments of education, human services, health, and early learning), these conversations will take time and coordination. But the end result will yield consensus on the types of data appropriate for release and terms and conditions of use.

Third, we need to provide the infrastructure and incentives to make preschool data publicly available. The National Center for Education Statistics is a possible repository for these data, as it already collects information on preschool. Comprehensive reporting on preschool might be included in future reauthorizations of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (formerly No Child Left Behind, now the Every Student Succeeds Act). And supports for state and local education agencies can make this data collection feasible without imposing undue burden.

Early learners are our most vulnerable—and our most capable. We need better data for evidence-based preschool policies and programs that make the most of children’s first years in school.

Photo via Shutterstock.

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