Today, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) issued non-regulatory guidance for early learning in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The new law, enacted December 10, 2015, explicitly elevates early learning throughout. The Department’s guidance describes in greater detail what states and local educational agencies (LEAs) can do to leverage the allowable uses in order to expand opportunities to support America’s youngest learners. The intentional inclusion of early learning in ESSA, the primary education law for the country, signifies a critical shift and acknowledges the work already being done at the state and local levels.

Years of research in the field has shown that access to high-quality early learning and care is fundamental to a developing child’s success in school and in life. In late May, nearly 50 advocacy organizations from across the country signed a joint letter in response to ED’s Request for Feedback on Guidance for ESSA. The guidance issued today highlights three areas to support America’s youngest learners: expanding access to high-quality early learning; ensuring alignment, collaboration and coordination both across programs and from preschool to third grade; and supporting educators. ED has led the implementation process since ESSA passed in late 2015. In the 10 months following ESSA’s enactment, ED has engaged stakeholders, facilitated listening sessions across the country, proposed rulemaking, and issued guidance in order to equip states and LEAs with information and resources to assist them in implementing the new law. Below is an overview what the guidance includes to support state and local work towards expanding access to high-quality early learning; ensuring alignment, collaboration and coordination both across programs and from preschool to third grade; and supporting educators.

Expanding Access to High-Quality Early Learning

Despite mixed delivery systems and the increased investments made over the years at the federal, state, and local levels to provide high-quality early learning to children from low-income families, there are still far more children eligible for high-quality programs, such as Head Start, than there are slots available. ESSA lists early learning as an allowable use of funds throughout the law, and ED’s guidance articulates multiple opportunities for states to expand existing efforts in order to support more children. Under Title I, funds may be directed to supporting preschool programs, whether district operated, school operated, or for coordination with other preschool programs. Provided that a given state’s definition of “elementary school” is inclusive of preschool, charter schools may use Title IV funds to support early learning. ESSA also authorizes the new Preschool Development Grants (PDG) under Title IX, which will be jointly administered by ED and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), to expand access, and improve the coordination and quality of early childhood education programs for children from birth to age 5. The Legacy PDG program, authorized in FY2014, currently funds initiatives by 18 states to expand high-quality preschool programs. These 18 states are eligible for renewal grants under the ESSA PDGs, and initial grants will be available to states for assessing their early learning needs.

Ensuring Alignment, Collaboration and Coordination Both across Programs and from Preschool to Third Grade

Because young children can access early learning and care in a variety of settings before entering into kindergarten, meaningful coordination, collaboration, and alignment for the improvement of a system that can effectively support learning from cradle to college is key to making good on ESSA’s promise that every student is college and career ready, and this emphasis on coordination starts with early learning so that children are ready for Kindergarten. ED’s guidance highlights the role of both horizontal and vertical alignment; horizontal alignment addresses the coordination of program and professional standards across programs and settings for a particular age or grade, whereas vertical alignment addresses coordination of standards to provide and strengthen a continuum of high-quality learning opportunities from birth through third grade.

Building on what is required by law, the guidance recommends that states apply for a Preschool Development Grant to coordinate existing federal, State, and local program delivery models and funding streams across a mixed delivery system of services. It also includes recommendations to share data, align curriculum and instruction from preschool through elementary school as part of an LEA’s school improvement efforts as well as align State early learning guidelines and K-12 standards to better bridge the continuum of learning. Vertical alignment from preschool to third grade further supports continuity of care and learning, which is enabled by linking individual student preschool data to K-12 data. A unified continuum of learning can lead to improved student outcomes, and states can consider integrating early education data with State longitudinal data systems. In addition, states can consider aligning preschool through elementary school curriculum and instruction as part of school improvement efforts.

Supporting Educators

In order to provide high-quality early learning opportunities, schools need high-quality teachers. Early educators play a crucial role in supporting children’s school readiness. In efforts to support our youngest learners, ED’s guidance emphasizes supporting early educators, school personnel, and school leaders. Opportunities include: professional development for elementary teachers and administrators to support their understanding of early learning and development so that the gains made in preschool are sustained and built upon across the early grades; joint professional learning to increase school leaders’ abilities to support teachers and staff to meet the needs of students birth through age eight; and professional development for teachers of English learners that address the specific skills and knowledge needed to provide effective language instruction. The demographic of children who speak a language other than English at home is growing, and early learning programs are among the first to have the opportunity to support these students in a way that is responsive to their needs.

Two important resources are also included in ED’s guidance for Early Learning. Appendix A is summary chart of the areas in ESSA where funds may or must be used to support early learning. Appendix B is a collection of federal policy statements, resources, and external tools from the field that can provided further information to states on leveraging the opportunities in ESSA to further invest in early learning.

Check out FFYF’s resource for ‘What Early Learning in ESSA Can Look Like for States and Districts’ which will be continually updated to include guidance as it is issued.