Education Reform Starts Early

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Lessons from New Jersey’s PreK-3rd Reform Efforts

December 11, 2009

Sara Mead

In 1998, the New Jersey Supreme Court took a then-unprecedented step. It ordered the state to provide high-quality pre-Kindergarten programs to all 3- and 4-year-old children in 31of the state’s highest poverty districts, also known as Abbott districts after the long-running Abbott v. Burke school finance case. Universal pre-K is only one of numerous mandates the court placed on the state and the Abbott districts in its 1998 ruling, but that requirement has had a far-reaching effect on the state’s early education system.

Today, New Jersey has built a robust, diverse provider system to deliver high-quality universal pre-K in the Abbott districts, has taken steps to expand pre-K services for at-risk children in the state’s other 560 districts, and has done more than perhaps any other state in the country to link these early learning investments with early literacy reforms in the K-12 system, creating a seamless, high-quality PreK-3rd early learning experience for the state’s most disadvantaged youngsters.

These efforts have yielded real rewards. Pre-K programs in New Jersey have made dramatic quality improvements over the past decade. Research confirms that Abbott pre-K programs are producing significant learning gains for the state’s children, and that children are sustaining them into the early elementary years. A higher percentage of fourth-graders read at grade level in New Jersey than in any other state except for Massachusetts, as measured by the federally administered National Assessment of Educational Progress. Poor and minority fourth-graders in New Jersey are also more likely to read proficiently than their peers in all but a handful of states. And the Abbott districts that have most aggressively implemented intensive literacy supports at the elementary level, while also aligning pre-K and the early grades, have closed the achievement gap for the disadvantaged and minority students they serve.

Yet there are clear limits to this progress. Perhaps most important, children in the state’s 560 non-Abbott school districts—which serve half of all poor children in New Jersey—still largely lack access to the benefits of high-quality pre-K, full-day kindergarten, and other early learning interventions provided in Abbott districts. A new school funding formula, passed in 2008, includes ambitious provisions to expand pre-K services to all at-risk children in the state. But a dire state fiscal crisis, brought on by the larger economy’s woes, has stymied those efforts in the short term. And although the state has put in place many statutory and structural elements supporting PreK-3rd—a P-3 teacher credential, a Division of Early Childhood Education with an explicit PreK-3rd mission, and language in the state code requiring districts to support alignment and transitions between pre-K and the early elementary grades—integration between pre-K and early elementary programs is often limited in practice.

The next few years will be a critical time for education in New Jersey. The state can consolidate the gains it has made in educating young children in recent years: expand access to quality pre-K, strengthen existing infrastructure for quality, and move PreK-3rd alignment from rhetoric in code to reality on the ground in the state’s school districts. Or it can struggle to maintain a status quo that—although still better than what exists in most of the country—falls short of providing all the state’s disadvantaged youngsters the seamless, high-quality PreK-3rd early learning experience they really need to succeed.

This report seeks to describe how New Jersey became a national leader in early education and PreK-3rd, identify its successes and challenges, draw lessons from its experience for policymakers in other states and nationally, and provide recommendations for New Jersey policymakers to translate progress to date into sustained, large scale learning gains.

Specifically, we draw the following lessons from New Jersey’s experience:

  • Districts that focus on literacy, use data to inform instruction, and align standards, assessment, and curriculum in PreK-3rd can produce significant learning gains and eliminate the achievement gap for disadvantaged youngsters.
  • Strong state-level leadership is essential for implementing PreK-3rd reform and high-quality pre-K at scale.
  • District leadership is essential to create high-quality, aligned PreK-3rd early learning experiences.
  • There are real benefits to addressing pre-K expansion in conjunction with broader school reform agendas.
  • States can build high-quality, universal pre-K systems that include both public schools and community-based preschool and child care providers—but it requires a great deal of systemic support for both school districts and providers.
  • Diverse delivery systems for pre-K can utilize community providers while also maintaining a strong role for school districts in ensuring consistent quality standards and PreK-3rd alignment.
  • Community-based providers carry many benefits, but policymakers should not view them as a cheaper alternative to public schools for providing high-quality pre-K.
  • Targeting pre-K by geography, rather than family income, is an effective strategy for implementing quality programs on a smaller scale before moving toward universal pre-K.
  • Translating PreK-3rd alignment from rhetoric to reality is difficult, requiring sustained commitment from educators and policymakers at all levels.

These lessons lead us to recommend that policymakers in other states and at the national level do the following:

  • Integrate investments in pre-K and other early childhood programs within a broader education reform agenda that seeks to improve student learning outcomes from preschool through higher education (P-16).
  • Invest in building state-level infrastructure for quality pre-K, not just expanding slots.
  • Ensure that pre-K and PreK-3rd education systems include systems of data collection, analysis, and accountability to drive ongoing quality improvement.
  • Provide scholarships to help working early childhood educators raise their levels of knowledge and skills, and design these programs with the needs of early educators in mind.
  • Support the development of high-quality traditional and alternative routes for teachers to earn PreK-3rd credentials.

We also recommend that policymakers in New Jersey take the following steps to consolidate early education gains and build a truly aligned and universal system of high-quality PreK-3rd education:

  • Provide funding to maintain momentum for pre-K expansion.
  • Continue to extend the Abbott preschool program’s approach to quality upward into kindergarten and the early grades.
  • Reaffirm and sustain the state’s commitment to high-quality early literacy instruction.
  • Link the state’s new funding formula to PreK-3rd reform.
  • Move toward full-day kindergarten in the roughly one-third of New Jersey districts that currently operate only half-day programs.
  • Give the New Jersey Department of Education’s Division of Early Childhood Education increased programmatic authority in grades K-3—and the resources to execute it.
  • Identify and highlight examples of districts that are doing an exemplary job with PreK-3rd.
  • Implement new observational measures to track and drive improvement in the quality of instruction in PreK-3rd classrooms.
  • Strengthen New Jersey’s P-3 teacher credential for early childhood educators, by improving quality and standards in P-3 teacher preparation programs and educating principals and administrators about the credential’s value.
  • Continue working to build a statewide longitudinal student data system that tracks students from pre-K through college.
  • Establish a revolving loan fund to help community-based providers finance improvements to pre-K facilities. Recruit community development finance organizations and other outside sources to help finance pre-K facilities.


Education Reform Starts Early.pdf