State Policymakers' Role in Smoothing Early Education Transitions

Sara Mickelson is a policy analyst specializing in early childhood education at the National Governors Association in Washington, D.C.






State policymakers have made great strides toward understanding the early childhood years as a key piece of the education pipeline and recognizing that early education spans from birth to age eight – from creating and using learning and development standards for young children to investing in raising the quality of childcare and establishing pre-K programs. Making this connection has broader implications for the education system and requires a coherent link between preschool and public school as children move from various early learning programs into kindergarten classrooms. State policymakers can smooth this transition for children in four key areas.

Coordinating State Policymaking

Typically, multiple state agencies or offices have a role in governing early childhood education. Further, those who govern early education are disconnected from those who govern elementary education. As a result, state policy around early childhood can create a disconnected experience for both educators and families. States can facilitate better policy coordination between those responsible for various early childhood programs (such as Head Start, pre-K, and center- or home-based childcare) by either establishing avenues for agencies to meet and coordinate rules, regulations, and other policies or by establishing one central agency or office to oversee all aspects of early childhood education.

Aligning Pre-K and Kindergarten Experiences for Children

States that have established high-quality state pre-K programs have done so by explicitly defining what “high quality” is, including outlining the standards, curricula, and daily schedule for the program, and by supporting the implementation of the program through ongoing professional development and coaching for teachers and administrators. Children who attend these state pre-K programs have more positive daily experiences and, ultimately, positive outcomes. States can develop the same capacity in defining and supporting the implementation of high-quality kindergarten. To do this, states will need to understand how kindergarten is being implemented and identify districts or schools where the curriculum is not aligned with what is most appropriate for young children.

Increasing Collaboration between Early Learning Programs and Elementary Schools

When the experiences of children vary greatly in their preschool setting from what they experience within the kindergarten classroom, transitions will be more difficult. Greater coordination between administrators and teachers in early learning settings and those in kindergarten can help align children’s daily experiences between the two settings. States can employ data systems to provide information on where children within districts typically attend early learning programs and encourage this coordination by requiring districts to create and implement plans to provide time for kindergarten and preschool teachers to meet and collaborate.

Recognizing Families as Educators

Engaging families helps them better support their children’s growth and development. When early learning programs can support families in fostering learning at home, children will come to kindergarten ready to continue their learning. States can include family engagement as a part of requirements for all schools, beginning with early learning programs, and can make it a part of their standards, regulations, and other accountability systems for childcare centers, family childcare homes, and elementary schools.