Every Kid K-Ready

Contributing writer Bill Hangley looks into a new campaign to standardize kindergarten readiness assessments in Pennsylvania and its connections to the World Class Greater Philadelphia initiative.


As the saying goes, you can’t improve what you can’t measure. And that poses a big challenge for improving early childhood education in our region – one that a coalition of regional leaders is looking to remedy.


“Early childhood education means making sure kids enter school ready to learn,” said Jill Michal, head of United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey. “But the problem we kept coming across is that there isn’t a standardized kindergarten-readiness assessment. There wasn’t a way to prove that specific kids entered school ready to learn as a result of the early childhood education they’re getting.”


Michal thinks it’s time to change that and join the growing number of states that already use standardized assessments to measure children’s kindergarten readiness. Armed with a newly-won $200,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, United Way, the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia, and a host of other partners have launched a two-year campaign to build support for a standardized assessment that can help parents, school officials, and funders of all kinds identify and support the most effective early learning programs.


Research shows that students who fall behind early in school often stay behind for a lifetime. “You can really draw a line between kindergarten readiness, third grade test scores, eighth grade test scores and graduation,” said Sharon Easterling of the Delaware Valley Association for the Education of Young Children.


But without some means to measure how ready children are as they enter kindergarten, it’s difficult to gauge the effectiveness of the early learning programs serving them. And without knowing how good a given child care or kindergarten prep program might be at preparing a child for school, parents and funders alike are left to choose providers based on other factors.


The goal of the kindergarten readiness assessment campaign isn’t to create a shared assessment – many already exist or are in varying stages of development – but to build a broad base of regional support for its use. Implementing any kind of readiness assessment at a region-wide scale will require buy-in from public officials, educators, private sector leaders, legislators and funders, and the campaign will focus on building support for its adoption.


Conditions making it possible to move to standardized assessments in Pennsylvania have been falling into place. Pennsylvania already has a voluntary child-care rating system, known as Keystone STARS. The state’s Office of Childhood Development and Early Learning (OCDEL) is beginning a third-round assessment pilot in 2013. And Delaware is set to roll out a universal assessment in 2015 as part of their Race to the Top Early Learning grant. A deep pool of national research and initiatives offer a wide range of lessons and best practices.


But the current regional reality remains clear: high-quality preschool education is the exception, not the rule in Greater Philadelphia. In a region with 250,000 children under five, only 11 percent of registered childcare providers earned a Keystone STARS 3 or 4 rating, generally considered to be the standard of “high quality.” “We have a lot of kids who aren’t getting what they need,” Easterling said.


Getting standardized kindergarten readiness assessments in place could have a particularly strong impact in the low-income communities where quality preschool education is needed most, empowering parents to “vote with their feet” and demand high-quality early learning options.


The kindergarten readiness effort is the first major campaign to emerge from the World Class initiative’s focus on improving regional education and talent outcomes. Standardized assessments stood out as a top priority for the 30-person World Class Education and Talent Development Strategy Team convened by the Economy League and United Way last year. United Way and its partners were able to secure the highly competitive Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant to support the campaign – it was one of 18 proposals funded out of more than 400 submissions nationwide – in large part due to the regional convening and strategy development work already completed via the World Class initiative.


Michal, who co-chaired the strategy team, thinks the kindergarten readiness effort is exactly the kind of collaborative action that needs to happen to advance the shared agenda outlined in the World Class Education and Talent Development GPS. Early childhood education is one of four focus areas included in the GPS spanning the “cradle to career” pipeline: early learning, K-12 education, postsecondary credential attainment, and job readiness training for those who’ve finished with school.


“We’ve got to take this and carve it into manageable, actionable chunks of work,” said Michal of the World Class GPS. “We all get caught up in analysis paralysis. The reality is that we have to move. And that’s the beauty of a GPS - as long as we all enter the same coordinates, it doesn’t matter if one car’s going left and one car’s going right. We’ve all got that lady with us in the car going, ‘recalculating route!’ Ultimately you get to the same place together.”