Early Education

Illinois is a national leader in early childhood education, thanks to the commitment of state leaders. Getting children off to a good start is critical; the first years of a child’s life lay the foundation for everything that follows.

The case for investment in early education is clear and compelling. Research tells us that all children benefit from high quality preschool and that even greater benefits accrue to children from at-risk populations.1 Disadvantaged children benefit in particular from interventions that support their parents’ ability to create nurturing home environments.2

As the data in this Report Card reveals, Illinois has much to be proud of in early childhood education. Enrollment has been expanded, especially for three year olds, and the state is now a national leader in the field. It is an example of what can be accomplished when we set clear goals and focus our energy; and but for a critical information gap, the state would have earned a B+ for its efforts. Unfortunately, the state has yet to find a way to measure whether our children are prepared for kindergarten, and we have virtually no aggregated data on how well at-risk populations are being served by local, state, and federally funded programs. Absent data on how well prepared our children are at this critical early juncture, the state’s grade in Early Education is “incomplete.”

Kindergarten Readiness

Students who are ready for school academically, emotionally and socially have greater success in school and later in life.3 Knowing whether our students are ready for school is vital if we are to understand the effectiveness of the state’s early childhood policy and expenditures.

Though the state is a leader in terms of early childhood enrollment, action has lagged on defining ‘kindergarten readiness.’ Dozens of other states have already defined what it means for children to be ready for kindergarten, setting out develop- mental goals across multiple domains (for example, cognitive, physical, developmental, social, emotional). As importantly,
a number now measure whether children are ‘school ready.’ Measuring this would help educators and families identify issues early, help decision-makers target resources, and generally help align our early childhood and K-12 systems.

Fortunately, a statewide working group is currently looking at this issue and preparing to make recommendations at the end of the year on whether and how the state might define and approach measuring kindergarten readiness.

Access to Quality Early Childhood Programs

In widening access to preschool programs, the state has made a particular effort to reach those most in need; but without better measures and data, we really don’t know how successful we have been. For example, do bilingual children, the fastest growing segment of our population, have access to bilingual teachers and programs? Anecdotal information suggests there is a shortage of bilingual early childhood teachers. Indeed, only real data can help us improve the service we provide to all of our children.

A Note on the Lack of Early Childhood Data

Illinois presently does not collect comprehensive data on all populations in early childhood programs across the state. While some of the programs collect population totals – allowing us to rank Illinois against other states – the programs do not collect ethnic or income data in a manner consistent enough for us to provide statewide totals by age for any individual sub-group, such as Latinos or low-income students. It is our understanding that state officials are working to rectify this deficiency so that Illinois’ early childhood access can be measured across all ages and groups, including those most in need of quality programs. This will allow for more accurate assessment of equity gaps.

Footnotes

1.    Gormley, W.T., and T. Gayer
The effects of universal Pre-K on cognitive development. Georgetown University, 2004.

2.    Powers, S., and E. Fenichel
“Home visiting: Reaching babies and families `where they live.’” Zero To Three, 2003.

3.    Duncan, G.J., et al.
School Readiness and Later Achievement, Developmental Psychology, 2007, Vol. 43, No. 6, 1428-1446.