Virginia’s youngest learners just got a big boost from the state government.
A new budget amendment from the Virginia General Assembly will put $6 million toward early childhood education in the commonwealth over the next two years. A large portion of the investment will implement a required statewide expansion of the Virginia Kindergarten Readiness Program, an array of assessments developed by University of Virginia researchers that measures the skills a kindergartener needs to succeed.
In 2015, data from the Curry School of Education’s Center for the Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning showed that nearly 40 percent of children in Virginia entered kindergarten unprepared in at least one of four critical skill areas. Now, after three years of incremental expansion, a significant increase in investment from the commonwealth – totaling nearly $3 million – will fund the mandated rollout of the Virginia Kindergarten Readiness Program across all Virginia school divisions within the next two years. Combined with other initiatives, CASTL received about $6 million total.
“Funding for the Virginia Kindergarten Readiness Program initiative reflects the seriousness of the commonwealth’s investment in early learning,” Curry School Dean Robert Pianta said. “The statewide rollout of this assessment and feedback system will position Virginia as a leader nationally among states as they move to realize and optimize the potential benefits of their early education and care programs.”
Measuring Kindergarten Readiness
Amanda Williford, associate professor at the Curry School and lead investigator of the Virginia Kindergarten Readiness Program, emphasized the critical importance of early childhood education as a lever of future success.
“Much of children’s brain development happens before age 5, and brain development is dependent upon children’s early experiences,” Williford said. “That means that early childhood is a time of both great opportunity and great vulnerability.”
Backed by the latest early childhood research, the program measures students’ foundational skills in math, self-regulation and social skills and literacy. Researchers defined kindergarten readiness as a child demonstrating foundational skills in each of the four areas.
While many other states have some form of kindergarten entrance measures, Williford said the Virginia program is unique in its focus on four research-driven domains, use of direct assessments of literacy and math, and inclusion of both self-regulation and social skills via teacher report using a measure that has been shown to predict children’s success in school through third grade.
“Lacking key skills in any one of these foundational areas puts children at risk as they continue their learning in elementary school and beyond,” Williford explained in an interview last year. “We want to invest in children’s early education experiences, both in preschool before they arrive to kindergarten, as well as in kindergarten through third grade.”
The only consistent measure currently used by all school divisions in Virginia is the Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening, also developed by Curry School faculty, which focuses solely on literacy skills. The Virginia Kindergarten Readiness Program is working closely with the developers of the Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening so that all the assessments are administered online within the same system, reducing the burden on teachers and allowing for integrated reports.
“Our collaboration with the PALS team has been critical for learning how to deliver a feasible assessment system at scale, including how to best communicate with divisions and provide the training and support they need to gather good data and put it to use,” said Wanda Weaver, a UVA research scientist and project coordinator for the Virginia Kindergarten Readiness Program.
After a teacher has completed the assessments, the program delivers a comprehensive summary report that includes personalized recommendations for activities and teaching strategies. These resources, tailored specifically to their students’ needs, can help teachers address readiness gaps and provide the right kind of classroom support.
Wayne Lyle, who coordinates early childhood and federal programs for Amherst County Public Schools, has been working with the Virginia Kindergarten Readiness Program for three years. So far, he said his division’s kindergarten teachers have found the data provided useful insights.
“There’s just so much tied to kindergarten readiness and a student’s success in school,” he said. “I feel like it’s important for us to gauge [kindergarten readiness] as soon as they enter, so if kids are struggling in certain areas, we can address that early.”
Lyle hopes, however, that this is just the beginning. He sees a lot of potential for expansion – particularly for preschool teachers, who could use data to find and address consistent problem areas in their divisions.
“The folks at Virginia Kindergarten Readiness Program have been very responsive and great to work with,” he added. “I’m excited that it’s going statewide.”
Increasing Investment in Early Education
Altogether, the state budget amendment designates $6 million to the Center for the Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning for early childhood education initiatives. Roughly half of that – about $2.9 million – will go toward implementing the Virginia Kindergarten Readiness Program statewide over the next two years. The full $6 million package also includes funding for classroom observations in state preschool programs, as well as a pilot of a new Center for the Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning-designed curriculum model for children from infancy through age 4.
The funding continues a trend of state investment in early childhood education since 2015, when lawmakers signed off on an initial $1 million for Virginia Kindergarten Readiness Program assessments. The project has continued to grow in the following three years, with additional state support and more divisions signing up to participate each year.
The latest announcement, however, marks a significant jump in funding. Instead of enrolling on a volunteer basis, all divisions in the commonwealth will be required to implement the Virginia Kindergarten Readiness Program. By the fall of 2019, Williford said she expects the number of students participating in the program to grow by more than 300 percent – from about 20,000 total students to roughly 90,000.
Gov. Ralph Northam announced the funding in June, alongside an executive order establishing a “Children’s Cabinet” to enhance early childhood education in Virginia. First Lady Pamela Northam, a former high school teacher and advocate for early childhood education, will chair the cabinet.
“We believe that all children should have access to opportunities regardless of the circumstances into which they are born,” Pamela Northam said in a press release. “Early childhood education is the best investment we can make in our future workforce.”
In future years, Williford said the funding allows for even further expansion – including expanding the new assessments so that teachers can use them during preschool and in the spring of kindergarten, to track how children are developing during their early education years and to provide data for making better investments to ensure school success.
A Pathway to Quality Classrooms
In strictly economic terms, investing in high-quality early childhood education offers strong potential for return on investment for the commonwealth.
“We know that sustained, high-quality early childhood education has a good return on investment – somewhere between $4 and $9” for every dollar spent, Williford said. “That is a return based on reduced costs of grade retention, remedial and special education, higher graduation rates and higher earnings as an adult.”
According to Williford, the existence of widespread, reliable statewide data on early education could shape the education landscape in countless ways.
“Statewide Virginia Kindergarten Readiness Program data will allow division leaders, city councils, policymakers and other stakeholders to have a detailed picture of the needs of young children within the state, to identify patterns and trends across divisions and over time, and to use data to inform whether investments made prior to kindergarten are having the intended results,” she said.
Ultimately, Williford said, the main goal of the Virginia Kindergarten Readiness Program is not just to assess kindergarten readiness, but to improve the quality of early childhood education throughout Virginia. By identifying the specific areas where students are struggling and then delivering teachers with tools and support to address those areas, the project is already working toward that goal. With full statewide implementation, the possibility for impact increases exponentially.
Lisa Howard, president and CEO of E3: Elevate Early Education, a bipartisan, statewide, issue-advocacy organization that has strongly advocated for the Virginia Kindergarten Readiness Program and funded the initial statewide representative pilot from 2013 to 2015, praised the budget package in an op-ed published in the Hampton Roads Daily Press in July. Specifically, Howard spoke to Virginia Kindergarten Readiness Program’s potential to improve classroom quality.
“The debate about early education has shifted from expanding access to ensuring that high quality in the classroom is at the core of the state’s investment,” she wrote. “Sadly, many of our early childhood programs currently do not have the important elements of quality that lead to better outcomes for young children. These investments will show that Virginia’s children are better off when they have high-quality early education experiences.”