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Education is a continuum, and children need an aligned, high-quality educational experience from cradle to career. Early experiences for children from birth through age 8, in particular, build the foundation for a lifetime of learning and growth.
In this extended period of rapid brain development, young children’s opportunities to learn must look different from those for older children. To put them on a path to success, NAEYC works to promote policies and practices that help children entering kindergarten be ready for school—and help schools be ready to effectively support every child’s unique development and learning.
As part of this effort, NAEYC supports educators in the early grades, including those in state-funded preschool programs, to have specialized knowledge, skills, and competencies, with support from leaders who understand developmentally appropriate practice. With the increasing scientific, economic, and political consensus regarding the importance of investing in early childhood education, the bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was signed in December 2015 with an elevated focus on the importance of the early years for long-term student success.
- What does ESSA do, particularly with respect to early childhood education?
- How does ESSA work?
- How does ESSA support children and families?
- How does ESSA support early childhood educators?
- How can you support ESSA?
- Highlighted partner resources
ESSA, or the Every Student Succeeds Act, is the newest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which was created in 1965 as a national education and civil rights law designed to address inequities in the education system.
The new focus on connections between early childhood and K–12 systems, which is woven into language throughout the bill, can help improve quality, expand access, and improve transitions and supports for families in underserved communities. ESSA creates the opportunity for all parts of the system, from stakeholder engagement to student supports, and assessment to school improvement, to be inclusive of early childhood programs.
In addition, ESSA includes a new Preschool Development Grant program that, if funded, is designed to help states and communities plan, coordinate, and expand their early childhood programs for low-income children.
Overall, the law, which was formerly known as No Child Left Behind, transfers significant authority to the states to ensure that all children have the support they need to be successful in school.
ESSA is composed of nine titles, which provide funding to states and districts to support their efforts in meeting specific educational goals. Title I, for example, allocates funds that can be used, among other purposes, for instructional and comprehensive services for children beginning at birth and across community-based settings; Title II supports professional development for teachers and leaders.
Key Titles for Early Childhood Educators and Allies:
Title I: Improving the academic achievement of the disadvantaged
- Part A: Financial assistance to local educational agencies
- Part B: State assessment grants
- Part C: Migrant education
Title II: Preparing, training, & recruiting high-quality teachers, principals, or other school leaders
- Part A: Supporting effective instruction
- Part B: National activities (including Literacy Education for All, Results for the Nation)
- Title III: Language instruction for English learners and immigrant students
Title IV: 21st century schools
- Part A: Student support and academic enrichment grants
- Part B: 21st century community learning centers
- Part E: Family engagement in education programs
Title IX: Education for the homeless and other laws
- Part A: Homeless children and youths
- Part B: Miscellaneous; other laws including preschool grants
All states must submit an ESSA Plan, created by state administrators with significant engagement from a diverse group of stakeholders, which outlines how they will comply with the requirements of the law; that plan must be approved by the US Department of Education, which then provides oversight, guidance, and support to ensure the state’s plan is being implemented, and that goals are being measured and met. When state plans are approved, the State Departments of Education will create district applications through which local education agencies will demonstrate how they will use funds to meet the goals outlined in the state plans.
View some of NAEYC’s priorities and recommendations to Congress and the Department of Education during the ESSA reauthorization and rulemaking processes (a statement of priorities; a letter to Congress; a letter to the Administration). Early childhood education is embedded in the law like never before—proof that your voices were heard! (And it’s working: here’s some progress states are making that we told Congress about.)
As the federal education law of the land, ESSA is responsible for ensuring that all children have an equal opportunity to receive a high-quality education that prepares them for school and life.
Young children and families benefit particularly from new aspects of the law that focus on promoting transitions from community-based early childhood programs to kindergarten and ensuring that early childhood programs funded by Title I in schools meet high-quality Head Start standards. ESSA’s new Literacy Education for All, Results for the Nation (LEARN) grant program offers another opportunity to support children from birth to grade 12, particularly since at least 15 percent of funds must be used for state and local programs serving children birth through kindergarten entry.
The law also requires that the ESSA plan be coordinated with the Child Care and Development Block Grant state plan, which could provide opportunities to leverage resources and supports for children, families, and providers.
Ultimately, children and families benefit when early learning and K–12 systems are funded, connected, and integrated; ESSA provides new opportunities to achieve those important outcomes.
Early childhood educators who work with children before school entry may not have immersed themselves in legislation supporting K–12 education. When NAEYC and the National Association of Elementary School Principals conducted a poll on ESSA and priorities for our members, we found that fewer than 5 percent of early childhood educators we surveyed said they had a strong understanding of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and 70 percent understood it “a little” or “not very well.”
Yet there are meaningful and important opportunities in ESSA to support early childhood educators, particularly related to professional development, where there are critical opportunities for states and districts to expand their professional development offerings and focus on joint professional development that is inclusive of early childhood educators, principals, and other school leaders.
In addition, ESSA establishes the opportunity for Congress to fund new Preschool Development Grants, a competitive grant program that could bolster early childhood educators working with children across age spans and settings by focusing on coordination, improving quality, and expanding access.
Early childhood in ESSA is primarily a “may” for states and districts, not a “must.” This is an opportunity and responsibility that requires our engagement. It is incumbent on each of us to demonstrate that we are ready to hold our officials accountable by advocating for resources and policies that support investment in early childhood education, quality, and equity in the implementation of ESSA. We urge you to:
- Engage with your state and districts’ ESSA processes and plans so that you can advocate for the inclusion of early childhood education and educators, and then hold your state accountable for implementation.
- Check out NAEYC’s recommendations for what states can do as they implement ESSA, with a focus on diverse stakeholder engagement; improving and expanding mixed-delivery early childhood education; professional development; and assessment.
- Call your elected officials and tell them you support fully funding Title II of ESSA to promote high-quality early childhood education and educators—and you want them to support that investment as well.
- Sign up for NAEYC’s America for Early Ed and Children’s Champions email alerts and updates so you can help children, families, and educators succeed!
- Unlocking ESSA’s Potential to Support Early Learning, New America and BUILD Initiative
- What Early Learning in ESSA Can Look Like for States and Districts, First Five Years Fund
- Early Learning and ESSA, Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes
- Principals’ Action Plan for the Every Student Succeeds Act, National Association of Elementary School Principals