Opinion: Colorado needs the right plan to expand early education

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This summer, Gov. Jared Polis signed a historic bill to support universal Pre-K education in Colorado. The legislation’s passage represented a major milestone in a decades-long quest to expand educational opportunities for young learners.

But the hard work is not done. The way we move the plan forward, and how we decide to use the funds for universal Pre-K, will have huge consequences for Colorado families and their children.

Our Pre-K program can set a positive example for other states, but only if we make the right choices now in our planning.

COVID-19 widened severe opportunity and achievement gaps for children from low-income families, children of color, multilingual learners, and other underserved populations. Currently, only 40% of eligible children are able to access preschool through the Colorado Preschool Program.

Funding for universal Pre-K will help, but only if all students have access to high-quality choices. Money alone will not be enough.

The state’s new Department of Early Childhood must start with a strong blueprint to design a high-quality program. Our youngest kids have unique potential and unique needs that can guide these plans.

Supporting every child’s potential starts with improving teacher training and paying early educators what they’re really worth. Colorado educators who work with children ages 0-4 make an average of $26,875 a year — far below the state’s per-capita income of about $41,000.

Clear definitions of quality and a streamlined bureaucracy also will go a long way toward helping Colorado families find the best learning options for their kids.

To receive full-day funding for their child, parents may have to use money managed by two different state agencies — Colorado Preschool Program dollars, through the Department of Education, and the Child Care Assistance Program, through the Department of Human Services.

Many parents don’t have the resources to identify high-quality programs in such a complex system. High-quality choices should be readily available to every family.

Measures of quality should be grounded in the science of child development. High-quality programs should include consideration of equity, exploration, and other principles of ideal learning environments — both for the parents seeking the right program for their kids, and for the children in the classroom.

The best early learning programs use these principles to personalize learning and meet every child where they are. They champion play as central to a child’s growth and learning, and value childhood as a unique time when kids learn through close relationships with their teachers and peers. They’re committed to engaging and empowering families as active participants in their kids’ learning.

Not all early childhood programs are the same. Many people assume that worksheets and flashcards teaching discrete math and reading skills are the best tools to advance a child’s academic success. But that’s not how young children learn best.

How we teach matters as much as what we teach, and the how has to honor what we know about children’s growth and learning. For example, play-based models have been shown to foster whole-child development and support literacy and math skills. The principles underlying these programs should be woven into the state’s early-learning plans.

Educators need robust training to create learning environments that set up 3- and 4-year-olds for success both in Kindergarten and in life. If we don’t give educators the resources they need, too many children will be left behind — even in a world with universal access.

Colorado is a diverse state, and our youngest learners have diverse needs. The good news is we already have a variety of models that support children, families and educators in their unique communities.

Programs like Tools of the Mind support teachers through professional development that includes individualized video coaching, small-group monthly facilitated professional learning communities, regular workshops and a range of digital resources including child-assessment tools.

Educators can receive undergraduate or graduate credit for their professional development through Tools.​​ Schools and districts pay for the training, building a talented workforce while relieving individual educators of the cost.

Also, other programs such as EL Education, HighScope, Montessori and Reggio Emilia support children’s growth and learning through engaging experiences with objects, peers, educators, and the community. These ideal learning experiences build the academic abilities and social-emotional skills of well-rounded learners.

Colorado’s emerging universal Pre-K program could be a model for other states who want to set students up for lifelong success. But that will be true only if we build a system for all children and families. It may sound complicated, but these comprehensive, inclusive, and high-quality early childhood programs can help us build a Pre-K system that serves every young learner.

Cathrine Floyd, Ph.D., of Centennial, is grant partnerships manager at Trust for Learning, a national philanthropic partnership that seeks to equitably expand ideal learning environments for children from birth through age 8.

Deborah J. Leong, Ph.D., of Golden, is president and cofounder of Tools of the Mind and professor emerita of Psychology at Metropolitan State University of Denver, where she taught educational and developmental psychology for 36 years.

This guest opinion is from The Colorado Sun, a journalist-owned news outlet based in Denver and covering the state. For more, and to support The Colorado Sun, visit coloradosun.com. The Colorado Sun is a partner in the Colorado News Conservancy, owner of Colorado Community Media.

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