According to the National Center for Education Statistics’ August 2023 pulse panel, 60% of public schools were utilizing a “community school” or “wraparound services model” at the start of this school year—up from 45% last year. This survey builds on a trend of education policy leaders across the country increasing their focus on the place-based, whole child approach called community schools. Experts note no two community schools are the same, but they do build on the Science of Learning and Development to offer at least four common practices—student and family engagement; collaborative leadership; expanded, enriched learning opportunities, and integrated systems of support. These common community school practices or pillars have an expanding evidence base and growing consensus of support, which are well suited to meet the multifaceted needs of our students coming out of the pandemic. As we transition our education systems to a post pandemic world, policymakers should make community schools an increasing part of America’s future.
Need for a Community School Approach
Recent headlines show that the effects of the pandemic are not going away even though federal-relief funds are. Young people are living with continued anxiety and depression, over 1 million continue to experience homelessness, learning loss remains a persistent issue, and students need more enrichment opportunities to stay on track to graduate. These impacts can be seen in rising chronic absenteeism rates, climbing reports of disruptive discipline incidents, increasing numbers of dropouts, and declining graduation rates. Finding a cohesive way to respond to all of these challenges is daunting.
Expanding Evidence-Base for Community Schools
Luckily, recent stories and evaluations show community schools are a promising way to respond to the negative educational impacts from COVID and broader systemic inequalities. First-hand accounts show community schools are providing mental health care, housing support, educational enrichment, and expanded learning opportunities to help students succeed. A national evaluation and a review of 143 studies indicate these stories are more than anecdotal, showing community schools can reduce chronic absenteeism, decrease suspensions, improve school climate, and improve graduation rates. Even more promising news is documented in a new book about the community schools movement, which details how extended implementation has resulted in increased enrollment, and sustained improvements in academic achievement.
Growing Nationwide Support for Community Schools
Given the positive impacts of community schools, it is unsurprising support for community schools is growing in different areas and at multiple levels. Urban cities (e.g., Baltimore, Cincinnati, Detroit, D.C., Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia,) and rural communities (e.g., Deer River, MN, Kern County, CA, Taos, NM, Quitman County, MS) have all launched or expanded their implementation of community schools since 2020. During the same time, red states and blue states—including Georgia, California, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, New Mexico, New York, and Vermont also increased funding or built capacity in their own versions of community schools. Even at the federal level, funding for the Full-Service Community School program doubled under President Trump and President Biden.
The Future of Community Schools
With the momentum of money and focus behind community schools, expansion might seem inevitable, however, policymakers can do more. In September 2024, states and districts will be required by law to allocate the remainder of the almost $200 billion in COVID-relief funding they received to help address the disruptions to education caused by the pandemic.
Investing any remaining relief funding in key community school infrastructure would be fiscally responsible and socially beneficial. This is because every dollar invested in community school coordinators can provide $7 in return, and the same investment in the common practices or pillars of community schools mentioned above, can return $15 of social and economic value.
More importantly, policymakers should set up systems and structures to make new or keep current investments in community schools going after ARP funds run out. For instance, policymakers can:
- Provide Robust Federal Funding for Education. Congress should provide additional federal funding, especially for funding streams that target historically underserved students (e.g., ESEA Title’s I, Impact Aid, Full-Service Community Schools, and Homeless Children and Youth). Increased funding could prevent schools and students from losing essential services, including an estimated 136,000 educators, while they continue to recover from the impacts of the pandemic. Policymakers should note that without ARP funds, annual Department of Education funding is more than $12 billion below what it was in 2011 in inflation-adjusted dollars.
- Establish state funding for Community Schools. States can create lasting grant programs or sustainable funding mechanisms to ensure students furthest from opportunity have access to community schools. For example, California has invested over $4 billion in competitive planning, implementation, and extension grants for community schools; Maryland provides state funding for community school coordinators in high need schools; and Kentucky uses its funding formula to support family resource centers in low-income areas.
- Leverage existing federal funding for Community Schools. States, school districts, and non-profits can use existing funds or blend and braid funding from a variety of federal programs to support community schools. The White House and Learning Policy Institute both published toolkits this year collectively highlighting over 100 programs across federal agencies with approximately $366 billion available for community-school related activities.
- Improve inter-agency coordination of student-centered services. Even without additional funding, districts and county leaders can help schools streamline student resources by creating agreements that formalize partner obligations, roles, and responsibilities. For example, Alameda, County in California, signed an agreement with Oakland Unified Schools that ensures qualifying students receive free or reduced-price lunch and social services such as Medicaid.
A review of influential moments in American education history shows continued efforts to help all students access high-quality learning opportunities (e.g., offering reduced-priced meals, special education services, and subsidies for low-income schools.) Ensuring all students have access to community schools can continue this trend and mark the next milestone for U.S. education.
The Federation of American Scientists values diversity of thought and believes that a range of perspectives — informed by evidence — is essential for discourse on scientific and societal issues. Contributors allow us to foster a broader and more inclusive conversation. We encourage constructive discussion around the topics we care about.
Peter Drucker famously said, “You can’t improve what you don’t measure.” Data on facilities helps public schools to make equitable decisions, prevent environmental health risks, ensure regular maintenance, and conduct long-term planning. Publicly available data increases transparency and accountability, resulting in more informed decision making and quality analysis. Across the U.S., public schools lack the resources to track their facilities and operations, resulting in missed opportunities to ensure equitable access to high quality learning environments. As public schools face increasing challenges to infrastructure, such as climate change, this data gap becomes more pronounced.
Why do we need data on school facilities?
School facilities affect student health and learning. The conditions of a school building directly impact the health and learning outcomes of students. The COVID-19 pandemic brought the importance of indoor air quality into the public consciousness. Many other chronic diseases are exacerbated by inadequate facilities, causing absenteeism and learning loss. From asthma to obesity to lead poisoning, the condition of the places where children spend their time impacts their health, wellbeing, and ability to learn. Better data on the physical environment helps us understand the conditions that hinder student learning.
School buildings are a source of emissions and environmental impacts. The U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that schools annually spend $8 billion on energy, and emit an estimated 72 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. While the energy use intensity of school buildings is not itself that high when compared with other sectors, there are interesting trends such as education being the largest consumer of natural gas. The public school fleet is the largest mass transit system in the U.S. As of 2023 only 1-2% of the countries estimated nearly 500,000 buses are electric.
Data provides accountability for public investment. After highways, elementary and secondary education infrastructure is the leading public capital outlay expenditure nationwide (2021 Census). Most funds to maintain school facilities come from local and state tax sources. Considering the sizable taxpayer investment, relatively little is known about the condition of these facilities. Some state governments have no school facilities staff or funding to help manage or improve school facilities. The 2021 State of Our Schools Report, the leading resource on school facilities data, uses fiscal data to highlight the issues in school facilities. This report found that there is a $85 billion annual school facilities infrastructure funding gap, meaning that, according to industry standards for both capital investment and maintenance, schools are funded $85 billion less than what is required for upkeep. Consistent with these findings, the U.S. Government Accountability Office conducted research on school building common facilities issues and found that, in 2020, 50% of districts needed to replace or update multiple essential building systems such as HVAC or plumbing.
What data do we need?
Despite the clear connections between students’ health, learning, and the condition of school buildings, there are no standardized national data sets that assist school leaders and policy makers in making informed and strategic decisions to systematically improve facilities to support health and learning.
Some examples of data points school facilities advocates want more of include:
- Long-term planning
- The number of school districts with Facilities Master Plans, or similar long-range planning tools adoption, and funding allocations
- Emergency planning and standards for declaring school closures, especially for climate-related emergencies such as extreme heat and wildfire smoke
- Facilities footprint and condition
- Landscape and scoping datasets such as total number of facilities, square footage of buildings, acres of land managed, number and type of leased facilities
- Condition reports, including dates of last construction, repairs, and maintenance compliance checks
- Prioritization of repairs, resource usage (especially energy and water), construction practices and costs, waste from construction and/or ongoing operations
- Industry standards
- Indoor environmental quality information such as the percent of classrooms meeting industry ventilation standards
- Adoption rates of climate resiliency strategies
- Board policies, greenhouse gas emissions reductions, funds dedicated to sustainability or energy staff positions, certifications and awards, and more.
Getting strategic and accessible with facilities data
Gathering this type of data represents a significant challenge for schools that are already overburdened and lack the administrative support for facilities maintenance and operations. By supporting the best available facilities research methods, facilities conditions standards, and dedicating resources to long term planning, we ensure that data collection is undertaken equitably. Some strategies that bear these challenges in mind are:
Incorporate facilities into existing data collection and increase data linkages in integrated and high quality data centers like National Center for Education Statistics. School leaders should provide key facilities metrics through the same mechanisms by which they report other education statistics. Creating data linkages allow users to make connections using existing data.
Building capacity ensures that there are staff and support systems in place to effectively gather and process school facilities data. There are more federal funds than ever before offered for building the capacity of schools to improve facilities conditions. For instance, the U.S. Department of Education recently launched the Supporting America’s School Infrastructure grant program, aimed at developing the ability of state departments of education to address facilities matters.
Research how school facilities are connected to environmental justice to better understand how resources could be most equitably distributed. Ten Strands and UndauntedK12 are piloting a framework which looks at pollution burden indicators and school adoption of environmental and climate action. We can support policies and fund research that looks at this intersection and makes these connections more transparent.
The connection between school facilities and student health and learning outcomes is clear. What we need now are the resources to effectively collect more data on school facilities that can be used by policy makers and school leaders to plan, improve learning conditions, and provide accountability to the public.
The Federation of American Scientists values diversity of thought and believes that a range of perspectives — informed by evidence — is essential for discourse on scientific and societal issues. Contributors allow us to foster a broader and more inclusive conversation. We encourage constructive discussion around the topics we care about.
Community colleges should be drivers of economic mobility, employment, and dynamism in local communities. Unlike four-year institutions, many of which are highly selective and pose significant barriers to entry, two-year colleges are intended to serve people from a wide range of life circumstances. In theory, they are highly egalitarian institutions that enable underserved individuals to access learning, jobs, and opportunities that would otherwise not be available to them.
However, community colleges are asked to do a lot of things with relatively little funding: they serve individuals ranging from highly gifted high school students to prospective transfers to four-year universities to people earning skilled trades certificates. This spreads schools’ attention broadly and is especially problematic given the wide range of non-academic challenges that many of their low-income students face, such as raising dependents and lack of access to reliable transportation. Troublingly, many community college degrees do not result in an economic return on investment (ROI) for their students, and many students will not recoup their investment within five years of completing a community college credential.
To address these issues, policymakers should reform community colleges in two essential ways. First, community colleges should align curricula toward fields with high wages and strong employer demand while increasing the amount of work-based learning. This shift would provide more job-ready graduates and improve student salaries and employment rates, thereby increasing student ROI. Second, the federal government should provide greater financial assistance in the form of Pell Grants and funding for wraparound services such as transportation vouchers and textbooks, allowing more students to access high-quality community college programs and graduate on time. These are interventions with a track record of proven success but require greater funding and support capacity to scale up at a national level.
Challenge and Opportunity
Challenge 1: Community colleges serve a wide range of students, including working parents seeking a better job, students who intend to transfer to four-year universities, and high school students taking dual enrollment classes.
There is no such thing as a typical community college student. As part of the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, the Aspen Institute collected demographic and outcomes data for its top 150 community colleges. Within this group, over 30% of students are “nontraditional” students over the age of 25, and 45% are minorities. Moreover, 63% of community college students attend part-time, which poses significant challenges in terms of scheduling and momentum. This severely impacts retention, graduation, and transfer rates. By contrast, just 11% of students at four-year flagship institutions are enrolled part-time. Community colleges must juggle these competing priorities and must do so in the absence of clear guidelines and insufficient resources.
Challenge 2: Underprivileged students tend to struggle the most given their financial constraints and insufficient access to wraparound services. At the same time, community colleges are already starved for resources and may not have the capacity to provide those critical services to these students.
Community college students are more likely than their four-year counterparts to come from less wealthy backgrounds. As of 2016, 16% of students in four-year colleges come from impoverished families, with another 17% coming from families near poverty. By contrast, some 23% of dependent community college students and 47% of independent students come from families with less than $20,000 of annual income. Unsurprisingly, two-thirds of community college students work, with roughly one-third working full-time.
Community colleges will be hard-pressed to cover students’ financial shortfalls from their own budgets. On average, community colleges receive $8,700 per full-time equivalent student versus $17,500 per student for four-year colleges (this overstates funding per enrolled student, because more community college students are enrolled part-time). Moreover, over half of community college funding comes from local and state sources. As a result, schools with the highest proportion of low-income students are more likely to have lower funding.
Challenge 3: The United States needs more nurses and allied healthcare workers, IT and cyber professionals, and skilled tradespeople, but the recruiting pipeline and training pathway for these individuals is often understaffed, highly fragmented, and hyperlocal.
Many industries with high-paying wages have experienced or will soon experience major talent shortages in the next decade. For instance, by 2030 the United States will need another 275,000 registered nurses, which, at the minimum, requires an associate’s degree in nursing (ADN) to sit for the NCLEX entrance exam. The country needs another 350,000 cybersecurity professionals, especially in the federal workforce, where 50% of the workforce is over the age of 50 and approaching retirement age. Finally, and certainly not least, the distributed renewable energy grid will not build itself: 30% of union electricians are between the ages of 50 and 70, and we will need more solar installers, wind technicians, and other skilled trades specialists to enable the green transition.
However, these issues are not easily solved by digitally native solutions rolled out at a national level. Instead, these need to be tackled at a local level. For instance, access to clinical space can only happen through hospitals, while skill development for electricians, installers, and technicians primarily occurs through high school and community college CTE classes and industry-led apprenticeships, all of which require a substantial in-person component. Thus, workforce training to fill shortages will have to be similarly local in nature.
Challenge 4: The value of the two-year associate’s degree and certificates is highly variable and depends on the type of degree or certificate earned.
The Burning Glass Institute studied the career histories of nearly 5 million individuals who graduated between 2010 and 2020 and built a rich dataset that tied salary information to LinkedIn profiles. They then assessed “degree optional” roles (jobs where 50% to 80% of individuals held a degree) and found that a four-year degree provided a 15% wage premium, which was largely driven by the job flexibility provided by the bachelor’s degree. By comparison, they found no such premium for two-year associate’s degrees.
However, these averages hide the economic variance provided by individual degrees. Third Way investigated the economic payback period for graduates of different degree programs, which they defined as the pay increase over the median high school graduate divided by the net tuition cost. Highly technical engineering, healthcare, and computer science associate’s degrees provided exceptional payback periods, with more than 90% recouping their investment in less than five years.
By contrast, other associate’s degrees saw no economic ROI. Some of these degrees, such as general humanities and culinary arts, are unsurprising. However, other fields, such as biological and physical sciences, for which half of students had no ROI, might have had stronger ROIs as bachelor’s degrees.
Similarly, certificate programs have wildly varying ROIs. Nursing and diagnostic and skilled trades generally show a strong ROI, with more than 85% of students recouping their investment within five years. On the other hand, cosmetology, culinary arts, and administrative services are highly likely to receive no ROI, indicative of the low pay in the roles that certificate earners take upon completion of their program.
Together, these studies show that associate’s degree programs and certificates with less-defined career pathways are at risk of value erosion. This may be due in part to real differences in the skills taught in a two-year degree or certificate versus a four-year program. However, it is also clear that highly technical associate’s degrees and certificates designed to meet employer-defined needs have better economic ROIs, suggesting that there is less value erosion in roles with well-defined pathways.
Plan of Action
To address these issues, policymakers, community college leaders, employers, and philanthropic stakeholders should work together to implement five general reforms:
- Reorient community college offerings toward technical associate’s degrees and certificates that have been shown to have a strong, locally proven ROI for students while pruning programs that do not have compelling outcomes. The federal government should allocate funding to programs that have compelling five-year repayment rates and fill jobs that have high and persistent skills shortages. In addition, the Department of Education can write a “Dear Colleague Letter” that focuses on program ROI and suggest that Congress pass laws strengthening ROI requirements for federal funding
- Community colleges and local employers should partner to deliver more job training at scale, including apprenticeships and skills-based part-time work. Many of these programs, such as Project Quest, have been established for years, and community colleges can and should play a bigger role in building a student pipeline and delivering in-classroom training that leads to a high-quality credential. In addition, under the Inflation Reduction Act, local employers can receive tax breaks for clean energy projects that use registered apprenticeships. These apprenticeships, which supplement on-the-job training with classroom instruction and are tailored to employer needs, can be provided by community colleges
- Increase Pell Grant maximums to improve degree affordability and access. For the upcoming 2023–2024 school year, the maximum could be raised by $500, in line with the 2024 President’s Budget. Congress should enact provisions in the president’s budget that would provide $500 million in funding for community college programs that lead to high-paying jobs and $100 million for workforce training, both of which would strengthen post completion outcomes. In addition, Congress should pass legislation that makes Pell Grants nontaxable, which would enable students to use funding on living expenses.
- Develop and fund high-ROI wraparound solutions that have been shown to improve student outcomes, such as those developed by the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP). These include career guidance, textbook assistance, and transportation vouchers, among others. The Department of Education should also allow community colleges to spend funding (for example, some of the increases proposed in the president’s budget) on supports that are not already covered by existing entitlement programs. In addition, state and local governments can earmark special taxes and work closely with philanthropic funders to experiment with and deploy wrap around solutions, helping policymakers further assess the most cost-effective interventions.
- Create comprehensive data tracking mechanisms that track data at state and local levels to evaluate student outcomes and relentlessly funnel public, private, and philanthropic capital toward interventions and degree programs that are shown to result in strong outcomes. In particular, the recommendations in the bipartisan College Transparency Act are a good start given that they would tie Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) and Internal Revenue Service (IRS) data together.
Recommendation 1. Community colleges should reorient their offerings toward degrees that provide strong employment outcomes and student ROI (e.g., associate’s degrees in nursing and maintenance and installer certificates).
The data is unambiguous: Some programs deliver strong outcomes while others are drains of students’ and taxpayers’ money. Community colleges can better serve students by focusing more time and resources on the programs that deliver strong ROIs within their local economic contexts. As Figures 2– 4 show, these programs skew heavily toward nursing and allied health, engineering and computer science, and skilled trades roles. These also dovetail with major labor shortages, suggesting that community colleges can play a significant role in matching labor supply with demand.
This premise sounds deceptively simple but requires a meaningful reimagination of the role that community colleges play. By asking community colleges to refocus toward highly technical associate’s degrees and certificates, they would end up eschewing other aspects of the higher education landscape. In this view, community colleges would de-emphasize the production of liberal arts associate’s degrees. While they would continue to teach core science and humanities courses, the structure and content would be primarily geared toward equipping students with the critical thinking and foundational skills required to excel in higher-level technical courses. Community colleges would thus further increase their role in providing vocational training.
Refocusing community colleges on certain degrees would allow institutions to devote their limited resources to helping students navigate a smaller set of pathways. While it is certainly true that community colleges could improve liberal arts associate’s degree ROIs by helping students transfer to four-year universities, a greater emphasis on vocational degree production would help two-year colleges focus on their core competitive advantage in the higher education market. In the long run, greater focus would reduce administrative burden while helping professors, guidance counselors, and financial aid officers develop expertise in high-demand training and career pathways. In addition, a narrower focus on high-ROI degrees improves the effectiveness of public and philanthropic spending, making large-scale interventions more feasible from political and financial perspectives.
Recommendation 2. At the local level, community colleges should partner with employers to deliver job-specific training at scale (for example, apprenticeships or skills-based part-time work paired with associate’s degrees), helping economies match labor supply and demand while providing students with pay and relevant work experience.
Although increased tuition assistance would significantly improve financial access for many community college students, the reality is that programs such as the Pell Grant, while highly effective, still leave students with major financial gaps. As a result, many community college students end up working: as Figure 1 shows, 47% of independent community college students come from incomes of less than $20,000.
A practical approach would be to ask how we might optimize the value of hours worked rather than asking how we might avoid hours worked at all. Many community college students are employed in retail and other frontline roles: in fact, 23% of students in the Washington state dataset worked in retail at the start of their academic career, while another 19% worked in accommodation and food service. These are entry-level roles that pay low salaries, provide poor benefits, and are unlikely to teach transferable skills in high-paying professions.
A better way to provide wages as well as professionally transferable skills would be to increase funding for work-based training programs, including apprenticeships and part-time roles, that are directly related to the student’s course of study. The Department of Labor should fund a large increase in work-based training programs that provide the following characteristics:
- Are tied to an accredited course of study at a community college or other institution of higher learning with proven outcomes
- Are targeted toward roles and industries with job shortages, such as registered nurses
- Are designed in collaboration with employer partners who will ensure that students are learning skills directly related to their role and industry
- Have sufficient funding for key administrative and wraparound expenses, including career counseling and transportation stipends
Research has started to highlight the long-term benefits of well-designed work-based learning programs focused on high-paying jobs. San Antonio-based Project Quest works with individuals in healthcare, IT, and the skilled trades to provide low-income adults with credentials and employment pathways (sometimes through community colleges but also with trade schools and four-year universities providing certificates). In addition to training, Project Quest provides comprehensive wraparound support for its participants, including financial assistance for tuition, transportation, and books, as well as remedial instruction and career counseling.
In 2019, Project Quest published the results of its nine-year longitudinal study that included a randomized controlled trial of 410 adults, 88% of whom were female, enrolled in healthcare programs. Thus, replicability for other industries may prove challenging. Nonetheless, the study showed highly positive and statistically long-term earnings impacts for its participants, results that have not been easily replicated elsewhere.
Properly designed standalone apprenticeships have the potential to deliver large and positive impacts. For example, the Federation of Advanced Manufacturing Education (FAME) has long had an apprenticeship program in Kentucky to develop high-quality automotive manufacturing talent for skilled trades roles, which blends technical training for automotive manufacturing, skills that can be transferred to any industrial setting, and soft skills education. Participants complete an apprenticeship and finish with an associate’s degree in industrial maintenance technology. Within five years of graduation, FAME graduates had average incomes of almost $100,000.
The Inflation Reduction Act, Infrastructure Act, and CHIPS Act have made it clear that reinvesting in America’s industrial base is a key policy priority. At the same time, the private sector has identified major skill shortages in the skilled trades as well as healthcare and IT. Community college administrators can lead the effort to create work-based training solutions for these key roles and coordinate the efforts of various stakeholders, including the Departments of Education and Labor, state governments, and philanthropic organizations seeking to fund high-quality comprehensive solutions such as the ones developed by Project Quest. In doing so, community college leaders can move to the vanguard of outcomes-driven, ROI-based higher education.
Recommendation 3. The federal government should increase Pell Grant funding and ensure that more students receive funds for which they are eligible.
Pell Grants are an essential component of college funding for many low-income college students, without which higher education would be unaffordable. For the 2023–2024 school year, the Pell Grant maximum is $7,395, and on average students receive around $4,250. By contrast, the average tuition at a community college is just under $4,000, with the total cost of attendance at around $13,500. Thus, the average Pell Grant would cover all of tuition but just one-third of the total cost of attendance, assuming that the student was enrolled full-time. Nonetheless, Pell Grants are highly effective tools: the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond conducted a pilot study of 9,000 students and found that 64% of Pell recipients had graduated, transferred, or persisted in their program within 200% of the normal completion time, as opposed to 51% of non-Pell recipients.
Increasing Pell Grant awards will have two important effects. First, additional Pell Grant assistance reduces the out-of-pocket tuition burden, in turn increasing financial capacity for critical expenditures such as living expenses, textbooks, and transportation. Second, students who receive Pell Grant funding in excess of the tuition maximum could directly apply funds to those expenditures. However, under current IRS code, Pell Grant funding that is applied to living expenses is taxable. Congress should pass legislation that makes Pell Grants nontaxable in order to avoid penalizing students who use funds on critical expenses that might otherwise go unfilled or would require funding from an outside organization.
President Biden’s 2024 budget, which proposes a $500 increase in the maximum Pell Grant, is an excellent baseline for increasing access to high-quality community college programs. In all, this is estimated to cost $750 million in 2024 (including four-year college students), with a more ambitious pathway to doubling the grant by 2029. Moreover, the president’s budget calls for $500 million to start a discretionary fund that provides free two-year associate’s degree programs for high-quality degrees. These proposals have shown progress at the state level: for instance, Tennessee, a Republican-led state, offers free community or technical college to every high school graduate. Furthermore, tying funding to programs with strong graduation and salary outcomes ensures that funding flows to high-quality programs, improving student ROI and increasing its appeal to taxpayers.
Policymakers should also do more to ensure that students take advantage of funds they are eligible to receive. In 2018, the Wheelhouse Center for Community College Leadership and Research examined data from nearly 320,000 students in California. Over just one semester, they found that students failed to claim $130 million of Pell Grants they were eligible for. Sometimes, students simply forget to apply, but in other cases, financial aid offices put artificial obstacles in the way: half of financial aid officers report asking for additional verification beyond the student list required by the Department of Education. Community colleges should be given more resources to ensure that eligible students apply for grant funding, but financial aid offices can also help by reducing the administrative burden on students and themselves.
Recommendation 4. In addition to expanding Pell Grant uptake, the public sector should fund and distribute wraparound services for community college students focused on high-impact practices, including first-year experiences, guidance counseling and career support, and ancillary benefits, such as textbook vouchers and transportation passes.
In 2014, the Center for Community College Student Engagement assessed 12 community colleges to evaluate three essential outcomes: passing a developmental course in the first year, passing a gatekeeper course in the first year, and persistence in the degree program. They then pinpointed a set of practices that were meaningfully more likely to positively impact one or more of the target outcomes.
One successful intervention that bundles together many of these practices is the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP), developed in the City University of New York (CUNY) and eventually expanded to three Ohio community colleges. The ASAP study, a randomized control trial of 896 students at CUNY and 1,501 students in Ohio, provided tuition assistance and wraparound supports such as tutoring, career services, and textbook vouchers.
The program delivered outstanding results: 55% of CUNY students graduated with a two-year or four-year degree versus 44% of the control group. The Ohio results were even more compelling, with the ASAP program improving two-year graduation rates by 15.6% and four-year registrations by 5.7% at a 0.01 significance level.
To scale these programs, the federal government should allow grants to be used for wraparound supports with strong research-based impacts, potentially drawing from (or in addition to) the $500 million community college discretionary fund in the president’s budget. Ideally, this would be done via competitive applications with an emphasis on programs that target disadvantaged communities and focus on high-quality degree programs. Moreover, this could be set up via matching funds that incentivize state and local governments as well as philanthropic players to play a larger role in creating wraparound supports and administrative structures that would allow community colleges to better provide these services in the long term.
Recommendation 5. Federal, state, and local policymakers, working with large grant-writing foundations, should focus funding on interventions proven to result in higher graduation, transfer, and employment rates. As a first step, Congress should pass laws mandating the creation of datasets that merge educational and earnings data, which will help decision-makers and funders link dollars to outcomes.
Despite the success of programs such as ASAP and Project Quest, there is still a dearth of high-quality studies on comprehensive interventions. This is partly because there are relatively few such programs to begin with. Nonetheless, early results seem promising. The question is, how can we ensure that programs are properly measured in order to enable further public, private, and nonprofit financing?
Unlike ASAP and Project Quest, most programs do not rigorously track data over a long period. For instance, the American Association of Community Colleges provides a repository of data on community college apprenticeships, broken out at an aggregate level as well as by school partner. However, a closer look shows that the public-facing dataset is missing rudimentary information on the number of apprentices who complete their programs, what types of programs have a high rate of completers versus non completers, and employment outcomes, let alone richer datasets that include background demographic information, longitudinal earnings tracking, and other pieces of information essential to constructing statistically rigorous studies of student ROI.
While there may be more privately held data in their database, the paucity of available public information is indicative of the state of data tracking for community colleges and work-based training programs. In general, institutions are not sufficiently funded to continue data tracking beyond completion or departure, leaving enormous gaps.
One way to get around this issue is to require more rigorous data collection and longitudinal tracking, leveraging existing administrative data where possible. Fortunately, there is already a bill on the floor, called the College Transparency Act, which includes provisions requiring the Education Department to match student-level data with IRS tax data to measure post completion employment rates as well as mean and median earnings by institution, program of study, and credential level. Congress should pass the act, which enjoys bipartisan support. Passing the College Transparency Act would create the much-needed foundation to rigorously compare ROI and enable greater accountability for community colleges and higher ed writ large.
Designed correctly, community colleges can be fonts of economic opportunity, especially for individuals from underserved backgrounds whose primary goal is to enter into a well-paying role upon program completion. By collecting high-quality data, focusing on degrees with strong outcomes, providing quality work-based training, and funding wraparound supports and tuition assistance, community colleges can be much stronger, more effective engines for students and local communities. While these reforms will take time and energy from public policymakers, community college leaders, and employers, they have the potential to deliver compelling outcomes and are worth the investment.
Certain constituents would be negatively impacted: for example, high school dual enrollment students would have fewer options for advanced course offerings, and students who want a physics, biology, economics, or similar degree would need to choose a four-year university. On the other hand, this is likely a healthy outcome. Academically gifted high school students could take AP courses in person at their high school or virtually, while liberal arts students would end up at four-year institutions where there is an appropriate amount of time to master the subject matter and the degree ROI is clearer.
The Ohio ASAP program included the following elements:
- Tutoring: Students were required to attend tutoring if they were taking developmental (remedial) courses, on academic probation, or identified as struggling by a faculty member or adviser.
- Career services: Students were required to meet with campus career services staff or participate in an approved career services event once per semester.
- Tuition waiver: A tuition waiver covered any gap between financial aid and college tuition and fees.
Monthly incentive: Students were offered a monthly incentive in the form of a $50 gas/grocery gift card, contingent on participation in program services.
- Textbook voucher: A voucher covered textbook costs.
- Course enrollment: Blocked courses and consolidated schedules held seats for program students in specific sections of courses during the first year.
- First-year seminar: New students were required to take a first-year seminar (or “success course”) covering topics such as study skills and note-taking.
- Full-time enrollment: Students were required to attend college full-time during the fall and spring semesters and were encouraged to enroll in summer classes.
Although the program cost an additional $5,500 in direct costs per student (and a further $2,500 because students took more courses and degrees), the total cost per degree attained decreased because the program had a significant positive impact on graduation rates. Degree attainment is an essential key performance indicator because there are large differences in economic ROI for graduates and nongraduates, especially at community colleges.
Greater experimentation with publicly funded wraparounds, including greater uptake of entitlements for which students might be eligible, will help policymakers identify the most impactful components of the ASAP intervention. Over time, this will reduce direct costs while continuing to improve the cost per degree attained.
Project Quest included the following wraparound supports:
- Financial assistance to cover tuition and fees for classes, books, transportation, uniforms, licensing exams, and tutoring.
- Remedial instruction in math and reading to help individuals pass placement tests.
- Counseling to address personal and academic concerns and provide motivation and emotional support.
- Referrals to outside agencies for assistance with utility bills, childcare, food, and other services as well as direct financial assistance with other supports on an as-needed basis.
- Weekly meetings that focused on life skills, including time management, study skills, critical thinking, and conflict resolution.
- Job placement assistance, including help with writing résumés and interviewing, as well as referrals to employers that are hiring.
A study by Brookings and Opportunity America of graduates between 2010 and 2017 showed dramatic increases in five-year post completion wages (almost $100,000 for FAME graduates versus slightly over $50,000 for non-FAME participants). Much of the earnings impact can be attributed to differences in graduation rates: 80% of FAME participants graduate, compared to 30% elsewhere. It should be noted that FAME was not a randomized control trial (unlike Project Quest) but rather a match-paired study with a FAME participant and a “similar” individual, and data was only available for 24 of the 143 FAME participants at the five-year postgraduation mark. Nonetheless, research clearly shows that corporations, workforce development agencies, and community colleges can pair the best of Project Quest and FAME (the wraparound support provided by Quest, the broad and high-quality training in FAME, and the focus on high-demand roles in both) to optimize students’ outcomes.
The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) youth apprenticeship and Perkins V programs have appropriated funding that could be used to expand work-based training for community college students. For 2022–2023, Congress appropriated $933 million for youth activities under WIOA, while Perkins V provides roughly $1.4 billion in state formula grants for youth and adult training. However, 75% of WIOA funding goes to out-of-school youth, while Perkins funding covers a wide range of career and technical education programs across secondary, postsecondary, and adult learning. Either program could administer additional funding focused on work-based learning tied to a community college degree, but Congress should appropriate or divert funds to serve these needs. Philanthropic funds could also play a role, especially in funding wraparound supports and administrative expenses, but centralized public funding is needed to ensure appropriate funding and rollout.
Contrary to popular belief, working while going to community college does not necessarily detract from student performance. Researcher Mina Dadgar pulled over 40,000 community college student records from the state of Washington and linked them to tax data. Although work did have a statistically significant negative impact on quarterly credits earned and GPA, it does not have a practically significant negative effect on student outcomes.
From the regression analysis above, we can see that each additional hour of work reduces the quarterly credits earned by .065 credits and grade point average (GPA) by roughly .005 points. Assuming that a student works 15 hours per week, the student would be expected to take one less credit per quarter, or three credits assuming that they are enrolled throughout the year. This is, in effect, one class per year, which while not negligible is not a major loss to academic attainment. Similarly, working 15 hours per week would predict a GPA decline of about .06 points—again, not a substantial effect on academic performance.
One promising structure is the social impact bond (sometimes referred to as pay for success). In this model, private investors provide upfront capital to social intervention programs and are repaid if certain performance targets are met. Although establishing the proper baseline can be challenging, the contract involves payment for reducing the overall cost of service (for instance, interventions that proactively reduce recidivism or hospital visits for chronic disease).
Existing programs focus on the financial returns of “investing” in students’ training and upskilling: for instance, impact financier Social Finance and coding bootcamp General Assembly launched a career impact bond that has funded over 800 underserved individuals seeking a credential in technology. However, there is the potential for much broader assessments of economic value that increase the appeal of comprehensive wraparound solutions. In the case of workforce training, the ideal program design might involve an assessment of the overall reduction in social services associated with individuals trapped in poverty (for instance, increased healthcare costs or extended social services provision) as well as the increase in economic activity and tax receipts from a higher-paying job.
As a result, these types of targets encourage more holistic interventions such as the ones we see in the ASAP and Project Quest programs because investors and program managers benefit from students’ long-term success, not just their short-term success. This also incentivizes rigorous data tracking, which in the long term will provide critical information on intervention packages that have the strongest positive impact while weeding out those that are not as effective in improving outcomes.
Research shows that giving students equitable opportunities to learn requires access to key inputs. These include, at a minimum: access to qualified, experienced, in-field, and effective teachers; a rich curriculum; adequate funding; support staff; up-to-date facilities; standards-based materials; and technology. Since the 1960s education scholars have argued that federal, state, and local policymakers should use evidence-based opportunity-to-learn (OTL) indicators to inform education improvement processes and decisions about educator recruitment and retention, targeted student-centered programming, and equitable resource allocation. The current availability of district-level relief funds, the restarting of state accountability systems, and a possible reauthorization of the federal Education Sciences Reform Act (ESRA), are unique policy openings for education leaders to innovate using OTL indicators, incorporate promising practices from existing reporting systems, and establish place-based measures that fit local needs.
Challenge and Opportunity
COVID-19 placed an enormous burden on our education system. Lost instruction, student absences, teacher shortages, school discipline, and the wavering mental health of our nation’s youth have all made headlines since the pandemic began. To address these challenges, policymakers, educators, parents, and community members need multiple data points—in addition to test scores—to both identify achievement and opportunity gaps and spotlight successful models.
Luckily, a 2019 National Academies of Sciences study, in addition to several resources from the Department of Education and policy experts, demonstrate how OTL indicators can inform school, district, and systems-wide improvement. According to Stephen Elliot and Brendan Bartlett, OTL indicators “generally refer to inputs and processes within a school context necessary for producing student achievement of intended outcomes.” Such indicators can include those identified by the National Academies of Sciences in Table 1 and may also incorporate other indicators of school conditions and outcomes. When states, districts, and schools use various combinations of OTL indicators and disaggregate them by student subgroup, they can more accurately gauge and purposefully increase students’ opportunities to learn.
OTL indicators can also provide information about the nature of the teaching and learning opportunities states, districts, and schools make available to students across the country. For example, if a state’s curriculum frameworks and assessments outline standards for science or career and technical education that requires laboratory work, computers, specialized courses, and teaching expertise—states and districts should know whether students have access to these resources.
Federal and Expert Support for OTL Indicators
Over the past two years the Department of Education (ED) released two key resources supporting OTL implementation:
- Volume 2 of ED’s 2021 COVID-19 Handbook includes a section describing how states and districts can “use data about students opportunity to learn to help target resources and support.” This resource also lists several indicators for states to consider included in Table 2.
- ED’s 2022 guidance to states about their accountability systems mentions that states may modify their academic and School Quality and Student Success (SQSS) indicators under ESSA—specifically noting that they may pull from the list of OTL measures listed in ED’s COVID-19 Handbook. This guidance also “encourages SEAs, LEAs, and schools to include OTL measures and measures on the impact of COVID-19 as a part of the school improvement planning process.”
In addition, several organizations released OTL-related resources describing different indicators and how they are being used to support student achievement. For example:
- In 2023, the National Center for Education Statistics created an Equity in Education Dashboard pulling together available data connected to NAS’s 2019 report.
- In 2022, the Aspen Institute released a bipartisan set of OTL principles. These principles note how OTL indicators can create a shift in mindset “from a system and policy frame that measures students, to once that measures systems.”
- In 2022, the National Education Policy Center highlighted ED’s list of OTL indicators, arguing that these measures have never mattered more because they can expose the “systematic social and political structures” that create inequitable learning opportunities.
- In 2022, the Southern Education Foundation released a report recommending states revise their accountability systems to emphasize socio-economic factors, physical environments, health and wellness measures, and sociocultural metrics as a way to address achievement gaps.
- In 2021, MRDC published Equity Metrics, Measures, and Analytic Approaches in Education Research, which pulls together metrics from NAS and a 2018 UNESCO report.
- In 2021, Chiefs for Change released a tool for tracking multiple indicators of system-level student wellbeing, including measures of student flourishing, student mental health outcomes, school-based metrics, and state-connected supports.
- In 2021, FutureED released a report on equity measures. The report describes the history of OTL indicators, discusses criteria for choosing impactful metrics, and provides examples of OTL indicators in action.
- In 2020, the Center for Assessment released a resource describing why OTL data is important and how to collect it. This resource also includes a descriptive list of examples of potential indicators with a variety of ways states, districts, and schools can collect them.
Ideas to Use Data to Increase Opportunities to Learn
Taken together, the resources above from ED and policy experts can facilitate the following local, state, and federal actions to increase the use of OTL indicators.
Supporting Student Opportunity to Learn through Local Data Systems
States and districts have broad flexibility to use American Rescue Plan Act funds to support student achievement—including “developing and implementing procedures and systems to improve the preparedness and response efforts of local educational agencies.” These systems could arguably include building data collection and reporting infrastructure to track OTL indicators, monitor student progress, and respond with evidence-based interventions. Instead of starting from scratch, states and districts can pull best practices from existing cradle-to-career models such as the Schott Foundation’s Loving Cities Index, or StriveTogether which track various forms of OTL data from a student’s early years (e.g., kindergarten readiness) through their entry into career paths (e.g., postsecondary enrollment). School Systems can also adapt aspects of OTL indicators to show how they are meeting the needs of their students. For example, Houston Independent School District has an ESSER Spending Dashboard showing how much funding has been spent on educators, support staff, tutors, devices, programming, and physical health.
Supporting Student Opportunity to Learn through State Accountability and Improvement and Reporting Systems
At the state level, policymakers can help advance OTL indicators by using flexibility included in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and further described by ED’s 2022 accountability guidance. For example, ESSA requires states to add at least one indicator of “school quality or student success” to their accountability systems. A number of states have responded by adding indicators of college and career readiness, extended-year graduation rates, suspension rates, school climate, and chronic absenteeism, which all provide information about the broader set of outcomes and opportunities that shape student achievement. For example, the District of Columbia amended its ESSA plan in 2022 to include academic growth, access to dual enrollment courses, and a five-year graduation rate. Many states also represent OTL data in accessible formats such as the school data dashboard in California, a parent dashboard in New York, School and District Profiles in Oregon, and school climate survey reports in Illinois.
Supporting Student Opportunity to Learn through State and Federal Grant Programs
State and federal governments can also incorporate OTL indicators into reporting metrics for grantees. Specifically, state and federal government can solicit feedback on which indicators are most helpful to each program through public notices. By developing equity-centered measures with researchers, policymakers, and practitioners, federal agencies can help grantees build lasting data systems for reporting and continuous improvement. For example, the Full-Service Community School grant program went through negotiated rulemaking to reshape the program’s priorities and drew from suggestions submitted by policy experts to incorporate 13 reporting metrics for new grantees. To help make the collection less burdensome, agencies can also provide technical assistance and release guidance with existing data sources, best practices, and examples.
Supporting Student Opportunity to Learn through Education Sciences Reform Act (ESRA) Implementation and Reauthorization
The federal government can help states and districts close opportunity gaps by assisting in the collection, reporting, validation, disaggregation, and analysis of OTL data through ESRA-funded programs. For example, states and districts can leverage technical assistance and research dissemination through the Regional Educational Laboratories (RELs), creating resources and providing further support through the Comprehensive Centers Program, and equipping the Statewide Longitudinal Data System (SLDS) program to aid in building state and local capacity in measuring students’ opportunity to learn. Officials at the Institute for Education Sciences (IES) can also point states and districts to existing models such as Kentucky’s Longitudinal Data System and Washington’s Indicators of Education System Health, which incorporate data across a student’s academic continuum to inform policy and practice.
If state and local leaders are committed to supporting the “whole child,” then they need more than just outcome-based measures such as test scores or graduation rates (i.e., outputs). So much happens before students take a test or graduate. To improve outcomes, students, parents, teachers, and education stakeholders need better information about factors that contribute to student learning (i.e., inputs). For years federal, state, and local leaders have been assessing our students mainly to find the same persistent achievement gaps, which correlate heavily with race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. Expanding the use of OTL indicators also assess our federal, state, and local systems so they can find new opportunities for students to learn.
When we think back to our childhoods, many of us have fond memories of play. Playing outside, playing at school, or playing with friends and siblings often trump memories of worksheets and teacher lectures. Why is that?
Children are born ready to play and explore the world around them. First games of peek-a-boo with a loving caregiver provide an infant with learning and engagement— the infant develops a positive relationship with a caregiver, begins to develop object permanence, and experiences call and response social interactions – all critical steps in a child’s development.
According to the National Association of the Education of Young Children, play is a critical component of early childhood and children’s physical, social, and emotional development. Children learn best when they are doing. Playful learning includes opportunities for free play directed by the children themselves and guided play, designed by a teacher to provide children access to specific materials, concepts and guidance through hands-on engagement. These opportunities allow children to explore, expand their knowledge, take risks, develop interests, and practice their social and emotional skills.
Through play, many children are able to demonstrate their knowledge and learning that they otherwise are unable to share on a worksheet or assessment. For teachers, play provides a window into a child’s world that is not easily accessed through paper and pencil. Early childhood and early elementary programs have a critical opportunity to impact a child’s long term development by providing developmentally appropriate playful learning experiences to all children.
Playful Learning Promotes Child (and Adult) Well-being at a Critical Time
According to the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University, play can help young children develop resilience and navigate significant adversity. When young children experience playful learning, they benefit from enhanced problem solving, communication, decision-making and creative skills. Teachers and caregivers who encourage play and exploration establish positive relationships. Through this,children develop positive self-esteem and approaches to learning that can carry them for many years. All of these skills are not only critical now, but will increasingly be more important as the next generation moves forward into the future.
Unfortunately, play has become less valued over the last decade or so as school systems have put emphasis on scholastic curricula. We know that kindergarten classrooms are by and large offering less play time and more academic curriculum. Preschool programs are feeling the pressure of getting children “ready for school.” However, our children are experiencing unprecedented stress due to the pandemic, community violence and general unrest in the world. In addition, evidence suggests that children have experienced learning and development loss due to the pandemic. Now more than ever is the time to ensure they are getting what they need through playful learning.
Teachers working with our youngest children are also facing significant challenges as children and families return to the new normal of school on top of their own personal stressors. According to EducationWeek, many teachers continue to report high levels of stress and anxiety as a result of working through and post-pandemic. Teachers are not only continuing to manage virus exposure but are expected to address learning loss of their students, navigate mental health needs while all the while meeting increasingly more rigorous standards during a teacher shortage. Could “allowing” teachers to do what’s best for children and utilize playful learning as a primary strategy not only support children through this trying time but also provide a more relaxed supportive environment for teachers as well? Rather than spending time copying worksheets, conducting testing and focusing on rote memorization, play would be beneficial for teachers and children alike.
In the United States, play is often considered a four letter word mistakenly associated with less academic instruction and ultimately, lower test scores. However, the tide is changing as more and more communities both in the U.S. and abroad begin to recognize that both free and guided play in early childhood can provide children important opportunities for learning, growth and ultimately success in school and life.
Three Lessons from Quality, Play-based Early Learning Programs
Educators and policymakers alike can learn a lot from other countries’ experiences developing quality, play-based early childhood programs. There have been great strides in adopting playful learning — even in low-resource contexts and in school systems where primary schooling tends to follow more traditional teacher-led approaches. Here are three examples of how play has contributed to quality early learning outside the U.S. to show what might be possible.
Playful learning is key to quality early child education: Lively Minds in Ghana
While Ghana introduced two years of kindergarten for four- and five-year olds as part of the universal basic education system in 2007, many schools faced difficulties training and retaining teachers. Large class sizes, limited play and learning materials, and rote teaching approaches are common in preschools. In response to these challenges, Lively Minds, an NGO, developed community-led, play-based early learning programs, known as “Play Schemes” in schools. In partnership with the Ghana Education Service, Lively Minds trained two kindergarten teachers from each participating school who then trained 30-40 mothers to be play scheme facilitators. Four days a week, volunteer mothers run play stations with small groups of children focused on: counting; matching; shapes and senses; books; and building. Parents also participate in monthly workshops to learn to support their children’s health, development, and learning at home.
The program is delivered within the existing government system to promote sustainability. Government and Lively Minds staff jointly monitor the implementation of the play schemes. A randomized control trial in rural Ghana found that Lively Minds significantly improved children’s emerging literacy, executive functioning, and fine motor skills. Children from poorer households benefited more from the program; emergent literacy skills also improved in this group of children. Participating children’s socio-emotional development improved as conduct problems and hyperactive behaviors decreased. Acute malnutrition decreased by a remarkable 22% among children attending Play Schemes. Volunteer mothers improved their self-esteem and mental health as well as their knowledge about child development. They also spent more time on developmentally appropriate activities with their children at home.
Currently, the Ghanaian government is rolling out Lively Minds in 60 of the country’s 228 districts, reaching approximately 4,000 preschool classrooms and more than 1.3 million young children. A new study will evaluate the program’s effectiveness at scale.
Increasing equity through play: Play Labs in Bangladesh
The second example comes from Bangladesh, where the development organization BRAC created the Play Lab model, a low-cost, non-formal approach to play-based learning for children ages 3-5. These vibrant, child-friendly spaces follow a play-based curriculum and use low-cost recycled materials. Play Leaders, young women selected from the community, give young children space and time to explore their own interests and ideas. Play Leaders also engage young children in culturally-relevant rhymes, stories, and dancing to encourage joy-filled learning. Since 2015, Play Labs have reached over 115,000 children in local communities, government schools, and refugee camps in Bangladesh, Tanzania, and Uganda.
A quasi-experimental evaluation in 2018-2019 in Bangladesh found that the Play Labs improved children’s development across physical, cognitive, and socio-emotional domains. In fact, after two years in the Play Labs, children who scored below average at baseline were able to catch up to their peers who entered with the highest scores; no such pattern was found in the control group. By reducing these initial gaps among children, Play Labs helped improve equity and promote school readiness for very disadvantaged young children. Play Leaders not only increased their early childhood knowledge and skills, but also the quality of their interactions with children.
Reaching children experiencing crisis and conflict: Remote early childhood education program in Lebanon
In Lebanon, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) worked with Sesame Workshop to implement an 11-week Remote Early Learning Program for families affected by conflict and crisis. The curriculum focuses on social and emotional learning and school readiness skills and targets mostly (96%) Syrian caregivers with 5-6 year old children living in hard-to-access areas of Lebanon, where exposure to preschool is very limited. As with quality, in-person early childhood education, the remote program focuses on engaging children through hands-on and play-based activities. Participating families receive supplies and worksheets to use in the activities with their children. Teachers use WhatsApp to call groups of parents and send multimedia content (e.g., videos, storybooks, songs) 2-3 times a week. The first five minutes of the call involve the child to help foster their connections with the teacher, while the remainder of time engages the parent on how early childhood activities support children’s development and learning.
A 2022 study compared the impact of the Remote Early Learning Program (RELP) alone and in combination with a remote parent support program that focuses more broadly on early childhood development. Both forms of the intervention had significant, positive effects on child development and child play compared to the control group. The authors remark that: “The size of the impacts found on child development is in the range of those seen in evaluations of in-person preschool from around the world, suggesting that RELP is a viable alternative to support children in places where in-person preschool is not feasible.”
Enabling Play-Based Policies in the U.S. are Needed
While these different modalities – home-based, center-based, remote learning – are promising approaches to support young children’s learning through play, they will not be implemented or scaled in the United States without an enabling policy environment. This means playful learning should be included in policy documents, legislation, standards, and curricula. It should also be supported by committing adequate financial resources for teachers to create playful learning environments and opportunities.
We’re seeing this happen in countries that are known for their high scores on international assessments, but less for their child-centered approaches in the early years. For example, in 2019, South Korea introduced a revised curriculum for 3 to 5 year olds that is organized around learning domains instead of by age. The goal is to shift from an academic approach to early childhood education to one that is more child-focused and play-based.
In 2012, Singapore revamped its Nurturing Early Learners curriculum for children ages 4 to 6 with a key objective being “To give every child a good start, preschool education nurtures the joy of learning and children’s holistic development.” To support implementation, the government developed educators’ guides and teaching and learning resources. Coincidentally, or not, Singapore ranks 4th in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), an international comparative assessment that evaluates reading literacy at grade 4.
One of the more comprehensive approaches comes from Rwanda, which recently revised its curriculum for pre-primary education through upper secondary grades. The competency-based curriculum recognizes the importance of play-based learning to reach intended learning outcomes across ages. The Ministry of Education is now working with partners to develop a national strategy to institutionalize learning through play into teacher training and pedagogical practices. In addition to pre-service and in-service training, components will include appropriate learning materials, assessments, quality assurance mechanisms, monitoring and evaluation, and advocacy to roll out learning through play within the education system.
Five Ways Policymakers Can Introduce Playful Learning into any Education Model Today
We know why playful learning is important. We can take inspiration from successful programs in some of the most vulnerable contexts. It’s time for policy makers in the U.S. to take steps to make learning through play a reality for our youngest learners:
- Include playful learning in policy documents including those related to standards and curriculum
- Prioritize funding for high quality developmentally appropriate playful learning in Pre-3
- Focus on preparing and supporting teachers to create playful learning environments along the P-3 continuum
- Support family members to integrate play into everyday activities with their children
- Use appropriate technology to complement in-class activities or to reach those who do not have access to early childhood education
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It’s back-to-school time! As kids from across the country get back into classrooms this fall, many of them, at least in Colorado and Minnesota, will be attending a school that will offer free meals to all students through new state programs that voters approved last year. That’s good news for individual students and their classrooms. This post will look at why.
Using innovative data linkages and analysis, research finds that these policies, in combination with other school- and broad-based health policies, effectively enhance not just children’s health and wellbeing but also their reading, math, and classroom behavior. Moreover, the health policy effects on educational outcomes are comparable to a $1,000 increase in per-pupil spending.
Examining the Education Effects of Health Policies
A recent study systematically reviewed and synthesized results from 56 studies to evaluate the causal impact of various health policies targeting school-aged children and their parents on children’s education in the U.S. (Disclosure: this was my study, in conjunction with a graduate student.) We found that several health policies and programs aimed at improving the physical health of children and parents, particularly from low-income households, have positive effects on educational attainment.
For example, nutritional policies in schools, similar to the “Health School Meals for All” program started in Colorado this year, builds on empirical evidence from similar initiatives rolled out by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) in select districts across the country through a program called the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP). Careful empirical analysis found that the CEP, which was designed to universalize the access to healthy school meals in high poverty school districts, improved children’s math scores (albeit primarily in schools serving the most vulnerable kids from low-income households). Similarly, researchers also found that this policy reduced adverse school disciplinary outcomes—such as suspensions and expulsions across several parts of the country, particularly for children from low-income households.
Reducing Hunger Improves Performance in School
Food insecurity affected nearly 10 million children in 2019 according to estimates from the USDA. This situation increased during the height of the pandemic despite stop-gap arrangements such as the pandemic-EBT. Research has shown the deleterious effects of food insecurity on a whole host of learning and socioemotional outcomes for children. Some children end up eating their only meal in school. This makes school-based nutritional policies an important complement to other broad-based, nutritional policies—such as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP). Studies find that at the end of the SNAP benefit cycle, students experience negative effects on their learning and behavior.
Children Lacking Health Insurance Struggle in School
With child poverty rising dramatically in recent weeks, it is hard not to stress the importance of access to subsidized, quality healthcare for our most vulnerable children. While past research clarified the beneficial effects of health insurance access—such as Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP)—on children’s health and wellbeing; more recently, researchers are uncovering the positive, educational effects from these policies as well. When parents gained access to Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act, the benefits transferred over to their children, too. Studies show these children improved their reading scores and reduced the stubborn white-Black math achievement gap, achievement differences in math standardized test scores between white and Black students.
How do these improvements compare to other educational policy reforms? Indeed, we find that these nutritional interventions, while modest in absolute terms, are roughly comparable to a $1,000 increase in per-pupil spending (annually over four years) in schools. Both sets of federal policies/programs (Medicaid/CHIP as well as per-pupil school funding increases) improve student test scores by about 0.04 standard deviations. Although such comparisons across models/policies is not often straightforward, nevertheless, these research findings provide suggestive evidence that targeted, health policy interventions can be quite effective in improving school-aged children’s educational outcomes.
Integrated Data Linkages Can Power Effective Health-Focused Learning Policies
One significant barrier to examining such cross-policy research and policymaking is the lack of high-quality, integrated data. While some states are beginning to develop robust databases that cover health and education outcomes, we have a long way to go. But, by creating data linkages, we can more quickly find and replicate solutions that support student outcomes.
There are a few such projects underway. For example, California’s “cradle-to-career” is an example of an excellent statewide, longitudinal data system, which plans to connect data on early education, K-12 schools, colleges, social/health services, and employment. Similarly, states like Minnesota, and Wisconsin have also invested in such administrative data linkages between birth records, child welfare, and education data systems.
Indeed, the Institute of Education Science’s (IES) statewide longitudinal database system program has expanded across the country and education sectors (e.g., P-20/workforce expansions) since 2019. However, modernization and expansions that prioritizes linkages with other key social innovation issues—such as health—through innovative data linkages between education and health and human services, vital statistics (birth records), Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMMS), and child welfare systems represents a huge opportunity.
We hope that such linked datasets will be opened to researchers and policymakers across the country, not least because such datasets have been integral for the development of this nascent literature. For example, one study that used such linked data from Florida to examine the negative effects of environmental pollution on children’s academic achievement. Similarly, another study used linked birth-records and education data to examine the effect of Medicaid access among low-income parents on their children’s reading outcomes in Iowa.
We always knew that healthy children do better in school—they pay better attention in class, disrupt less frequently, and learn better when they are healthy and happy. We now have rigorous empirical research to show the precise effects of such health policies on the most vulnerable children’s education. More parents, policymakers, and researchers will gain more knowledge at the health-education nexus when data is shared.
In its early days, kindergarten was considered a radical approach to education. The foundation of the kindergarten curriculum included developmentally appropriate practice through hands-on engaging activities designed for the developmental stages of young children. Hands-on activities, play and socialization, or the ways children learn best, were the key strategies utilized to support children’s learning. Today, kindergarten is more closely associated with academics, worksheets, and learning to read as the pressure to meet certain standards is pushed down on our young children, their families and teachers. This shift has resulted in the more engaging hands on activities falling to the wayside.
One might assume that this more intensive introduction to public school would produce better long term results for our students. Why do it otherwise? However, most recent data from the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) reports that the average reading scores for fourth graders in the U.S. was lower than the averages for 12 education systems across the world, many of whom wait until children are developmentally ready to read, closer to age 7, before beginning formal literacy instruction. If children are not faring as well as they progress through the grades as students in countries with less rigorous curricula in kindergarten, is our more intensive academic approach in the early years working? It is time to radicalize kindergarten again?
Kindergarten Today is More Advanced Than You Remember
According to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard, emotional well-being and social competence provide a strong foundation for emerging cognitive abilities, and together they are the bricks and mortar of brain architecture. The emotional and physical health, social skills, and cognitive-linguistic capacities that emerge in the early years are all important for success in school, the workplace, and in the larger community. Children develop these important skills through positive relationships with caring adults, play-based, engaging activities, and opportunities to explore. In recent times, kindergarten classroom curriculum has shifted away from meeting the developmental needs and abilities of children instead following a highly academic one-size-fits-all approach to learning. Coincidentally, or not, the majority of teacher preparation programs in the United States do not require (or in some cases even offer) a course on child development or the science of learning in young children.
Today, kindergarten in the United States looks much more like first, second or even third grade yet, developmentally, our children remain the same.
According to a study conducted by the University of Virginia, between 1998 and 2006, kindergarteners were held to increasingly higher academic expectations both prior to and during kindergarten, including the expectation that parents would teach children all (presumably English) letters before entering school. Teachers reported dedicating more time to advanced literacy and math content, teacher-directed instruction, and assessment and substantially less time to art, music, science, and child-selected activities. This trend continues today.
While some states require 30 minutes of recess for kindergartners, other states do not, and have in some cases reduced outdoor play time to 15 minutes or less per day. According to Eric Jensen’s book Teaching With the Brain in Mind, “A short recess arouses students and may leave them ‘hyper’ and less able to concentrate.” Children benefit from an extended recess session (approximately an hour in length), because it gives their bodies time to regulate the movement and bring their activity level back down again.” Our kindergarteners are playing less and ‘studying’ more.
The Inequities of Kindergarten Have Lasting Consequences
Just as a child’s experience prior to entering the public school system may be different than the next child, once they enter kindergarten, their experience can vary greatly based on the state, district and community in which they live. According to the most recent 50 State Comparison: K-3 Policies released by the Education Commision of the States, every district in the country offers at least a part day kindergarten with 16 states requiring full day kindergarten. In some states, districts are required to offer over 1,000 hours of kindergarten instruction per school year whereas others require as few as 50 hours. Some kindergarten teachers have as many as 33 children alone in a kindergarten classroom while children in other states may be in a class with half as many children present. Six states do not require kindergarten attendance.
Since the pandemic, enrollment and attendance in kindergarten has declined across the country primarily in communities of color. Based on a report released by Attendance Works in 2011, we know that children with low or at-risk attendance in kindergarten and first grade were more likely to not reach grade level standards in third grade in English language arts and math. National estimates suggest that one in 10 kindergarten and first grade students misses 18 or more days of the school year, or nearly a month. More recent data suggests this rate is most likely higher. These missed days in the early years can add up to weaker reading skills, higher rates of retention and lower attendance rates in later grades.This is especially true for children from low-income families, who depend on school for literacy development. Students from lower performing schools and/or low income families were more likely to have attendance issues in the early years compared to their peers from higher performing schools.
Bridging the Gap
For many students, we know that kindergarten is their first experience in the public school system. While some may not start school until first grade, kindergarten is often the bridge from early experiences to the K-12 system. Children of color and/or those living in low income communities may face the perfect storm that challenges the integrity of the bridge that is kindergarten. For example, access to kindergarten may be limited, cultural and linguistic appropriateness may be absent, chronic health issues may impact attendance, and transportation may be challenging. For many working families, a half day kindergarten does not meet the family’s needs. Full day programs may be out of reach for families either because they are not offered or, they live within communities where the first half of kindergarten is free but the second half of the day is fee-based, excluding lower income families.
Based on 2021 U.S. Census Data, 14% of 5 year old children in the United States are not enrolled in school. This means we have over 150,000 potentially eligible children not enrolled in kindergarten. How will every child reach the Common Core standards for kindergarten if they are not in kindergarten? And even if they are present, are the standards being implemented equitably across the country? Are our kindergarteners experiencing the most appropriate learning possible?
In order to ensure all children are provided the same opportunities for growth and success, we must ensure that all schools are ready for all children. To do so, it is important we explore opportunities to:
- Develop and implement federal and state policies requiring kindergarten curricula based on the science of learning and child development while aligned to the Common Core standards
- Ensure consistent, appropriate teacher to child ratios and class sizes in every kindergarten classroom
- Provide and require professional development regarding child development and the science of learning for all kindergarten teachers and administrators
- Provide opportunities for free full day kindergarten in all communities
- Provide necessary transportation, health, and community services to kindergarteners and their families
- Expand research of kindergarten readiness, effectiveness of kindergarten curricula, and long term outcomes of kindergarten students
As kindergarten focuses on academic performance and excludes those without classroom or transportation access, we tip the scales further between the “haves” and “have nots” – at the risk to all students and American competitiveness. How a child is introduced to school and how a child is prepared for formal education has lasting effects. If the U.S. wants to develop a workforce ready to lead and compete globally we have to start at the very beginning of a student’s school experience. Kindergarten, once radical, today needs a radical reinvention that provides for today’s challenges and readies children for tomorrow.
Earlier this month, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) committee called on the education community for input on policies to include in a reauthorized Education Sciences Reform Act (ESRA). First enacted in 2002 and last reauthorized in 2008, the ESRA established the Institute for Education Sciences (IES) as the independent research branch of the Department of Education and broadly authorized the federal government to conduct coordinated and scientifically-based research on the US education system. The potential reauthorization of the ESRA by the 118th Congress marks a major opportunity to update and streamline our education research and development (R&D) ecosystem for the modern era.
The Alliance for Learning Innovation (ALI) Coalition, which FAS helps lead, was pleased to submit a response to the Senate HELP committee’s request (read it in full here). The ALI Coalition brings together education nonprofits, philanthropy, and the private sector to advocate for building a better education R&D infrastructure that is based in evidence, centers students and practitioners, advances equity, improves talent pathways, and expands America’s globally competitive workforce.
ALI sees great promise in a robust, inclusive, and updated education R&D ecosystem, with the IES playing a key role. If the 118th Congress decides to reauthorize the ESRA, ALI urges the HELP committee to strengthen our education system by prioritizing the following policies:
Support informed-risk, high-reward research and development, especially with respect to development. Congress should create a National Center for Advanced Development in Education (NCADE), which would catalyze breakthroughs in education research and innovation similarly to how the DARPA model accelerated the study of emerging defense technologies. NCADE would fund informed-risk, high-reward projects developed by universities, nonprofits, industry, or other innovative organizations.
Enhance federal, state, and local education R&D infrastructure. Congress should direct and support IES to research the development of innovative approaches and technologies that improve teaching and learning. IES should also encourage information and data sharing between states by expanding and modernizing the Statewide Longitudinal Data Systems (SLDS) program and providing other forums for interstate connection.
Support the development of diverse education R&D talent. IES should dedicate specific research grant programs for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs), and Tribally Controlled Colleges and Universities (TCCUs). Additionally, IES should offer “data science fluency training grants” to academic researchers, especially at HBCUs, MSIs, and TCCUs, as well as establish a “rotator program” that would bring in talent with advanced expertise to complement the skills of their current staff.
Drive collaboration between IES, NSF, and other federal agencies. Congress should encourage IES and the new Technology, Innovation, and Partnerships (TIP) Directorate at NSF to collaborate and support R&D programs that enhance research on teaching and learning in emerging technologies that can create efficiencies and improve outcomes.
Promote data privacy. ALI believes the ESRA reauthorization should remain separate from attempts to improve the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). However, Congress should update ESRA to strengthen the U.S. Department of Education’s Privacy Technical Assistance Center (PTAC).
The ALI Coalition knows that a potential ESRA reauthorization is a crucial inflection point for American education. We hope to see Congress strengthen our country’s commitment to education R&D so we can better embrace innovative, evidence-based practices that improve learning outcomes.
WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Alliance for Learning Innovation (ALI) applauds the increases proposed for education research and development (R&D) and innovation in the President’s budget request. These include the $870.9 million proposed for the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), including $75 million for a National Center for Advanced Development in Education (NCADE), the $405 million proposed for the Education Innovation and Research (EIR) program and the $1.4 billion for the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Directorate for STEM Education. These investments represent real commitments to advancing an inclusive education research system that centers students, teachers, and communities.
These recommendations build upon the bipartisan interest in utilizing education R&D to accelerate learning recovery, increase student achievement, and ensure students and teachers are prepared for the continued impact technology will have on teaching and learning. National and economic security depends on the success of our students and ALI appreciates the priorities this budget request places on fostering innovations in education that will support U.S. competitiveness.
Dan Correa, CEO of the Federation of American Scientists and co-lead of ALI notes, “Investments in education research and development hold so much promise for dramatically improving gaps in student achievement. Learning recovery, workforce development, and global competition all demand a pool of talent that can only come from an education system that meets the needs of diverse learners. The President’s budget request recognizes that more robust education R&D is needed to support bold innovations that meet the needs of students, teachers, families, and communities.”
This budget will allow IES and other federal agencies the ability to build on boundary-pushing efforts like the National AI Institute for Exceptional Education, which is supporting advancements in AI, human-AI interaction, and learning science to improve educational outcomes for children with speech and language related challenges.
For too long, federal support for education R&D has languished while resources and attention have been devoted to R&D in health care, defense, energy, and other fields. Today’s budget represents a critical step forward in addressing this deficiency. The Alliance for Learning Innovation looks forward to championing the continued development of an education R&D ecosystem that will lead to the types of groundbreaking developments and advancements we see in health care and defense; thus affording students everywhere access to fulfilling futures.
For more information about the Alliance for Learning Innovation, please visit https://www.alicoalition.org/.