The Condition of Education in Western Massachusetts: Looking at Progress in Early Learning

The first five years of a child’s life are crucial for cognitive, social, and emotional growth, a time when children develop the foundational skills that will support their paths in school and life. The benefits of early childhood education are particularly important for the most vulnerable children, including those from low-income families. Providing quality education for young children with less literacy experience at home can help address systemic opportunity and achievement gaps. 

Massachusetts has made significant efforts to improve access to high quality early education and care over the past two decades. About two-thirds of children under six who are eligible for a subsidy are now enrolled in high-quality early education programs. Meanwhile, 95 percent of students who attend kindergarten do so for the full day due to significant increases in the availability of full-day kindergarten programs across the state. But significant challenges remain, particularly in the state’s lowest-income communities. Ensuring access to quality programming is a necessary but ultimately insufficient step, if the systems that provide these important educational experiences are not aligned and working together.

Our 2018 Condition of Education in the Commonwealth report looks at how Springfield increased the number of students attending preK and improved the quality of early education by creating a partnership between preschool providers. On June 5, we held our third annual Condition of Education in Western Massachusetts event to bring the local education and business communities together to delve deeper into the success of Springfield’s early education programming.

“Only 12 percent of students were going into kindergarten prepared, regardless of their preK experience. We realized the district and community-based preK providers needed to come together to align our curriculum and approach to teaching,” said Laura Mendes, a panelist at the event and Director of Literacy, Elementary and Early Childhood Education/Preschool Expansion Grant Program Coordinator for Springfield Public Schools.

A team of Springfield’s district, school-based, and community providers took the lead on bringing a reform mindset to the city’s early education programs. Together, they used a rigorous data-informed decision-making process to improve the quality of preK throughout the community.   

This effort was made possible by the federal Preschool Expansion Grant, which provided Springfield with more than $14 million over four years. The funding has been used to create 195 new preschool seats for children from low-income households and facilitate the partnership among three of the city’s preschool providers.

At the June 5 event, Amy Checkoway of Abt Associates and Jocelyn Bowne of the Department of Early Education and Care presented the findings of their recent study on the impact of the Preschool Expansion Grant in Springfield, Holyoke, and several other urban districts across the state. Their research found that the grant had a positive impact on children, especially those who do not speak English at home and those with no previous formal care.

“Springfield and Holyoke's participation in our preschool expansion initiative that uses partnerships and cross-sector alignment to provide high-quality programs, is helping to build a birth-to-third grade early learning system in Massachusetts," said Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care Commissioner Tom Weber, who was a featured speaker at the event. “Collaborating to strategically leverage the strengths of public preschools and licensed early education programs will help Springfield and Holyoke continue to provide high-quality preschool opportunities for children in these communities.”

The 2018 Condition of Education report identifies a six-part process that schools and districts can use to make lasting improvements. Springfield’s partnership to improve early education is a successful example of this process, particularly their efforts to identify a problem of practice and build a trusting and committed team. The team’s thoughtful and structured approach to change helped Springfield implement a great idea with fidelity.

“It’s not enough to have a great strategy, a great plan, a great proposal. What you really need is great execution on the ground to get things done. That’s where change really happens, that’s where impact happens, that’s where young people’s lives are transformed ultimately though education,” said Massachusetts Secretary of Education James Peyser, who provided the event’s closing remarks.

The event was co-sponsored by the Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts, Greater Holyoke Chamber of Commerce, Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, Springfield Business Leaders for Education, and Springfield Regional Chamber.

High-quality early education and full-day kindergarten are two key indicators the Rennie Center uses to assess progress in our education system. To learn about other indicators and look at progress over time or outcomes for different student groups, check out our interactive data dashboard