Two years riddled with pandemic-fueled tragedies have exacted a massive social, political, and economic toll on all Americans, but families and young children have suffered acutely. First, lockdowns and the closures of schools and child care facilities left most kids dealing with degrees of social isolation. Second, reopened schools, relaxed mitigation protections, and newly infectious variants produced roughly 8 million pediatric COVID cases since the end of August. Hospitals’ pediatric ICUs overflowed across the country in the fall before vaccines became available for 5–12-year-olds (preschoolers, toddlers, and infants are still waiting). Third, hundreds of thousands of American children have lost parents or caregivers to the virus.
And, of course, children of color were disproportionately impacted, as measured by essentially every major metric of pandemic stress, trauma, or suffering. For instance, according to a study published last fall in Pediatrics, in the first fifteen months of the pandemic, “Compared to white children, American Indian/Alaska Native children were 4.5 times more likely to lose a parent or grandparent caregiver, Black children were 2.4 times more likely, and Hispanic children were nearly 2 times (1.8) more likely.”
This is a profoundly difficult time to be a child or a working caregiver of young children.
Is it any surprise then that early childhood investments have been at the forefront of U.S. pandemic recovery discussions? In 2021, Congress delivered the Biden administration’s request for a major—albeit temporary—expansion of the Child Tax Credit (CTC). Subsequent proposals to increase access to high-quality, affordable child care and pre-K programs—as well as an extension of the expanded CTC—have passed the House of Representatives and been stuck in varying forms of limbo in the Senate for months.
In the meantime, historically marginalized children and their families are still suffering from systemic pandemic and pre-pandemic inequities. So, in a new Children’s Equity Project report, my co-authors and I outlined a series of actions the administration could take to advance equity in early childhood education now. (Note: Some of these ideas echo recommendations I made in The Century Foundation’s “A New Federal Equity Agenda for Dual Language Learners and English Learners,” published in December.)
The report covers a range of early education policy areas, including inequitable application of exclusionary discipline, inclusive learning experiences for students with disabilities, regulatory changes related to resource equity and accountability, and much more. Some of these recommendations are simple: my co-authors and I call on the administration to appoint a new director to run the Department of Education’s Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA). This role—which oversees the distribution of more than $50 million in federal grants supporting professional development for teachers related to English language development, has been unfilled for over a year. We also suggest renaming OELA as the Office of Multilingual Learning, to more accurately reflect the research consensus showing that English learners (ELs) do best when their emerging bilingualism is viewed as an asset and supported in school.
Other recommendations suggest ways to improve data collection that could drive more equitable decision-making in early childhood education settings. For instance, we call for the Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection reporting to “identify which of their public schools offer bilingual and/or dual language learning opportunities (starting in preschool) to better understand equitable access to bilingual learning for dual language and English learners.” There is growing evidence that nationwide enthusiasm for dual language immersion programs is not always leading to equitable access to bilingual instruction for ELs. But widespread data on where these programs are launching—and the demographics of students attending them—are lacking.
Better, more fully equitable data collection requires much more than more comprehensive information on instructional models and enrollment. We also recommend that the Department of Education prioritize the development of assessments to better measure ELs’ development in their home languages in subsequent cycles of the Competitive Grants for State Assessments program. At present, U.S. schools have a battery of assessments available for measuring these students’ English language development, but far fewer tools that help them recognize ELs’ emerging bilingual skills. These sorts of assessments would fill a critical need, particularly as states like California are pushing to identify and gather more data on the language abilities of young English-learning students.
The pace of political change may be slow—even in early childhood policy, where the needs are pressing. But, as my co-authors and I put it in our report, “Millions of U.S. children are at risk of missing out on quality equitable early learning experiences. They deserve urgency.”