Louisiana and Mississippi are fundamentally changing their thinking about the early years and serving their youngest learners as they face similar challenges, including poverty and educational struggles.

”It comes down to making sure that public systems focus and act on something that parents and other caregivers understand: What happens in the early years matters so much to everything that will happen later.”

Starting the process with learners from birth to age 5 is one of the most powerful steps available to advance opportunity, strengthen communities and grow the economy through a set of principles that any state can enact.

In recent years, Louisiana and Mississippi have led the country in progress on the nation’s report card for our K-12 students. But the states have much further to go, and we’re starting with learners in the earliest years, from birth to age 5.

It comes down to making sure that public systems focus and act on something that parents and other caregivers understand: What happens in the early years matters so much to everything that will happen later.

The impact of high-quality early childhood education is well-established, especially for children in low-income communities: stronger reading and math skills and higher staying power at nearly every stage of education — and, years later, higher chances of owning a home and a car; lower chances of being incarcerated, receiving welfare or having children out of wedlock.

Those benefits, while enormous, are not surprising. Ninety percent of a child’s brain develops during the first five years of life. Surrounding our youngest children with learning and interactions that engage the brain during their youngest years translates into dramatic payoffs. Each dollar invested in quality supports throughout the early years returns $13. High-quality early childhood care and education can help break intergenerational cycles of poverty, and can help parents of young children, especially women, return to the workforce. Today, the lack of affordable, quality early childhood care costs our states billions of dollars in lost productivity.

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A strong commitment, and a set of clear action steps, pays off in extraordinary ways for our kids. In Mississippi’s nationally recognized, innovative early learning collaboratives, more than three-quarters of children emerge as kindergarten-ready — up 18 percentage points from four years ago, and outpacing every other kind of childcare provider. In Louisiana, 89 percent of children receive top-tier curricula — double where we were four years ago — and 86 percent of 4-year-olds in need are in high-quality care settings.

We did that by fundamentally changing how our states think about the early years. Historically, states have treated K-12 education as one “thing,” an essential public good provided by professionals worthy of support and training, and whose results must be transparent to parents and the public. By contrast, the care and education of the youngest children have been fractured across different agencies, with quality opaque and supports happenstance. Here are some lessons on early education, and what we did to improve our states’ approaches:

  1. Get everyone clear on the stakes. Facts are powerful: We are committed to ensuring that everyone knows how important high-quality early learning is.
  2. Secure dedicated funding. After seeing how much of a difference early learning makes, both of our states committed to pilot efforts, helping thousands of families. And Louisiana has now aligned all of its support for early-years care and learning under one state agency. The current challenge is to ensure that more families have access to these high-quality offerings.
  3. Make quality the North Star. Both of our states have made an internationally validated measure of teacher-child engagement called CLASS our big goal. That helps us let families know whether they can expect a warm, supportive, language-rich and stimulating environment, and lets states target support to providers that need it. We’ve established websites that make it easy for families to choose the best option for their child.
  4. Support educators. We’re ensuring that teachers have the support, training and high-quality instructional materials they need, and we’re aligning credentialing around our vision for high-quality early childhood education. Our focus ensures that many more children are learning from high-quality, appropriately challenging curricular materials.
  5. Intervene where necessary. Both Louisiana and Mississippi are ensuring that providers get the support they need, and both states are seeing dramatic impacts.

What we’ve done isn’t complicated — it’s simply a matter of focus. It’s something that any state can do. And we’re hungry to share these lessons on early education and learn with states and communities everywhere. If you’re interested in seeing our work and results firsthand, our doors are open.

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This story about early education in Louisiana and Mississippi was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

Jessica Baghian is Assistant State Superintendent of Education in Louisiana and a fellow at Chiefs for Change.

Carey Wright is State Superintendent of Education in Mississippi and a member at Chiefs for Change.

Jessica Baghian is Assistant State Superintendent of Education in Louisiana and a fellow of Chiefs for Change.

Carey Wright, Ed.D., is Mississippi Superintendent of Education and a member of Chiefs for Change.

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