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Washington State

Early Learning

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Early learning helps build a stronger education system and a more competitive workforce for the future.

Our goal:

Increase school readiness in Washington State to 75 percent for low-income children by 2020.

The Challenge

At A Glance

Research shows that quality early learning can make a big difference—especially for disadvantaged children—by closing the achievement gap that starts before kindergarten

Early learning is a smart investment that helps build a stronger education system and a more competitive workforce for the future 

The Washington State Department of Early Learning, Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction and Thrive by Five Washington, a public-private partnership, lead many of the early learning efforts in this state

Early Learning is one of the Gates Foundation’s top priorities in Washington State

Research shows that early childhood experiences build the foundation for a skilled workforce, a responsible community, and a thriving economy. Yet, of the approximately 80,000 children in Washington who enter kindergarten each year, nearly 30 percent lack basic language and behavioral skills essential for school achievement. 

Unfortunately, when children start behind, they often stay behind, and low-income children are most at risk of struggling in the early years. By the third grade, 40 percent of low-income students read below grade level, compared to 27 percent of students overall. 

Today, the state spends approximately $500 million per year to provide preschool, child care, and early intervention services for children birth to age 5. These programs form a patchwork of independent services, each with different goals, eligibility requirements, and funding sources. This fragmented landscape creates confusion for Washington families and limits collaborative efforts to increase quality.

The Opportunity

The first five years of a child’s life go by quickly. They also last forever. During this period, children’s brains are developing faster than at any other time in their lives. Long before kindergarten, children are developing the skills they will need to succeed in school and life. Research has shown that quality early learning can make a big difference—especially for disadvantaged children—by closing the achievement gap that starts before kindergarten. 

Early learning is a smart investment that helps build a stronger education system and a more competitive workforce for the future. That’s why elected officials, businesses leaders, and philanthropic partners have come together over the past decade to support quality early learning in Washington State.

The Washington State Department of Early Learning, together with the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction and Thrive by Five Washington, provide resources and support for families, child care providers, and communities to ensure that every child in Washington State has access to high-quality, safe, and healthy early education. In 2011, Washington State received a federal Race to the Top—Early Learning Challenge grant to further efforts to increase the quality of early learning programs.

It will take more than just additional funding to make sure all Washington children enter kindergarten ready to learn.

Our Strategy

The best way to break the cycle of poverty is through education. In Washington State, we focus on promoting successful educational outcomes for all students through a holistic approach, starting at birth and culminating in a college degree or certificate. We call this effort Education Pathways, because we aim to support every child on the path to success. We specifically focus on enhancing opportunities for low-income children and children from diverse racial and cultural backgrounds.

Early learning is one of the best investments we can make. Since 2005, we have worked with public, private, and community partners to ensure high-quality early learning opportunities that help children enter school ready to learn and succeed. These include home visiting services, which support parents in their role as their children’s first and most important teacher, and efforts to improve early learning settings by increasing the quality of both the learning environments and the interactions between children and their adult caregivers.

Across all of these activities, we work to support quality standards and give parents, early-learning providers, and teachers better information about how well prepared children are for school. We support a collaborative effort by the Department of Early Learning, Thrive by Five, and the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction to create a coordinated statewide early-learning approach.

Areas of Focus

To build a coordinated early learning system, the Department of Early Learning, Thrive by Five, and the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction—with input from hundreds of Washington residents and early childhood advocates—developed the Washington State Early Learning Plan. The plan serves as the state’s road map to ensure that all children have what they need to succeed in school and life. 

We support several key initiatives to create a strong, coordinated early learning system that measures and improves the quality of services for children.

WaKids

The Washington Kindergarten Inventory of Developing Skills, or WaKIDS, brings families, teachers, and early learning providers together to support each child's learning. WaKIDS provides a statewide snapshot of where children in Washington are in their development at the start of kindergarten. This helps inform state-level decisions about education policy and investments and helps teachers tailor their instruction to children’s needs.

A woman and her four-year-old daughter read books together at their apartment in Tacoma, Washington.

WaKIDS has three components:

  • Family Connection welcomes families into the Washington K-12 system as partners in their child’s education. During family connection meetings, parents and guardians share information about their child and get to know their kindergarten teacher.
  • “Whole-Child” Assessment gives kindergarten teachers information about the social and emotional, physical, cognitive, and linguistic development of the children in their classrooms, so they may tailor their instruction to the individual needs of each child.
  • Early Learning Collaboration aligns practices of early learning professionals and kindergarten teachers to support smooth transitions for children.

Preliminary findings revealed that more than one-third of the children participating in WaKIDS entered kindergarten below their expected skill levels. Children from low-income families were even further behind. On measures of cognitive development, children eligible for free and reduced-price lunch scored 25 percentage points lower than their classmates. Information from WaKIDS can help kindergarten teachers start the school year with the information they need to meet each child’s needs.

WaKIDS is paid for with state, federal, and private funding and is being implemented in all state-funded full-day kindergarten classrooms, with the goal to expand to every full-day kindergarten classroom in Washington. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction and Department of Early Learning work together to oversee WaKIDS.

Early Achievers

We support a collaborative effort by the Department of Early Learning, University of Washington, and Child Care Aware to expand a statewide early learning program that was energized by a federal Race to the Top grant. Early Achievers (Washington’s Quality Rating and Improvement System) is a voluntary program for helping licensed child care providers offer high-quality care.

WaKIDS provides a snapshot of where children are in their development at the start of kindergarten.

Child care centers are licensed by the state to ensure they provide a safe environment for children. But providing a quality program requires more than just a safe facility— it requires adequate training for teachers, high-quality interactions between children and their caregivers, and opportunities for parents to be involved. 

Early Achievers connects families to child care and early learning programs with the help of an easy-to-understand rating system. The program also offers coaching and resources for child care providers to support each child’s learning and development. Research shows this kind of assistance helps providers improve the quality of their programs. When more young children are ready for school, we all benefit. Learn more about Early Achievers at www.del.wa.gov/care/qris/families.

Preschool through Third Grade

We also provide grants to school districts to support partnerships with early learning programs to improve instruction, school transitions, and student supports to assure that children are ready for kindergarten and succeeding by third grade.

A teacher lines up her second-graders to go to lunch.

In Washington State, and across the nation, there is considerable movement toward this shared responsibility for early learning, often referred to as P-3. (The “P” stands for preschool and “3” stands for third grade.) P-3 efforts aim to integrate learning across a child’s first eight years—a unique developmental period in which children experience their most profound growth cognitively, socially and emotionally. 

In school districts ranging from Edmonds to Yakima, Everett to Anacortes, and Seattle to Union Gap, teachers of 3- and 4-year-olds work together with kindergarten, first-, second-, and third-grade teachers to understand how learning builds year after year in language development or math. Districts including Auburn, Bremerton, Nooksack Valley, Bellingham, and many others are implementing an interdependent culture that encourages cross-classroom visits, blended resources, shared data, and active involvement from principals and superintendents.

Building on Progress

We are committed to working with a broad range of partners to increase school readiness and help children and families thrive.

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