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Legislative review of Early Learning...

Legislative review of Early Learning Collaboratives to lead to changes in data collection, curriculum

By: Jeremy Pittari - December 6, 2023

The Mississippi Dept. of Education is implementing a new computer system to track Pre-K achievement while also shifting to new curriculum expected to address math shortfalls.

Since 2013, the achievements of nearly 40 percent of Mississippi’s Early Learning Collaborative pre-kindergarten students were not being tracked by the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE), according to a recent report by the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review, or PEER.

Efforts are underway to rectify that problem.

The Early Learning Collaborative Act was authored by State Senator Brice Wiggins (R-SD 52) and was passed in 2013 to provide Mississippi’s 4-year-old children with access to quality early development and childhood education through a voluntary pre-kindergarten program. The Act tasked MDE with implementing the program.  

After the passage of the Act, Head Start programs, and some other child care programs, in the state could apply to be added to a list of schools that receive funding and resources to raise the standards of the Magnolia State’s early learning system. 

“An early learning collaborative is a district or countywide council that writes and submits an application to participate in the voluntary prekindergarten program. An early learning collaborative is comprised, at a minimum, of a public school district and/or a local Head Start affiliate if in existence, private or parochial schools, or one or more licensed child care centers,” the Act states. 

An amendment to the Act in 2021 requires MDE to submit rigorous program evaluations every three years that use longitudinal data capable of measuring short- and long-term achievement and non-achievement effects and present those findings to PEER. The first such report was due on July 1 of this year, and a review of that third-party report by PEER found 39 percent of the students in the program, all Head Start students, were not being tracked because they did not receive identification numbers through the Mississippi Student Information System upon entry into the program.

Since the students did not receive identification numbers, their accomplishments and deficiencies were not being recorded.

“Further, if any of these children enroll in a public school, they will be assigned an MSIS number, and their record will be indistinguishable from that of a child who did not attend prekindergarten at all. This systematic loss of data necessarily distorts analyses of collaborative performance,” the report states.

In the PEER report, the department is cited as stating the current version of MSIS is incapable of assigning those students identification numbers.

Magnolia Tribune reached out to MDE for clarification as to why the system is incapable of providing IDs to Head Start students and received the following statement from Public Information Officer Shanderia Minor:

MDE collects data on students in public school districts, which includes K-12 and district-run pre-K programs. Since the Head Starts do not fall into this category, MDE does not issue IDs to these students. MSIS 2.0 is in development to launch next summer with plans to add this functionality.

MDE issued a written response to the report, which can be found close to the end of the document. MDE states MSIS 2.0 will be implemented in the 2024-2025 school year and will provide identification numbers to Head Start students.

Other findings in the PEER report included a reference to collaborative students who have test scores but do not have enrollment data. Further, some pre-kindergarten readiness tests were taken by kindergarten students. PEER attributed these deficiencies to normal or ordinary data entry problems since they represent only thousands of the state’s several hundred of thousands of students.

While math performance deficiencies were also noted, there was some good news in the report. Students who are part of the collaborative reportedly perform better in several areas than non-collaborative students. 

“From the data captured, PEER determined that collaborative students performed statistically better than the comparison group on kindergarten readiness tests, worse on third and fifth grade math achievement tests, and similar to the comparison group on all other achievement tests. Notably, collaborative students outperformed the comparison group in all behavioral outcomes measured (i.e., disciplinary incidents, suspensions, and chronic absences). Results should be interpreted with caution, however,” the PEER report states.

To address the shortfalls in math, MDE is moving to a more proven lesson plan. MDE indicated in its written response to PEER that collaboratives will begin to transition to the Mississippi Beginnings: Pre-K curriculum and away from the current program, Opening the World of Learning (OWL).

Senator Wiggins said he called MDE after seeing the report and was informed that OWL does not focus on the math component, which is why MDE wants to switch. He added that the Act mandates the use of an evidence-based curriculum.

While OWL is evidence-based, Mississippi Beginnings: Pre-K has better performance statistics, the PEER report cites.  

“There goes to my point about it is working like we wanted it to, which is it’s identifying the issues and we’re getting better each time. And so, in this case, first, we started out with zero evidence-based curriculum. Then we got an evidence-based curriculum [OWL]. And now we’re seeing that we have even a better evidence-based curriculum,” Senator Wiggins elaborated. “And therefore, they’re transitioning and requiring the collaboratives to go to the new, evidence-based curriculum that’s even better.”

As the transition starts, existing collaboratives have the option to keep OWL for a time or immediately move to Mississippi Beginnings: Pre-K, while all incoming collaboratives will be immediately required to implement the new curriculum. PEER made the suggestion that MDE fully implement Mississippi Beginnings by the 2027-2028 school year, which MDE indicated it will work to achieve. 

“Many existing programs have expressed interest in switching to the new curriculum, which will occur in the upcoming years, and the remainder of the Early Learning Collaboratives will begin using Mississippi Beginnings: Pre-K by the 2027-2028 school year,” MDE’s written response states.

State Sen. Brice Wiggins

Senator Wiggins is pleased the Act is bringing about change, saying the PEER report shows the law is working like lawmakers designed it to work.

“The Early Learning Collaborative Act, we put in the PEER requirements for it to be reviewed and looked at and for this data to come to us. You’ll notice in the report that it talks about the amendments that the Legislature did a couple years ago. And that was done after it was pointed out that we needed to address a couple things,” Wiggins said.

The Coast state Senator was pleased overall with the PEER report, as it accomplished what was intended in its review while also noting the benefits the Act is having for students in Mississippi.

“So, this report is showing, ‘Okay here’s how things are operating. Here’s good, here’s where we need to improve.’ And so, I took the report as saying this is exactly how we drafted the law to be a check on MDE and, when needed, to address and improve the law,” Senator Wiggins said. “In the meantime, the children are getting the benefit of the Collaborative Act and we are exceeding expectations, and in a lot of areas, we’re in the national conversation. And if you look at particular, I guess, points within the report, Collaborative Act students are performing at a higher rate than those who are not in the Collaborative Act.”

About the Author(s)
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Jeremy Pittari

Jeremy Pittari is a lifelong resident of the Gulf Coast. Born and raised in Slidell, La., he moved to South Mississippi in the early 90s. Jeremy earned an associate in arts from Pearl River Community College and went on to attend the University of Southern Mississippi, where he earned a bachelor's of arts in journalism. A week after Hurricane Katrina, he started an internship as a reporter with the community newspaper in Pearl River County. After graduation, he accepted a full-time position at that news outlet where he covered the recovery process post Katrina in Pearl River and Hancock Counties. For nearly 17 years he wrote about local government, education, law enforcement, crime, business and a variety of other topics. Email Jeremy: