Michael Cordell serves as the chief academic officer for KIPP DC's elementary schools. Across the country, KIPP public charter schools serve socioeconomically disadvantaged students and have generally produced test scores on par with or better than institutions attended by more-affluent children. Cordell spoke recently at a National Journal LIVE event in downtown Washington about early-childhood education and the work of equipping kids in America to perform well in school. Edited excerpts from his onstage interview with Ronald Brownstein follow.
One of the big questions about preschool is: Does it last? We've been arguing about this for decades. What are the keys to maintaining the advantages that preschool can create?
I think one of the challenges is, like anything, consistent quality. If there is some level of consistency, you can see those early interventions stick. But kids [sometimes] go to a great early-childhood program, then struggle with a second-grade teacher, and for whatever reason, that intervention could change. It wears off in any data you are going to look at. So it's consistency over time.
What is it about early-childhood interventions that create improved performance over time?
You walk into so many KIPP classrooms, and it's pretty amazing. You see the kids there working and happy. They have been taught to work hard, and they have been taught to value their opinion and their story. So a lot of it is love of learning. A lot of it is socialization, how to have self-control. One of the big things we are doing now is looking at how we teach kids how to plan their play, to really understand how to set goals and plan, even starting with kids at 3 or 4.
I think a lot of people in the audience were kind of thinking, "Huh?" when, during your presentation, you recommended eight- to nine-hour school days for 3- and 4-year-olds.
There are naps in there. The key to the longer day is not sitting. Our kids are building. Our kids are playing. Our kids are exploring. And, again, when you talk to early-childhood leaders, they really talk about getting P.E., and getting art or music every day. That gets cut in these shorter programs, because everybody wants to spend so much time now with reading, writing, and math.
Do you wish you had the ability to reach kids even earlier?
Yes. A lot of people I work with won't agree with me. They are not ready to do that. But you see kids going to tutors in kindergarten in the suburbs and wealthier communities. So would it help? Yes. But, at 3 years old, we are still ready to close the gap. We have data. It's still not too late.
That's reassuring. But, seriously, are there academic gaps at age 3? Do you see big differences?
It's hard to tease out at 3, but you will see kids who are more exposed, who are more verbal, even at 3.
What do you encourage parents to do to reinforce what happens at school?
We are still trying to improve how to help parents who have kids who are struggling in how to intervene early. But we really build a healthy relationship and talk about what they are doing in the classroom, and tell parents they should be asking kids a couple of questions. It's not a lot. All you have to do is: "How did you do? What did you do today? What did you learn?" It's just little interactions. But also modeling questioning. That's something else. We really want our kids to have an inquisitive nature.
What do you mean?
A lot of parents don't talk to their kids and ask them questions and model a way to have discourse.
What are the most important things to accomplish in those two years before kindergarten?
Academics is one of the keys. It's not the key. It's really getting kids to love learning, to know the rules of school, to be ready for school, to allow their teachers to go on and not be disruptive.
When I started, I think five, six years ago, with a classroom in Southeast [D.C.], there was a kid who came in kindergarten who didn't know their ABC song. And teachers were like, that's a big deal. We've interacted with a lot of kids like that. So it's giving them exposure, giving them opportunities they may not otherwise have had.
This article appears in the May 10, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as Learning Lab.