As Spotlight Grows on Pre-K, We Can’t Forget the Early Grades

Few conversations focus on improving early elementary years, the linchpin of the pre-K-to-12 education system.

Laura Bornfreund is the deputy director of the New America Foundation's Early Education Initiative.  
National Journal
Laura Bornfreund
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Laura Bornfreund
June 6, 2014, 6:56 a.m.

The value of pre-K has gained broad at­ten­tion. From the White House to con­ser­vat­ive states like Geor­gia and New Mex­ico to cit­ies like San Ant­o­nio and New York, there is a grow­ing re­cog­ni­tion that provid­ing chil­dren — es­pe­cially the na­tion’s ex­pand­ing pop­u­la­tion of dual-lan­guage learner and low-in­come kids — with ac­cess to high-qual­ity early learn­ing op­por­tun­it­ies can go a long way in help­ing chil­dren to be suc­cess­ful in school and later in life.

There has long been an em­phas­is on stu­dent achieve­ment and suc­cess in grades 3-12. De­bates abound on what the best school-im­prove­ment strategies look like, what makes for qual­ity teach­ing, and wheth­er state tests meas­ure the right things. Fed­er­al and state edu­ca­tion of­fi­cials are tak­ing ac­tion on each of these fronts.

Un­for­tu­nately, few con­ver­sa­tions fo­cus on im­prov­ing kinder­garten through third grade, the linch­pin of the pre-K-to-12 edu­ca­tion sys­tem. These years, some of the most cru­cial in a young child’s in­tel­lec­tu­al and so­cial de­vel­op­ment, are largely ig­nored. Kinder­garten through second grade is at least equally im­port­ant to what comes be­fore and after.

At min­im­um, it marks the start of com­puls­ory and guar­an­teed edu­ca­tion for all stu­dents in just about every state and lays the found­a­tion for all fu­ture learn­ing. That is why it is im­port­ant to es­tab­lish a co­ordin­ated and co­hes­ive pre-K through third grade con­tinuum of learn­ing that helps to en­sure the gains chil­dren make are sus­tained and built upon up through the third grade, when chil­dren be­gin to tackle more chal­len­ging con­tent.

Right now, the edu­ca­tion­al sys­tem fails to build that con­tinuum on many fronts. Loc­al schools and school dis­tricts of­ten have little to no in­form­a­tion on how many chil­dren are en­rolled in pre-K pro­grams, what types of cur­ricula and teach­ing strategies have been used, or what chil­dren ul­ti­mately learned in those pro­grams. In a 2012 New Amer­ica re­port, au­thors Lisa Guern­sey and Alex Holt said this sort of in­form­a­tion is ur­gently needed to lay “the ground­work for align­ment across the pre-K-third grade years, and build­ing a strong found­a­tion for their [chil­dren’s] suc­cess in school.” This in­form­a­tion is also es­sen­tial for kinder­garten teach­ers who need to un­der­stand their stu­dents’ preschool ex­per­i­ences.

As it stands, children’s kinder­garten paths vary con­sid­er­ably by their zip codes. In some states, par­ents can sign their child up for a daily kinder­garten sched­ule that runs six to sev­en hours, just as long as a typ­ic­al day in 1st grade. In oth­er states, though, a “full-day kinder­garten sched­ule” may only run four or five hours. Many school dis­tricts of­fer only half-day kinder­garten classes. And in oth­ers still, fam­il­ies in­ter­ested in more school time have the op­tion to pay tu­ition and ex­tend their child’s kinder­garten day.

Yet re­search makes clear a whole range of be­ne­fits that come with a full day of learn­ing. More time in the day al­lows for more in­struc­tion­al time and gives young chil­dren ad­di­tion­al op­por­tun­it­ies to de­vel­op so­cial skills. Teach­ers have the abil­ity to ded­ic­ate more time to hands-on activ­it­ies, ex­plor­a­tion, and learn­ing in sub­ject areas bey­ond read­ing and math.

Per­haps most im­port­antly, chil­dren at­tend­ing full-day kinder­garten ex­per­i­ence bet­ter learn­ing out­comes. Some stud­ies find that kinder­gart­ners who at­ten­ded for a full day made sig­ni­fic­ant gains in early read­ing skills com­pared with chil­dren who at­ten­ded for a half-day. In states where half-day kinder­garten is an op­tion, first-grade teach­ers of­ten face the same di­lemma as kinder­garten teach­ers. They may leave be­hind those chil­dren who are strug­gling and bore those who ar­rived pre­pared or are already far ahead.

Mak­ing mat­ters worse, some teach­ers do not have the skills and ex­per­i­ence they need to ef­fect­ively teach pre-K through third-grade stu­dents. De­pend­ing on the state, one teach­er may be pre­pared in con­tent and strategies primar­ily aimed at the up­per ele­ment­ary grades with lim­ited em­phas­is on how young­er chil­dren learn, how to act­ively en­gage them, re­cog­nize atyp­ic­al de­vel­op­ment, or in­volve their fam­il­ies.

An­oth­er teach­er may have taken courses that fo­cus on de­vel­op­ment­ally ap­pro­pri­ate prac­tice, fam­ily en­gage­ment, and meet­ing the needs of di­verse chil­dren, with less know­ledge of sub­ject areas and strategies for teach­ing them.

Prin­cipals can ex­acer­bate the prob­lem of in­struc­tion that is not ap­pro­pri­ate for early grade stu­dents be­cause they them­selves of­ten do not re­cog­nize what good teach­ing of young chil­dren looks like when they vis­it classrooms and provide feed­back to teach­ers. Hint: It’s not chil­dren sit­ting quietly listen­ing to the teach­er lec­ture. In­stead, good in­struc­tion means act­ively en­ga­ging chil­dren in back-and-forth in­ter­ac­tions that delve deep in­to the sub­ject are they are learn­ing, teach­ing through play and al­low­ing op­por­tun­it­ies for chil­dren to ex­plore and in­vest­ig­ate.

Fi­nally, while it may seem like duck soup, there are few con­nec­tions between pre-K pro­grams and the early grades, even where pre-K pro­grams op­er­ate in­side ele­ment­ary schools. It is not even the norm for schools to provide time for teach­ers across the early grades to plan or dis­cuss stu­dent pro­gress to­geth­er, much less in­clude teach­ers from pre-K pro­grams in these dis­cus­sions.

If the goal is to build on chil­dren’s pre-K and oth­er early child­hood ex­per­i­ences and en­sure that they are able to read and do math at grade level by the end of third grade, then more fo­cus is sorely needed on im­prov­ing chil­dren’s trans­ition from pre-K in­to ele­ment­ary school and on the qual­ity of teach­ing and learn­ing en­vir­on­ments in pre-kinder­garten through third grades.

States need to im­prove the qual­ity of teach­er and prin­cip­al pre­par­a­tion pro­grams, re­quir­ing them to give teach­ers and lead­ers sol­id ground­ing in how young chil­dren de­vel­op and learn best. Dis­tricts need to help con­nect schools with pre-K pro­grams op­er­at­ing in the same area. Schools should sup­port op­por­tun­it­ies across pre-K and the early grades for joint pro­fes­sion­al de­vel­op­ment, data shar­ing and de­vel­op­ing a com­mon un­der­stand­ing of ex­pect­a­tions for learn­ing across the con­tinuum. States need to re­quire dis­tricts to of­fer full-day kinder­garten, so that every child has ac­cess to a more equit­able and en­rich­ing kinder­garten ex­per­i­ence. And the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment should of­fer in­cent­ives to states and school dis­tricts that com­mit to do­ing these and oth­er activ­it­ies to help im­prove chil­dren’s learn­ing out­comes in all the early grades.

This work be­comes even more es­sen­tial as the pop­u­la­tion of low-in­come chil­dren, dual-lan­guage learners, and chil­dren of col­or ex­pands. Some­time in the next five years, chil­dren of col­or — with stand­ard and spe­cial learn­ing needs — will make up the ma­jor­ity of the na­tion’s young child pop­u­la­tion. Un­for­tu­nately, they are also the stu­dents least likely to have ac­cess to high-qual­ity pre-K pro­grams or ele­ment­ary schools.

While the fo­cus on high-qual­ity pre-K ex­pan­sion is ne­ces­sary, and ef­forts to im­prove the qual­ity of teach­ing and learn­ing in third through 12th grade are im­per­at­ive, poli­cy­makers must not for­get to also strengthen and build con­nec­tions to the linch­pin of the edu­ca­tion­al sys­tem: kinder­garten through second grade.

Laura Born­fre­und is the deputy dir­ect­or of the New Amer­ica Found­a­tion’s Early Edu­ca­tion Ini­ti­at­ive.

HAVE AN OPIN­ION ON POLICY AND CHAN­GING DEMO­GRAPH­ICS? The Next Amer­ica wel­comes op-ed pieces that ex­plore the polit­ic­al, eco­nom­ic and so­cial im­pacts of the pro­found ra­cial and cul­tur­al changes fa­cing our na­tion, par­tic­u­larly rel­ev­ant to edu­ca­tion, eco­nomy, the work­force and health. Email Jan­ell Ross at jross@na­tion­al­journ­al.com. Please fol­low us on Twit­ter and Face­book.

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