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
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
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.

What We're Following See More »
CNN/ORC Has Clinton Up 5 Points
33 minutes ago

Hillary Clinton leads Donald Trump 49%-44% in a new CNN/ORC poll out Monday afternoon. But it's Gary Johnson's performance, or lack thereof, that's the real story. Johnson, who had cleared 10% in some surveys earlier this fall, as he made a bid to qualify for the debates, is down to 3% support. He must hit 5% nationwide for the Libertarian Party to qualify for some federal matching funds in future elections.

Rapper Jay Z to Perform Concert for Clinton
44 minutes ago
Log Cabin Republicans Don’t Endorse Trump
46 minutes ago

While the organization praised him for being "perhaps the most pro-LGBT presidential nominee in the history of the Republican Party," the Log Cabin Republicans refused to endorse Donald Trump for president. The organization, which is the largest gay organization in the United States, said that Trump failed to earn its endorsement because he surrounded himself with anti-LGBTQ people "and committed himself to supporting legislation such as the so-called 'First Amendment Defense Act' that Log Cabin Republicans opposes."

Congress Needs to Deal With Impending Nuclear Plant Closures
1 hours ago

Energy Secretary Ernesto Moniz is warning Congress "that Congress and businesses need to act with more urgency to work out a medley of challenges in promoting nuclear power." A number of nuclear plants are currently on track to close around 2030, unless their licenses are extended from 60 years to 80 years, something that could jeopardize the success of the Clean Power Plan. Moniz called on Congress to pass legislation creating interim storage facilities for used nuclear power.

Trump Pocketed Insurance Money Following 2005 Hurricane
2 hours ago

Donald Trump has said he received a $17 million insurance payment in 2005 following Hurricane Wilma, which he claimed did severe damage to his private club in Florida. However, an Associated Press investigation could not find any evidence of the large-scale damage that Trump has mentioned. Additionally, Trump claimed that he transferred some of the $17 million to his personal account thanks to a "very good insurance policy."


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.