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.

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.

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