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.