Building Bridges Between Pre-K and Kindergarten

Last month, we wrote about the Strong Start for America’s Children Act introduced by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Reps. George Miller (D-CA) and Richard Hanna (R-NY). This federal pre-K legislation has given form to the president’s proposal for a federal-state partnership program to expand access to and improve quality of state pre-K programs, first for 4-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families. The bills also outline requirements for other key pieces of the President’s proposal, including Preschool Development Grants to help states build out their early learning systems; a partnership program between Early Head Start and child care providers; and a continuation and expansion of the home visiting program.

In our previous post, Clare McCann and I provide an overview of those pieces. In this post, I want to home in on an important theme woven throughout the bills: encouraging coordination and collaboration between pre-K program providers and local school districts. The House and Senate bills, which closely mirror each other, identify several ways that states, local school districts, and local (non-public school) pre-K providers can work to smooth transitions and build bridges between pre-K and kindergarten.

States that receive federal funds make subgrants to local school districts or other local organizations to provide the programs. To receive these dollars, local pre-K providers must describe how they plan to:

  • Coordinate and enter into strong partnerships with local school districts or other local early childhood programs, including Head Start programs;
  • Transfer records for each participating child to the public school where they attend kindergarten;
  • Work with elementary schools to ensure continuity in teacher instruction and expectations for children’s learning and development;
  • Organize and participate in joint training, including school transition-related training for elementary school and pre-K program staff;
  • Engage families and elementary school teachers and principals in discussions of educational, developmental, and other needs of children entering kindergarten; and
  • Help parents, including parents of dual language learners, understand instructional and other services provided by the kindergarten.
Two-way communication and collaboration on these topics is extremely important. Some might be surprised it is not already the norm. In too many communities, though, the worlds of pre-kindergarten and K-12 remain separate, rarely mingling. This disconnect sets up scenarios in which kindergarten teachers have little information about their student’s pre-K experiences, and pre-K programs have little knowledge about how well their students transitioned to and succeeded during the kindergarten year—or what skills they were missing. We are happy to see the requirement for partnership and alignment between pre-K and school districts, which could lead to more seamless transitions for families and scaffolded learning for children.

[pullquote]Partnership and alignment between pre-K and school districts could lead to more seamless transitions for families and scaffolded learning for children.[/pullquote]

States, for their part, must explain in their plans to the federal government how they will support local pre-K providers in this effort to improve coordination. Also worth noting is that states are required to develop a plan to support course articulation agreements between public 2-year and public 4-year institutions for early childhood preparation programs. Many early childhood teachers begin their higher education in a community college, but find they are required to repeat many courses when they transfer to a 4-year school. I wrote about this challenge for prospective pre-K teachers in my paper Getting in Sync: Revamping Licensure and Preparation for Teachers in Pre-K, Kindergarten, and the Early Grades.

Missing from the list of requirements for states, though, is one to fund full-day kindergarten (FDK) at or above the level of first grade, and to ensure that all school districts offer free, full-day kindergarten that is equivalent to the length of the first grade day. We see FDK, and research supports it, as an essential component of children’s early education.

The Senate version of the bill does specify some stipulations for kindergarten, requiring states that fund FDK, but do not make it available to all children, to develop and implement a plan to increase number of children in FDK. And for states that do not provide any funding for FDK, they must plan to establish FDK at least for children enrolled in the state’s pre-K program under the Strong Start Act. This provision in the bill does not state, though, that full-day kindergarten would need to be equivalent to the length of day and funding level of first grade. Depending on the state, FDK programs range from four to seven hours per day. And the House version does not include this provision. So it’s entirely possible that a child could attend a high-quality, full-day pre-K program—and then transition to a half-day kindergarten program. That could mean districts struggle to build upon what children learned in pre-K.

According to the bill, states would also need to track and report their progress in several important areas, including how well the state is:

  1. Increasing school readiness across all domains of learning for all participating children;
  2. Narrowing school readiness gaps, both for children of different races and of different socio-economic statuses;
  3. Decreasing placement for children in elementary special education programs;
  4. Increasing the number of programs meeting the high-quality standards laid out in the bills;
  5. Decreasing the need for grade-to-grade retention in elementary school;
  6. Limiting chronic absences among children in participating pre-K programs;
  7. Increasing the number and percentage of low-income kids in high-quality early education programs funded through the bills; and
  8. Providing high-quality nutrition services, nutrition education, physical activity, and obesity prevention programs.
These are all important indicators to track. But to make significant progress on indictors such as special education placements and retention rates, the focus of states will have to be on more than just expanding and improving pre-K programs. States and school districts will need to come up with strategies to strengthen teaching and learning in kindergarten and the early grades to sustain and build upon the gains children make in their high-quality pre-K programs. We know what research says about teacher effectiveness: Students who have ineffective teachers for three years in a row stagnate. So it would be a misguided investment to give children excellent pre-K experiences with strong teachers, and then send them off to elementary schools with ineffective teachers in early grade classrooms. Some research shows that the effects of pre-K virtually disappear as students progress through the early grades. States and school districts need to improve both pre-K and the early elementary grades to have the most positive effect on student learning and development in the long-term.

This is why in addition to the Strong Start for America’s Children Act that emphasizes improving children’s birth-to-5 early education and development opportunities and transitions into kindergarten, there also needs to be a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that includes the same focus on transitions as well as a strong focus on the early grades. Doing both could give states more incentives to focus on improving the K-3rd grade in concert with pre-K programs."

Author:

Laura Bornfreund is director of early & elementary education policy with the Education Policy program at New America. She leads a team of writers and analysts to conduct policy research and analysis and put forth new ideas for improving children’s birth-through-third grade learning experiences.