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Early Childhood Education Doesn't End with Pre-K

It’s Meet the Teacher Day for new kindergartners and their families, anywhere from Atlanta to Seattle. Before they arrive, a kindergarten teacher sits in her classroom scanning information about her incoming students. She has names and ages but not much more.

As she looks around her newly set-up classroom, her eyes settle on the reading corner. She wonders: how many of my students already know their letters? How many have never held a book? She looks up again, and her eyes land on a huge bin of blocks. How many of my students will understand shapes or be able to handle their emotions when a tower of blocks topples?  As families begin to enter her room, she ponders how many of her students were in a pre-K program. For those who weren’t: will she be their first experience of what “school” is? For those who were: what did they do while they were in pre-K?

Deep down, she has a sinking feeling of being overwhelmed. Does she really have enough information, support, preparation and experience to teach a classroom full of 5-year-olds about whom she knows only names and ages?

This scenario is all too common in American schools and it is a significant factor contributing to our nation’s education troubles.  While transitions from elementary to middle to high school are typically well-orchestrated, the switch from Pre-K into kindergarten is more often than not unstructured or left to chance.  Today there is a false assumption that by age 5, children leave early childhood behind. That leads educators to make misguided attempts to make kindergarten and early grade classrooms resemble those for older students.  Research on children’s development across the ages of 5 through 8show that  the days of guided play, exploration, read-alouds, and socialization activities should not cease. Kids need to be able to learn in small groups and through hands-on participation.

It’s time to do something different. We need to reshape the primary school years and re-envision the elementary education. The K–5 model starts too late in children’s development and elementary schools are usually disconnected from early care and education providers. Any institutional memory of or knowledge about the children who enter kindergartens gets lost in the transfer.

Instead of starting in kindergarten at ages 5 or 6, primary education—on or off school campuses—should start at age three. Teachers in each year of a young child’s life should share information, work together and be equipped and expected to offer age-appropriate and research-based learning experiences up through third grade. This smarter approach would reshape our elementary schools and lead to more up-to-date education system in our country: a real PreK-12 system that makes pre-K-to-K-3 connections easy.  It would open up dialogue between preschool educators and those who teach in the early grades.

Right now is an important time for people to realize that early childhood education doesn’t end with Pre-K. With all of the national, state, and local attention on high-quality, publicly funded pre-K, there should be at least an equivalent emphasis on following it up with strong, well-coordinated teaching and learning in kindergarten, first, second, and third grade. Yet, discouragingly, there currently is not. In fact, many students experience a slump in success in these forgotten years. Data from evaluations of Head Start, the federally funded preschool program for children in poverty shows that children do not retain the their pre-K strides by the end of third grade. For instance, in Oklahoma, a state known for its robust and high-quality preschool programs, reading scores in fourth grade are nothing to celebrate.

Teachers and principals in the K-3 grades need help. They need training on how to harness children's high capacity for learning throughout elementary school. They need to learn how they can build upon the social and cognitive skills that children with access to high-quality pre-K have already started to develop. Meanwhile, pre-K programs need to be designed to better align with kindergarten and the grades thereafter.

The Early Education Initiative in New America’s Education Policy Program, learning from research and forward-thinking educators around the country, has been promoting a suite of policy ideas that can help our country make this transition.

Districts need to help connect elementary 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 generating a common understanding of expectations for learning across the continuum between pre-K and third grade.

States will 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. They need to require districts to offer full-day kindergarten, so that every child has access to a more equitable and enriching kindergarten experience.

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.

In pockets around the country some of this is already happening. For example, leaders in Lansing, Michigan, recently reformed the school district’s structure by creating Pre-K–3rd schools to create a “domino” effect of student success that continued up through the later grades. Other models, such as Oyler School in Cincinnati, Ohio, are linking schools to high-quality child care for infants and toddlers and offering “wraparound” care for all ages during non-school hours. Schools should explore models that take advantage of child care partnerships and promote sharing between primary schools and community-based organizations that serve families.

To be sure, transformation won’t be easy. School districts are under such pressure to hit the mark on third-grade tests that they often forget about the K-3 grades. Public education is now bogged down in entrenched funding streams that are marked as “K-12,” leaving pre-K out of the picture. That has left the pre-kindergarten world to create its own silos and hard-to-change habits.

But if we keep thinking that early childhood ends with pre-K, our kids will be missing out on learning experiences at a critical moment in their young lives, a moment that is primed for building a foundation for their academic and social success. They will struggle. And our public education system will keep expending excess energy and resources trying to cope with the consequences. Smart investment in education requires this more cohesive, connected primary school approach. Kindergarten teachers shouldn’t be left in the dark. Today’s kids need and deserve more."