Feb. 9, 2022
Children’s first years of school lay the academic foundation from which their future learning grows. Continuity across these early learning experiences is important to sustaining educational gains. Over the past several decades, numerous studies have focused on better understanding instructional practices within the elementary grades. Yet comparatively little is known about how these instructional practices are aligned across the PreK-third grade continuum.
Vertical alignment is the work involved in ensuring that what a student learns in one grade is built upon and used in the grades that follow. Research has shown that alignment between pre-K and the early elementary grades can help students have a strong academic foundation and experience smooth transitions from one grade to the next. Stronger vertical alignment between grades can help mitigate the challenges that students face transitioning each year to a new grade with new standards, expectations, and instructional practices. Conversely, a lack of alignment between pre-K and the early elementary grades can compromise student learning and lead to teachers spending time on basic content that students have already mastered. By looking at pre-K and kindergarten programs with a critical eye, researchers, educators, and policymakers can analyze where alignment is falling short in creating a stronger PreK-third grade continuum for early learners.
A new study from The Ohio State University attempts to fill the PreK-third grade research gap by assessing alignment in instructional practices throughout that grade span. Researchers at the Crane Center for Early Childhood Research and Policy followed 1,095 students in 179 pre-K to third grade classrooms in two large Midwestern public school districts across two years. Data was collected through two measures of instructional practices, including teacher questionnaires and classroom observations, in addition to four measures assessing children’s academic and social-emotional skills.
After conducting extensive classroom observations, researchers found that pre-K through third grade instructional practices were generally not aligned, mostly due to vast differences between what children experience in pre-K and kindergarten. For example, exposure to language and literacy content was limited to 14 percent of instructional time in pre-K, with a sizable increase to 43 percent of instructional time in kindergarten. Similarly, kindergarten students spent about 16 percent of their instructional time on math compared to just under four percent in pre-K. Researchers also noted a dramatic change in the amount of free play and center time between pre-K and kindergarten. These activities accounted for almost 50 percent of classroom time in pre-K, but only about 10 percent in kindergarten.
These data reinforce previous research that highlights how kindergarten is becoming increasingly academic, moving away from an emphasis on free play and center time in exchange for more time spent on literacy and math content instruction. While the study found stronger alignment of instructional practices in kindergarten through third grade, this alignment might not necessarily be a good thing since it could come at the expense of learning through play for kindergarteners and instead involve greater use of direct instruction and worksheets for these young students. As the study points out, more research is needed on how to best design kindergarten to meet the needs of these students in a developmentally appropriate manner.
One of the most important findings of this study is the domination of language and literacy instruction in kindergarten through third grade. Students in these grades spent about half of their instructional time engaged in language and literacy content compared to only between one and six percent in science and technology. Lack of exposure to science content can prove detrimental to students' academic success in later grades, as research has noted that achievement gaps in science start as early as kindergarten.
While this study presents important findings on alignment between pre-K and the early elementary grades, it comes with limitations that must be considered. The study focuses on two districts in one midwestern state and, as such, findings should not be generalized across other settings in the United States. Not all pre-K and kindergarten classrooms are the same and should not be viewed monolithically in regards to academic content and instructional practices. Some states and districts, such as Boston Public Schools, have taken meaningful steps to strengthen PreK-third alignment. More research is needed to better understand the lack of alignment between pre-K and kindergarten and how alignment can be enhanced.
Despite the limitations, this new research presents important evidence of a continued lack of alignment between pre-K and the grades that follow. This lack of alignment is problematic because it could lead to difficult transitions between pre-K and kindergarten, repetition of basic content, and a subsequent lack of exposure to rigorous content. Large differences in content and instructional methods between pre-K and kindergarten could lead to behavioral challenges in kindergarten students as they are expected to spend substantially more time in their seats during whole group instruction rather than engaging in group work and play.
The study did not explore the precise reasons for different instructional practices, but the widespread lack of joint professional development between pre-K and kindergarten teachers could be one explanation. Lack of alignment between standards, the use of inappropriate curricula, disparate funding streams, and a general disconnection between pre-K and kindergarten programs are other possible explanations. Further research into alignment between PreK-third grade will take time, commitment, and dedication, but it is clear that gaining a greater understanding of the all too common lack of alignment in these years will help programs and policymakers make the necessary changes to best benefit early learners.
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