Ladders of Learning

Fighting Fade-Out by Advancing PK-3 Alignment
Policy Paper
Jan. 20, 2006

It’s a good news, bad news situation. The good news is an increasing body of evidence shows that children’s participation in high quality pre-kindergarten (PK) programs helps them begin kindergarten ready to succeed. Similarly, there is growing evidence that children who start kindergarten behind but participate in a full-day kindergarten (FDK) program catch up to their peers by the end one academic year. The bad news is these effects often appear to “fade out” over time. As children move through the primary grades (grades 1, 2, and 3), the progress they made in PK and FDK dissipates and they are, once again, lagging behind other children. This fadeout effect suggests that while participation in PK and FDK produces positive short-term outcomes, it may not be sufficient to inoculate children against future academic failure.

Learning and development are like climbing a ladder. One starts at the bottom rung, then climbs to the next, and then to the next, ultimately reaching the top. The rungs provide incremental footholds to span a distance of space. If, however, there are no rungs—or only one or two—at the bottom of the ladder, then a long distance of open air with a random rung here and there, successfully climbing the ladder becomes a dicier proposition. As children progress through learning opportunities, they climb from rung to rung, building skill upon skill, incrementally expanding their knowledge and development. High-quality PK and FDK give children a boost to successfully climb the first few rungs on the ladder of learning. If the rungs stop after kindergarten and there is a long gap of unsupported space until the top of the ladder, children will have more difficulty—and need more assistance—to reach the top. Education should be structured in such a way that all children have learning experiences that build on those in previous years and connect with those to come, creating a smooth and predictable climb to the top.

This paper outlines the importance of having strong, well aligned programs beginning in PK and extending through third grade (PK-3). It reviews the short term impact of PK and FDK programs, then summarizes the evidence that these impacts may “fade out” by the primary grades. To fight fade-out, PK-3 alignment is proffered as one means to enable children to maintain and expand upon the gains they make in early childhood education. PK-3 suggests that PK experiences should be aligned with kindergarten and that kindergarten should be aligned with early elementary education. The paper closes with federal policy recommendations that provide both models and incentives for the nation, states, and local school districts to institute and strengthen PK-3 alignment.

For the complete report, please see the attached PDF version.