A few years ago, preschool teachers in Santa Maria, Calif., a low-income, mostly Hispanic city north of Santa Barbara, attended a series of meetings with kindergarten teachers in the district. Most had never met. Although their students were only a year apart in age, teachers had little idea what happened in each other’s classrooms.
What they discovered changed the course of early education in Santa Maria, and is at the heart of a national reform movement known as pre-K-3.
Among the revelations, the kindergarten teachers told the preschool teachers that their 5-year-olds, many of them immigrants, struggled with stories covered in the kindergarten reading curriculum. They weren’t hearing English-language classics like “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” or “Humpty Dumpty” at home. So the preschools began incorporating those stories into their curricula, to help better prepare their students.
“Preschool and kindergarten were operating differently,” said Karin Dominguez, a former teacher who has directed Santa Maria’s kindergarten-readiness program. “It was important for them to learn from each other.”
The pre-K-3 movement, which refers to the years spanning prekindergarten to 3rd grade, wants to revolutionize early education through an ambitious list of connected initiatives, including universal access to free public preschool, mandatory full-day kindergarten, and curriculum that is seamlessly connected from preschool to 3rd grade. Increasing parent involvement is also a major focus.
But some educators and experts have questioned how feasible and replicable the agenda is, especially as a continuing financial crisis has forced states to cut preschool and full-day kindergarten. And critics and advocates alike have acknowledged that evidence supporting the collective reforms is scarce. The few schools and districts that have implemented parts or all of the pre-K-3 agenda have shown mixed results so far.
“There are a lot of reasons why it should work, and why it would work,” said Robert Pianta, the dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville. “We just haven’t been able to pin the model down in a way to evaluate to say that it’s proven effective in improving achievement.”
Nevertheless, the pre-K-3 movement has gathered increasing attention and private money over the past five years. Proponents say their ideas could help prevent gaps in achievement from developing between disadvantaged and advantaged students and save money on interventions for older students.
A handful of foundations, including the Foundation for Child Development, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the New School Foundation, in Seattle, together are spending millions to support the movement. (The Foundation for Child Development and the Gates Foundation are among The Hechinger Report’s many former and current funders. Gates has also been a funder of Education Week’s nonprofit parent corporation.)
At the same time, an increasing number of schools, districts, and even whole states, including Nevada, Washington, and Wyoming, are in the process of implementing the reforms.
Sustaining Preschool Gains
The pre-K-3 movement was formed as a reaction to research showing that children who attend preschool can make large gains in literacy and math, but that those gains disappear after a few years.
The growing momentum behind pre-K-3 can be traced to the 1960s, when researchers were first examining the diminishing effects of Head Start, the federally funded preschool program for low-income children.
But projects aimed at easing the transition from early education to elementary have shown mixed results. Part of the problem is that many of them focused on more superficial activities, like one-time meet-and-greets between teachers, and didn’t go deep enough in transforming curriculum or in altering how teachers teach, pre-K-3 advocates say.
There have been successes, however. Chicago’s Child Parent Centers (CPCs), started in the 1960s for low-income students, implemented a series of intensive interventions including very small teacher-student ratios, an enriched math and literacy curriculum, and specialized training for the teachers. Children can enroll as early as age three.
Those results have been more promising. Arthur Reynolds, a professor of social work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has studied the CPCs, found in one study that students who were a part of the project until age 8 were less likely to need academic help and behaved better.
“When you plan and design a coordinated intervention from preschool to 3rd grade, those transition experiences—they can create a synergy ... that gives you a larger effect ultimately,” Mr. Reynolds said.
Other, more recent examples include the South Shore K-8 School in Seattle. The school was opened in 2001 with the help of a private foundation as a model for pre-K-3 reforms. It has implemented a research-tested curriculum that extends from preschool through elementary school, small class sizes, and intensive training for teachers.
A 2010 report by ECONorthwest, a research company based in Eugene, Ore., found that students at the school scored higher than expected on Washington state reading and math tests. The school did not close the achievement gap for its African-American students, but they did perform better than their peers at other Seattle schools.
The broad goals of the pre-K-3 agenda have led to concerns that it is too vague, which could lead to mediocre outcomes as school districts try implement it. “I think there are common perimeters,” Mr. Pianta said. “But I don’t think there’s a lot of clarity.”
In response to those concerns, advocates are creating a more defined description of what a successful pre-K-3 model should look like.
One of the leaders of that effort, Kristie Kauerz, the program director for pre-K-3 education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said the final product would be like a prix fixe menu. “There are different ways of doing it,” she said. “But there are certain categories you must order from.”
There are other concerns about the pre-K-3 model. Ron Haskins, a co-director of the Brookings Center on Children and Families, in Washington, said his critique of pre-K-3 “can be summarized in one word: money.”
“We are not going to have the resources at the federal or state level to make the pre-K part of this universal for many, many, many years,” he said.
In Santa Maria, a lack of money is one of the problems that administrators and teachers have encountered. Funding for its transition program was eliminated entirely amid California’s continued fiscal crisis, meaning adopting the other pieces of the pre-K-3 agenda would be difficult.
But down the road, Santa Maria’s ideas are being carried on, and expanded in the seaside town of Carpinteria.
The local school district there is working to improve the quality of teaching so that children won’t lose momentum once they reach elementary school. Using grants from the state’s First Five fund for early education and from local foundations based in nearby, wealthy Santa Barbara, the town also has created a community center that includes preschool classes, English classes for adults, and even classrooms where stay-at-home moms can bring their toddlers for a preschool-like environment.
“It used to be the idea that if everybody completed preschool, they were going to be fine. But that may not cut it,” said Paul Cordero, the Carpinteria superintendent. “It’s like a 30-cylinder engine. All the parts have to work.”
This article was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit nonpartisan education news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City.
A version of this article appeared in the June 15, 2011 edition of Education Week as Pre-K-Grade 3 Continuum Gets Sharper Focus