Educators and policymakers are grappling with how to better serve academically at-risk children at a time when data show the stubborn persistence of academic achievement gaps.
Many in K-12 schooling want change and are scouring the learning landscape for thoughtful guidance. They might be surprised to find important lessons from an unexpected source: early-childhood education.
High-quality early education is increasingly valued for its capacity to help children—especially those struggling to attain proficiency on state standards—to arrive at kindergarten ready to learn and more likely to garner the skills necessary to succeed. Children who attend high-quality early-education programs score higher on tests of school readiness, are less likely to need special education services, and are more likely to graduate from high school and attend college. These benefits accrue to all children who attend high-quality early-education programs, with low-income, African-American, and Latino children usually showing the greatest gains. Elementary and secondary educators increasingly see early education as essential to success.
As partnerships are forged and support for early education grows, K-12 will discover that the early-childhood field has figured out important keys to effectively serving children who are academically at risk. Beyond the benefits tied to intervening early in a child’s developmental trajectory, the early-learning field has strengths which, if adapted for elementary and secondary education, could help more K-12 schools improve long-term outcomes for high-needs children and accelerate the narrowing of achievement gaps.
Here are four lessons that elementary and secondary education could draw from the early-childhood sector as leaders seek to build P-16 systems and reimagine schools capable of helping all children attain the skills they need to succeed in the 21st-century economy and society.
Expand the mission. In high-quality early-childhood-education settings, the mission is to serve children and their families. This mission takes different forms in each community, but the federal Head Start program, which serves low-income, at-risk children across the nation, is illustrative: Head Start emphasizes developing relationships with families to support parents as their child’s first teacher and promote positive parent-child interactions.
This type of family engagement includes partnering with families to set goals and expectations, sharing information about child development, and supporting family participation in activities or services that promote healthy child development and learning. The aim is to build family capacity and foster the skills, habits, and resources families need to successfully support their children. Research shows lasting effects of these efforts on low-income parents’ interactions with their children, including reading regularly, engaging in math activities, and venturing to cultural institutions that support student learning.
Critically, this approach emphasizes strengthening rather than substituting for families. It shifts away from schools’ assuming core family functions to helping parents and guardians be effective family members, teachers, advocates, and role models for their children whenever possible. Similar engagement efforts in K-12, tailored to the needs of older children and their families, could yield important results.
The early-learning field has strengths which, if adapted for elementary and secondary education, could help more K-12 schools improve long-term outcomes for high-needs children.
Facilitate access to comprehensive services and other resources. In some states, every early-childhood program, whether in the public or private sector, is connected to resources and supports that are critical to the healthy development of children and their families. In Massachusetts, for example, programs are supported by a statewide network of Coordinated Family and Community Engagement grantees that help connect families to local educational, social, health, and mental-health resources.
Structures that scaffold teaching, focused on comprehensive services or other resources that support student learning, serve as the connective tissue between educational and external resources. Similar structures in K-12 would better align resources inside and outside of schools, support administrators and educators, and improve the ability of children and their families to access resources critical to learning and healthy development.
Cultivate all domains of child development. Educating the “whole child” is the linchpin of early-childhood pedagogy and refers to fostering growth across five domains of human development: cognitive, language, social, emotional, and physical. As a result, early-childhood teachers are overt about their role in developing character skills. Imbedded concepts like “wait your turn,” “use your words,” or “try again” are the precursors of delayed gratification, effective communication, and grit—all traits linked to positive academic and social outcomes.
Early-childhood teachers also emphasize curiosity and creativity. In the face of increasing academic standards and preschool-through-3rd-grade curriculum alignment, they have sought to protect student-directed learning, experiential education, and an emphasis on discovery and problem-solving. High-quality early-childhood curricula pursue academic concepts and materials through hands-on experiences designed to engage and motivate children to learn. By contrast, in too many K-12 schools, higher standards and prescriptive approaches to pedagogy have combined to extinguish the joys of learning and teaching.
Early educators are helped by policymakers who favor assessments that reflect a complexity of pedagogic purpose, making more room for a child’s natural curiosity and creativity, and the intentional development of social-emotional and character skills. Policymakers in elementary and secondary education are beginning to explore this direction. The National Governors Association has convened six states to create and pilot assessments across the birth-to-3rd-grade continuum that reflect a whole-child approach. Assessments in K-12 could eventually embrace a more holistic and engaging approach to education for all children.
Incentivize and support educational quality. States are providing incentives for improving the quality of early-childhood programs and supporting capacity-building at the program and classroom levels, where it matters most. Nearly 40 states, including Delaware, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania, have developed statewide systems that define educational quality across a diverse array of program structures and philosophies, leaving broad latitude to educators and program directors. These standards draw from academic research on effective education and typically include assessments of pedagogy accompanied by targeted professional development and differentiated technical and financial assistance to support educators and administrators in the delivery of positive early-learning experiences.
In addition, many states are improving teacher preparation. It may seem counterintuitive that early childhood has anything to teach K-12 about teacher quality. Only 35 percent of center-based educators have earned four-year college degrees. But in early childhood, unlike K-12, state policymakers have required current and aspiring teachers to attain higher levels of academic achievement and taken the lead to identify and support research-based professional development and practice through coordinated statewide delivery systems.
The corollary in elementary and secondary education is to allow the research on teacher quality, and the lessons we glean from teacher-induction and -preparation requirements in high-performing countries like Finland, to embolden us to raise expectations and build supporting delivery systems that help teachers and administrators best serve our children and bring our education system into the 21st century.
As education reformers confront the opportunities and limitations of the standards and accountability era of education reform and think anew about what more is needed to close the achievement gaps, early-childhood education may offer guidance that educators and policymakers across the P-16 continuum can use to better develop the potential of every child.
A version of this article appeared in the August 06, 2014 edition of Education Week