We stand on the verge of a revolution in American education. For the first time, a majority of states have adopted common-core standards for K-12 students in English language arts and mathematics—a powerful acknowledgment that collaboration is vital to the success of our students. Yet while this collective effort to close achievement gaps and raise the bar for school performance creates a critical opportunity to enhance U.S. competitiveness and unlock opportunities for the next generation of Americans, K-12 standards simply do not go far enough.
To truly level the playing field for America’s students, we must challenge educators, administrators, legislators, and parents further, to create common standards for early-childhood learning. Although “kindergarten ready” may not have the same cachet as “college- and career-ready,” early learning is the cornerstone of long-term success for America’s children. After all, learning starts at birth, and learning standards should start with even our youngest children. This does not mean that individual differences are to be ignored, but rather, that quality early-childhood programs must both capitalize on the unique abilities and interests of all children and create a clear path to helping them develop the skills they will need in school and beyond.
Much of the development that influences achievement throughout life occurs before children even set foot in school, and kindergarten teachers will tell you that they are not molding fresh pieces of clay. Not only do we need to create consistency across state lines for early learning, but we also need to expand content areas beyond language arts and mathematics, the focus of the Common Core State Standards Initiative, to include social and emotional competencies that are the foundations of learning itself.
It’s critical that children arrive at kindergarten with the cognitive, emotional, and social skills needed to succeed. We know that children who start behind tend to stay behind.
Not only do we need to create consistency across state lines for early learning, but we also need to expand content areas beyond language arts and mathematics, to include social and emotional competencies that are the foundations of learning itself.
Research confirms that early-childhood education can create more-productive citizens. Dr. Jack P. Shonkoff, the director of Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, has shown that experiences in early childhood affect the very architecture of the brain. And the Nobel laureate economist James J. Heckman has shown that investments in high-quality early-childhood education can yield unparalleled societal returns through increased productivity, as well as reductions in crime, welfare dependency, teenage pregnancy, emergency-room use, and the need for academic remediation and mental-health specialists. Just recently, a longitudinal study by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development revealed that children who receive high-quality early-childhood education perform better academically and cognitively, even at the age of 15.
Without early-learning standards and quality pre-K education programs to support them, the developmental gaps start and expand even before children enter kindergarten. Today, all states and the District of Columbia are actively developing, revising, and/or implementing early-learning standards, according to the National Child Care Information and Technical Assistance Center. But there are significant differences in scope and content. Nearly half the states have developed standards for birth to age 5, while the other half have only developed standards for ages 3 to 5.
Further differences lie in the content domains covered, with more similarity in preschool and prekindergarten standards than in the infant-and-toddler range, where, for example, content areas such as science, social studies, and fine arts are notably absent in some states. The level of difficulty reflected in the standards also varies widely. And this can be true even in neighboring states such as Washington and Oregon. Washington state’s expectations are that children will be able to count up to 20 by age 5, for example, while children in Oregon are only expected to count to 10. We simply cannot accept that children in Oregon are only half as capable as those in Washington state.
The performance gap between our most and least proficient students is among the highest of all the developed countries, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education, and the United States continues to lag behind other developed countries in the critical subjects of math, science, and reading. If we are to achieve U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s vision that “all students regardless of background have access to a high-quality education,” educators, policymakers, school administrators and parents must come together to demand common standards for early education. We cannot afford to wait until kindergarten—when, for many children, it is already too late.
A version of this article appeared in the August 11, 2010 edition of Education Week