Better educational outcomes for American children almost certainly depend on providing them with the best possible start in school. The country apparently is not realizing this goal, according to the flat line in achievement over the last three decades shown by the Foundation for Child Development’s latest Child Well-Being Index. (“Education Said to Trail Most Other Gauges of Child Welfare,” April 5, 2006.)
A key to improvement resides in an unprecedented emphasis on the first level of education, a period that should begin with prekindergarten and extend through the 3rd grade, a pre-K-3 configuration. I have studied this level of education during the last two years under a grant from the foundation, an experience that convinces me that more attention to pre-K-3 will strengthen schooling and lay a foundation for improvement in the upper grades. (“An Earlier Start,” this issue.)
A pre-K-3 structure that inculcates an academic work ethic can lead to more productive learning in the upper grades.
This period, pre-K-3, accounts for more than a third of elementary and secondary education, a time when schools must prepare children for success in literacy and numeracy and instill habits of the mind, along with tending to social and emotional development. Schooling during the early years figures prominently in shaping a student’s future and offers great promise for all that follows, when youngsters who have learned to read must begin to read to learn. Students who emerge from 3rd grade as fluent readers can approach much of the rest of the curriculum with confidence. Learning to reason with numbers during the primary years will not make an Einstein of every child, but it will lift the mystery from mathematics and enhance their prospects.
Research findings attest to the powerful effects of quality prekindergarten and full-day kindergarten. As prekindergarten grows universal and kindergartens become full-day programs, schools will best sustain early gains—which often have dissipated in the past—by reinforcing them during the entirety of primary education. Coordination should be the watchword of this effort, with standards, curriculum, instruction, and assessment aligned throughout the pre-K-3 continuum like the moving parts of a finely designed mechanical clock. There is a broad empirical base for zeroing in on children from the ages of 3 to 8 and for aligning learning experiences during that period, grade by grade, to sustain gains.
A pre-K-3 structure that inculcates an academic work ethic can lead to more productive learning in the upper grades. Such an approach—stressing language, reading, and math—by no means implies that schools ought to ignore other subjects. Teachers can offer social studies and science in tandem with reading and math, for instance. The arts, as well, have a place in the education of young children, who sometimes best express themselves through such pursuits as drama, music, and drawing.
Surely, a solid start today will help stem the high school dropout rate and boost the numbers entering and completing college. A pre-K-3 approach will fortify early education in the following ways:
Emphasis. Designation of pre-K through grade 3 as a unit unto itself with specific goals, especially in language development, is a first step toward assuring that the youngest children do not get shunted aside as older students receive precedence.
Teamwork. In a pre-K-3 school or unit of their own, staff members can more readily plan across grade levels and classrooms, viewing students as one unified learning community. They can form both horizontal teams for teachers on a particular grade level and vertical teams with a teacher from each grade level, preschool through 3rd grade.
Grouping. Flexible small-group instruction that reaches beyond a single classroom and crosses grade levels acknowledges the uneven progress at these ages.
Staff Development. Educators at this level share common professional interests best addressed through joint continuing education that recognizes the interlocking nature of their work.
Culmination. Grade 3, as a concluding point, takes on significance as the juncture at which to gather the fruits of early learning to make success more likely in the grades that follow.
Educators can implement the advantages of a pre-K-3 approach in separate buildings or by giving the early grades their own discrete identity in the elementary school—and perhaps their own assistant principal—to create a setting in which everything revolves around these students. A successful pre-K-3 configuration depends on leaders adept at creating and protecting planning time, so that teachers can confer readily with colleagues about ongoing program alignment and about issues pertaining to students in small groups that must be continually reconstituted to take account of individual progress. Teachers must also have the opportunity for professional development that allows them to keep growing as practitioners of early-childhood education.
These ideas are neither new nor untried. The National Association of State Boards of Education in 1988 called on elementary schools to create early-childhood units to serve children ages 4 through 8. The National Academy of Sciences in 2000 said that society uses outdated policies and strategies that do not recognize what has been learned about young children through research. In 2005, a task force of the National Association of Elementary School Principals advocated a coherent program during the primary years as “part of a continuum of learning that extends from prekindergarten through 3rd grade.”
A pre-K-3 approach underscores a school’s connection to the lives of children from birth through the age of 3 by its relationship to family-literacy programs and other ventures that reach into the home during the years before formal education starts. Then, the school makes available voluntary prekindergarten—taught by degreed teachers—and provides full-day kindergarten as the first steps in constructing a firm foundation for learning by the end of 3rd grade. Also, a longer school day and a longer school year lead to added time for learning.
This approach calls for teachers to gain deep knowledge not only of the grades they teach, but also of the grades below and above their own. They should apply these understandings to children’s acquisition of social skills and self-discipline as well as to the provision of academic skills.
Pre-K-3 facilitates recognition of individual differences and enables children to study on levels appropriate to their separate needs.
Schools and colleges of education increasingly recognize that the usual preparation for work in elementary education does not include sufficient specialization for teachers who will work in early-childhood education. Thus, more institutions are creating pre-K-3 preparation programs to qualify teachers to work at all grades throughout the continuum. Such an approach generally includes coursework in special education, getting teachers ready to include students with disabilities in the mainstream to the greatest extent possible—and making it possible even to avoid labeling some children.
Pre-K-3 facilitates recognition of individual differences and enables children to study on levels appropriate to their separate needs. Flexible-grouping strategies allow for multiage, multigrade classrooms, diminishing concern about grade-to-grade promotion in the early primary years while trying to ensure that children reach a specified threshold of learning by the conclusion of 3rd grade. Pre-K-3 programs can therefore more easily accommodate the uneven development of students, including English-language learners.
The children of immigrants account for 21 percent of American kindergartners. Many such youngsters live in homes where the only English they hear emanates from a television set. Tension often surrounds attempts by schools to deal with such students. Issues of race, ethnicity, language, and immigration intrude on discussions of English-language learners. The cushioning atmosphere of a pre-K-3 setting could be the best place to help these students make the transition that awaits them in American schools.
In the 1990s, some educators and policymakers began discussing connections along the educational continuum by referring to the interlocking nature of the years from prekindergarten through college. Government officials formed P-16 councils in Georgia, Maryland, and elsewhere. Now, pre-K-3 should be seen as a necessary step within P-16 to help schools meet the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. While the law does not specifically acknowledge that success at the upper grades relies on the outcomes at the primary level, no one should doubt that this is the case.
The various pieces of the P-16 continuum have long existed in splendid isolation from each other. Americans have viewed these elements as separate places to sojourn along the educational journey, each level having little more to do with the others than the countries through which a tourist might pass during a grand tour of European capitals. The first leg of this trip for many American children—the period up through the 3rd grade—has been a journey to nowhere, leaving them to carry empty baggage for the remainder of their travels.
In the future, the journey should begin with every child’s progression through an aligned pre-K-3 program to smooth the road and to outfit the student with the social, emotional, and academic attire that will help make the rest of the trip a comfortable one. It is in the best interests of the country to settle for no less.
A version of this article appeared in the May 10, 2006 edition of Education Week as Pre-K-3 And School Achievement