Time to pay attention to a reform that works
By Marci Young
There’s an education reform strategy that has 50 years of solid research behind it, with proven results that demonstrate how to improve student achievement. It’s a solution backed by both political parties to help narrow the achievement gap, increase high school graduation rates and reduce crime and delinquency. It’s an investment proven to yield up to $7 for every public dollar invested, paying dividends to families, school districts and taxpayers. It’s voluntary, high-quality pre-kindergarten.
Decades of research reveal that most of a child’s brain development takes place before age five. When young children miss out on experiences during this critical time that maximize their immense learning potential, pernicious achievement gaps emerge among children of all backgrounds well before they set foot in a kindergarten or 1st-grade classroom.
Before kindergarten, approximately 60 percent of low-income children and more than a third of middle-income children don’t know the alphabet. Equally alarming, only 6 percent of poor and 18 percent of middle-income children understand numerical sequence.
Among children who are reported to be significantly behind in social-emotional development at kindergarten entry, 55% come from low-income families while 25% come from upper-income families. These facts show that while access to pre-K for low-income kids should be a priority, other children can benefit as well.
When you walk into a high-quality pre-K classroom, you immediately see learning taking place.
Children engage in activities that encourage their positive social, emotional, cognitive and physical development, learning not just about letters, colors, shapes and numbers, but also how to work and reason with teachers and other children, take turns and share. Teachers structure activities intentionally and interact with children thoughtfully to enrich their vocabulary, extend their learning and model constructive behaviors.
You’ll also see children learning through play, developing critical thinking, socialization and problem-solving skills. Children play with blocks, puzzles and computers, and engage in activities such as art, music and dance.
Building a high-quality pre-K program takes sophisticated staff training and a supportive classroom environment. Accordingly, the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) has identified critical benchmarks that all state pre-k programs need to establish a foundation for quality, including:
* Well-educated and well-trained teachers
* Low child-teacher ratios
* Small class sizes
* Research-based and comprehensive curriculum
* Comprehensive supports for children and families, such as health and nutrition, parent education and referral services
With all the various terms – preschool, pre-K, child care – state pre-K is sometimes thought of as synonymous with Head Start, the primary federal investment in early education.
But Head Start is offered to only the poorest, serves only about half of eligible children and needs much stronger connections to our nation’s larger school-reform strategy. And while many other children are in some form of publicly or privately-funded child care, the quality of these settings is typically not high enough to maximize potential during critical years.
Over the past decade, state progress on pre-K has produced dramatic results: Combined data from NIEER and Pew’s Pre-K Now campaign show that state funding for pre-k rose from $2.4 billion in FY02 to $5.3 billion in FY10.
Five states – and Washington, D.C. – passed legislation that promises voluntary pre-K for all 4-year-olds. The pre-K-for-all plan in Washington, D.C. also includes 3-year-olds. Maryland has consistently grown its pre-K program by providing support for early learning through the school funding formula, and the Maryland Department of Education has a plan to put in place pre-K-for-all when the state budget improves. Pre-K also has a strong reputation of bipartisan support in Virginia. Nationwide, the number of states with programs that meet eight or more of NIEER’s 10 quality benchmarks grew from five in 2002 to 18 in 2008.
Despite the momentum, most children still don’t have access to high-quality pre-K programs. NIEER statistics show that 75 percent of 4- year-olds and 96 percent of 3-year-olds don’t have access to state-funded pre-K, Head Start or special education preschool. As federal and state policy makers look for ways to solve our country’s education crisis, high-quality pre-K should be the first step in any comprehensive reform plan.
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| December 3, 2010; 5:00 AM ET
Categories: Early Childhood, Guest Bloggers | Tags: achievement gap, early childhood education, kindergarten, pre-k, pre-kindergarten
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