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Posted at 5:00 AM ET, 12/ 3/2010

Time to pay attention to a reform that works

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is Marci Young, director of Pre-K Now, a project of the nonprofit Pew Center on the States that advances high-quality, voluntary pre-kindergarten for all 3 year olds and 4 year olds.

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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By Valerie Strauss  | 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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I'm waiting for recommendations to start teaching kids in the womb at school.

I'm not the smartest person in the world, but I've been around long enough to know that back in the 50s and 60s, students attended school for 12 years. I don't recall any more social problems than those today. We watched cartoons showing Buggs Bunny being shot repeatedly by Yosemite Sam, Road Runner running off the cliff, and Popeye and Bluto going at it every time they were on screen.

Along comes this theory that we MUST have Kindergarten. States and the Feds adopt the idea and viola, now kids are FORCED to attend school for 13 years. We continue experimenting, tinkering with education and children and suddenly 13 years is good enough.

Wow! Now we start kids at 4 years old. Guess what! We still have kids unable to read, unable to understand math, unable to develop complex thinking, and mostly unable to understand life. If what I say is untrue, then why are there more murders today with juveniles than in the 50s and 60s? Why are we having more problems with learning?

Our schools are over the limits with kids because we keep bringing them in earlier. In essence, P-K and K are just glorified day care systems subsidized by taxes.

We need to revert to the basics...MASTERY of the subject. Repetition for mastery is a game changer. Don't believe that? How many learned to tie their shoes the very first time they were shown? How did you learn? Repetition. How many letter were learned all at once? Probably few but through repetition the knowledge expanded and STUCK with you through life.

It's the basics alright.

Posted by: educ8er | December 3, 2010 7:59 AM | Report abuse

Mastery of the subject ... now there's a concept. Repitition? But what about Johnny's feelings about repitition? What about cultural identity? Can't let repitition get in the way of that.

Posted by: peonteacher | December 3, 2010 8:34 AM | Report abuse

Prek will become a national reform strategy when the so-called reformers and education entrepreneurs can devise a way to divert funds into their pockets and profit on three and four year olds.

Don’t we have three and four year olds held hostage to mandated tests on a hand held device, big brother databases, and canned curriculum kits in some states now?

Posted by: nfsbrrpkk | December 3, 2010 8:41 AM | Report abuse

@Educ8ter and @peonteacher

I agree with you about the need for mastery of material and the importance of repetition. And I agree that the emphasis on mastery of basic skills has sometimes taken a back seat with some educators and administrators. However, it would be an eye opening experience for you to witness a kindergarten screening to see how woefully unprepared for school many of the children appear after four years of parental neglect. This is where the achievement gap begins: right at kindergarten screening. Children whose parents have read to them, talked to them, engaged them in play stick out like gold nuggets among the pebbles. They're not necessarily gifted, but they have been prized by their parents enough that the parents have set aside their own selfish needs to spend the time necessary to take advantage of those first years, when the brain is forming connections to make sense of the world. It is also obvious which children have been taught basic social behaviors and which have been indulged and appeased to avoid any unpleasantness. Valerie's point is that UPK - Universal Prekindergarten has been proven to make up for some of these deficits so that children enter kindergarten "ready to learn" and would be the most sensible way to spend RttT money instead of funneling it into the coffers of testing companies, consultants and hiring more bureaucrats.

Posted by: buckbuck11 | December 3, 2010 8:49 AM | Report abuse

I'm with buckbuck11. But I also understand and agree to a certain extent with the previous 3 posters.

I teach K-5 art in a Title I school. It never ceases to amaze me how educationally needy some of these kids are...some have never held a pair of scissors or a pencil or taken a trip (other than to the babysitters), and I guarantee they have never been read to, or given a chance to develop fine motor skills, or socialization skills...and they are smart enough to see what has already happened. Their skill set is very limited. Many of these kids don't own a box of crayon's.

We can argue all day about parental responsibility vs the responsibility of the public schools, but the truth of the matter is many kids are already behind in kindergarten and something needs to be done for these kids before they fall further behind.

Kindergarten has become like first grade used to be. Some of these children catch-up, some never will. To think that by the end of kindergarten we can already start to identify those kids who will be successful in school from those who won't is a tragedy.

I started school in Fairfax County in the 50's...there was no kindergarten...but times were different then.

Posted by: ilcn | December 3, 2010 9:25 AM | Report abuse

How do we know those that were educationally needy in the beginning are doing any better at the end of 14 years of schooling? If testing is any measure then maybe we are better off. If dropout rates, increased out of school suspensions, or other problem tracking systems are used, maybe not. I guess it depends on what is being measured and how.

All I know is neither of my siblings, neither of my children attended K or Pre-K. I had my youngest son set back in the 3rd grade. He graduated easily. My oldest never had a problem in school until I started moving more in my military career. His attitude went south and that has nothing to do with education.

My granddaughters were taught to before they started school. Now the oldest is having problems keeping up. Why? As soon as she gets one topic, they move on to another. She stays confused.

I don't know the answer, but I have been around long enough to see that adding 2 years of education has still to hit the target.

Posted by: educ8er | December 3, 2010 10:39 AM | Report abuse

Now’s a good time to refresh people’s memories about the learning beliefs around which former DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee centered her reform policies:

July 2007, Rhee at City Council Confirmation hearings:
“Seeing the growth of my students [in Baltimore, in the 90’s, which cannot be documented] showed me that the academic outcomes of our students had nothing to do with their ability and potential (which was endless) and everything to do with the education they were receiving in the schools.”

November 2008 Rhee at the Aspen Institute:
“I had a life-altering experience through that experience [teaching in Baltimore], I came to realize this is all about the teachers, because for those 70 kids nothing changed….”

“And so I became obsessed with this idea that if we were really going to change the quality of urban education in this county, it’s going to be about high quality teachers.”

January 2009, Rhee at Harvard:
“My gut instinct was that I needed to do this, in order to change the face of public education,” she told a gathering at the Kennedy School in September. “I wanted to show that it was possible for poor and minority kids to achieve at the same level as their wealthy white counterparts.”

“…the defining experience of my life.” …“People told me I couldn’t do it because the kids came from poor homes, they didn’t get breakfast, and no one was helping them out,” she recalls. “The reality was that they went from the bottom to the top, and their home environment didn’t change. What changed were the adults in front of them who were teaching. That gave me the conviction that academic outcomes are dependent upon what the adults are doing.”

Posted by: efavorite | December 3, 2010 10:50 AM | Report abuse

Continued from Rhee’s beliefs about learning, above:

February 2009, Rhee on DC NBC TV News
“And the only way we’re going to get out of this situation [low achievement] is if we have great teachers. That is the only solution that we have, and so that’s why we’re really focused on it.”

June, 2010, Rhee at Accenture meeting in Georgetown:
“[I have] an unwavering belief in the children of the city, that they can achieve at high levels despite the obstacles they face”

And soon-to-be former DC Mayor Fenty believed it too:

August 2008, Mayor Adrian Fenty: “Education reform begins and ends in the classroom.”

Posted by: efavorite | December 3, 2010 11:01 AM | Report abuse

Regarding beliefs about learning, efavorite, do you believe that DCPS teachers are responsible for delivering high-quality education services to the students in their classroom? Are they accountable for it?

Non-response may be interpreted as: you do not agree with the above.

Posted by: axolotl | December 3, 2010 11:06 AM | Report abuse

Sarah Salamander,

I don't know what efav would say, but the problem with your leading and sanctimonious dialectic is that some kids do not learn the right material even with "high-quality" teachers or even with a team of "high quality education services." You could certainly hold those teachers accountable for their failure to cram discreet learning skills into those kids heads, but to do so suggests that teachers can "learn" all people in a uniform fashion.

Teachers should be held accountable. No doubt about that. But no one should ever be reduced down to someone else's bubbles on a multiple choice test.

Posted by: DHume1 | December 3, 2010 12:51 PM | Report abuse

It saddens me today to read some of the comments above the one I am writing. Words like content mastery and "back when I was" and we need students to master material. We are 10 years into the new millennium and we need to change our methods of preparing our youth for the 21st century global workplace. We need to focus on student mastery of SKILLS. The days of I teach, you listen are over. A shift in the educational paradigm is needed from "material/content" focus to that of skills-based. I urge the edupreneurs in the field of education to look beyond material mastery and work to help students master the necessary skills needed to be ready for post-secondary opportunities.

Posted by: core4all | December 3, 2010 4:29 PM | Report abuse

I think we should just take babies away from their families as soon as possible. Right when mothers pop those suckers out, the state comes in and schools 'em. And by doing this, we can hold the right people accountable for the mastery of SKILLS that they should have. We will be able to protect and save The Children from poverty, ignorance, and themselves. Or we can continue with the status quo. Do you like the status quo? Well, if you don't, then you must see it my way, right?

Sorry, I was feeling a little Swiftian at the moment.

Posted by: DHume1 | December 3, 2010 5:40 PM | Report abuse

I think we should just take babies away from their families as soon as possible. Right when mothers pop those suckers out, the state comes in and schools 'em. And by doing this, we can hold the right people accountable for the mastery of SKILLS that they should have. We will be able to protect and save The Children from poverty, ignorance, and themselves. Or we can continue with the status quo. Do you like the status quo? Well, if you don't, then you must see it my way, right?

Sorry, I was feeling a little Swiftian at the moment.

Posted by: DHume1 | December 3, 2010 5:41 PM | Report abuse

Get a grip. Help is on the way.

We are in violent agreement but you need to recognize: many DCPS educators absolutely refuse to take responsibility for anything in the classroom--until parents become attentive and poverty is cured. And the new union boss is committed to defending this sorry position.

Posted by: axolotl | December 3, 2010 9:40 PM | Report abuse

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