The spring issue of AFT's American Educator makes the case for clear, specific content standards--and it should be must reading for anyone interested in improving early elementary education or PK-3 alignment. Clear, specific content standards are the cornerstone of an aligned PK-3 early learning experience. But, unfortuantely, too many states lack strong content standards in the early grades.
We're used to hearing the case for strong standards made in terms of equity--children in Detroit or Hampton Rhoads need to master the same knoweldge and skills as children in Ann Arbor or Fairfax. But good strandards should play an equally important role in aligning curriculum, assessment, and professional development within and across grades.
In an aligned PK-3 program, what children learn each year build seemlessly on what they learned the year before. But that's impossible without clearly articulated, detailed expectations for what children should learn each year: If we don't know in detail what children learned in second grade, it's hard to ensure that the third grade curriculum builds seamlessly from that; and if we don't know what children are expected to learn in third grade, then it's hard to design a second grade curriculum to prepare them for the next grade. If teachers don't know what children learned the previous year, they may repeat content or concepts that children already learned, or they might try to teach content that requires background knowledge children haven't yet acquired.
Unfortunately, AFT's analysis of state content standards in four key content areas--reading/English language arts, math, science, and social studies--shows that too many state standards are woefully lacking. That's particularly true at the early elementary level. AFT found that 9 states either had no literacy and numeracy standards at all in grades K-2, or had chosen to "cluster" their K-2 standards--in other words, writing one set of standards for the entire K-2 grade range--thereby making them utterly useless as a tool to support PK-3 alignment. AFT's Heidi Glidden write further,
This is a serious problem that states must address because specific, coherent, grade-by grade standards at the early grades are essential to building students’ background knowledge and vocabulary... Knowledge-rich K-2 standards are especially vital for young children from low-income families who, on average, have been exposed to roughly 30 million fewer words than children from professional families—and whose “word and world knowledge” is, therefore, substantially less than that of their peers.
We couldn't have said it better ourselves. AFT suggests that states have failed to write grade-by-grade K-2 standards because these grades aren't subject to assessment, and states haven't seen the need to write standards for grades that aren't assessed. That's incredibly short-sighted, and reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the point of standards. Standards don't exist to serve assessments--assessments exist to ensure that students are actually being taught standards. And standards exist because there are specific things children need to learn at each grade level in order to be successful in the next one. Clear, specific grade-by-grade standards in the early years chart a pathway for children to achieve proficiency by third grade. They are not optional.
Glidden calls on states to address their weak content standards in the early grades. But Congress should not leave this critical issue to the discretion of states. National standards--including clear, specific content standards in the early grades--would be the most straightforward way to address the problem of weak state content standards. Short of that, Congress should include language in the NCLB reauthorization mandating clear, specific grade-by-grade content standards in at least literacy and math in all of grades K-8, not just grades 3-8 (and course standards in the high school years). As we continue to expand high-quality pre-k and full-day kindergarten programs, we must not jeopardize that investment with indifferent, vague, and clustered standards in the early elementary years.