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Early Ed Watch

A Blog from New America's Early Education Initiative

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"These Kids Syndrome" and PK-3

Published:  January 9, 2008

Senator and Presidential candidate Barack Obama has developed a reputation as an orator, and his rhetoric on education is no exception. Education reformers have seized on his description of what he calls “These Kids Syndrome” and its harmful effect on our schools and students:

She spoke about what she called "These Kids Syndrome"--the tendency to explain away the shortcomings and failures of our education system by saying that "these kids can't learn"; or "these kids don't want to learn" or "these kids are just too far behind." And after awhile, "these kids" become somebody else's problem. And this teacher looked at me and said, "When I hear that term it drives me nuts. They're not 'these kids.' They're our kids. All of them."

Obama uses the "these kids" story to take to task educators, school administrators, and even some parents who blame someone else—parents, previous teachers, "the system," even children themselves—for children’s learning difficulties. As anyone who’s worked in school reform knows, this failure to take responsibility for children’s learning is a real obstacle to improving public education.

But the "these kids" syndrome could also sum up one of the major obstacles to instituting PK-3 reforms. Too often, key stakeholders fail to think in terms of PK-3 because they believe that “these kids” are not their responsibility. Early childhood and pre-k advocates focus primarily on the needs of children and families from before birth through age five. They want to build comprehensive birth through five systems that provide not only quality pre-k, but also parenting education and leave, family economic support, health care, and so forth. Yet their interest abruptly stops once children enter kindergarten. “These kids” they reason, the ones in public schools, are not their responsibility. After all, there’s an entire K-12 public education system in place to serve “these kids,” and it already has many of the things—universal access, public funding, teachers with bachelors (or higher) degrees—advocates covet for zero-to-five programs.

By the same token, K-12 school reformers tend to view “these kids,” the ones younger than five who aren’t in the public school system yet, as someone else’s business. Pre-k expansion might be nice, they reason, making children better prepared for school, but it’s an add-on rather than the sort of structural reform needed to improve public education. Some K-12 reformers even view the pre-k movement as a dangerous distraction that focuses attention on factors outside the school system rather on the problems within schools that must be fixed to improve student learning.

By failing to look beyond their narrow spheres, both early childhood advocates and K-12 reformers undermine their own agendas. Abundant evidence on “fade out” of pre-k and early learning gains shows that education supports must continue into the elementary grades to have long-term academic impacts—children who go one from quality childcare and pre-k to lousy elementary schools won’t have the academic results pre-k supporters promise. And pre-k reforms would complement school reformers efforts by narrowing achievement gaps early, when they’re less entrenched. But, by ignoring early education, school reformers overlook a powerful vehicle for advancing structural reforms at the elementary school level.

Perhaps worst of all, the current divide between birth-through-five “early childhood” programs and K-12 education also exacerbates the larger “these kids syndrome,” allowing both sides to blame the other when child outcomes fall short, rather than accepting shared responsibility for student learning. By building shared accountability—between pre-k, K-3, parents, and communities—for children’s academic outcomes in third grade and beyond, PK-3 reform offers a way out of the “these kids” trap—but only if early childhood educators and K-12 reformers can dispense with outmoded and artificial divisions and start thinking of all kids ages 3 to 8 as "our kids."

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