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Early Ed Watch

A Blog from New America's Early Education Initiative

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Guest Post: On Beyond Pre-K

Published:  July 11, 2011

The following guest post was written by Samuel J. Meisels, president of Erikson Institute in Chicago. Erikson is the nation’s only graduate school and center for research and service focused exclusively on improving care and education for children birth to age eight.

The Race to the Top - Early Learning Challenge has enormous potential to improve the quality of early childhood programs and expand the number of low-income children, birth to five, enrolled in high-quality programs. Totaling $500 million, this program is unprecedented in its size, its focus on children from birth to five, and its commitment to collaboration between the two federal departments most concerned with children’s development.

Despite this, the new program does not go far enough because, other than recommendations for a Kindergarten Entry Measure and a completely optional, or “invitational” priority concerning “sustaining program effects in the early elementary grades,” it only applies to programs that serve children younger than age five.

Why is this a problem? After all, young children are often left out of federal initiatives and are at best afterthoughts in policy making. So why complain when it looks like the early childhood ship has finally come in? Because it doesn’t matter how much money we spend on preschool if we don’t follow it up with a complementary approach to elementary school. It’s like pouring water into a sieve.

Research findings going back 30 years or more show that children who attend preschool, no matter what their family income or risk group, make significant improvements in language, social, attention, and task persistence skills over time. They also show reduced problem behaviors. Those at higher risk and lower family income make the greatest gains.

But the research also shows that the positive effects of most high-quality preschool programs—at least the cognitive effects that are measured with high-stakes tests—fade out quickly, leaving the children who attended preschool not much better off than those who didn’t. In other words, the advantages conferred by high-quality preschool can’t withstand subsequent exposure to elementary schools that are insensitive to how young children learn and what they need to thrive. Pre-K can’t inoculate a child against lousy schooling.

To make matters worse, the poorest children, many of whom are the primary targets of state Pre-K and Head Start services, attend the poorest schools in terms of educational resources and instructional expertise. And we know that these children tend to pose the biggest challenges to us educationally because of the challenges they face outside of school.

All of this tells us that we need to rethink what happens to children after they leave our preschool programs. Specifically, we need to change the policies and practices of early elementary grades in order to create a high-quality continuum of learning that supports young children’s growth and development from preschool through third grade. We need to take seriously the full age range from birth to eight.

This approach is called PreK–3rd, and there’s no question that it can turn early gains into long-term success. One model of PreK–3rd, Chicago’s Child-Parent Centers, is widely considered among the most successful early intervention programs in the nation. Researchers found that for every dollar invested in this program, nearly $11 was returned to society over the participants’ first 25 years of life. This is equivalent to an 18% annual return on program investment. Children in the study were significantly more likely to attend 4-year colleges and be employed in higher-skilled jobs. They also had lower rates of felony arrests, substance abuse, and depression. Few other interventions can boast such long-term, sustained returns.

PreK–3rd initiatives in Boston, Montgomery County, MD, and Seattle, to highlight a few, have also shown success. But despite their impressive results, initiatives like these are not gaining traction nationwide. And that’s because PreK-3rd initiatives require more than attaching a new name to old practices. PreK-3rd requires educators to challenge and change some of the basic assumptions on which our educational system operates.

To take advantage of the head start that quality preschool provides to the children who most need a good start in school, we must do the following:

Create flexible standards that reflect young children’s natural variability: PreK-3rd adopts a longitudinal view of an individual child’s development and achievement. Schools and districts, however, are locked into cross-sectional, grade-level standards that call for achievement of a particular set of skills at each grade level. If children don’t meet these normative standards, they may not be promoted to the next grade. This ignores the fact that young children’s growth and development is variable and—more than at other ages—cannot easily be forced into a lockstep structure. It is precisely because of this variability that PreK-3rd makes so much sense.

Revise grade level and administrative structures: PreK-3rd thrives when learning is freed from conventional grade-level structures. Vertical or mixed age groupings of children, teacher cross-grade collaboration, and conferences with parents that may include teachers from more than one grade or class are central to PreK-3rd. Children learn from each other and from teachers with different skills. But to make this work teachers must be able to make decisions based on the needs of their students, working within an administrative model that supports decision-making at the classroom level. When principals or districts move teachers around to address manpower needs like so many chess pieces, they undermine these teams and deprive children of teachers’ specialized skills. Successfully implementing PreK-3rd requires staffing policies that are supportive of and respectful of teacher collaboration.

Rethink teacher evaluation and child assessment. Teachers are commonly evaluated on the basis of how well individual children perform on achievement tests that are linked to grade level standards. But children in PreK–3rd may work with a team of teachers across grades, and their success or failure may not be easily tied to a single teacher. This means that teacher evaluations must reflect a wider range of data than just how children perform on high-stakes tests. We also need a different approach to child assessment in which children are evaluated based on observational methods that reflect the continuity of growth over the PreK–3rd  years.

Invest in the young. In an effort to increase graduation rates and strengthen workforce readiness our schools devote more resources to older students than to those at the beginning of the school continuum. At best, most school districts put a premium on success at third grade, when high-stakes tests are first administered. It’s a strategy very much like waiting until you’re 60 before getting serious about retirement savings. The PreK-3rd approach argues that providing a solid educational foundation for preschool and early elementary students is more effective than trying to catch up later, especially in high school. In order to fund this initiative, state plans under Race to the Top, as well as the Early Learning Challenge, could be asked to coordinate across PreK-3rd and the Department of Education could create incentives to use Title I funds for this age range as well.

PreK-3rd is an approach rich with potential. It has the power to transform the current assortment of preschool, kindergarten, and first through third grade goals, practices, and procedures into a continuous and aligned experience for young children, one in which they steadily grow not only intellectually but emotionally. But it will not happen without policymakers, administrators, teachers, and families working together. And it will never happen if one early childhood age group is pitted against another.

The RTT-ELC competition, with its “invitational” priority that carries no points and no advantage for states that propose an aligned birth – age 8 program, is an example of short-sighted thinking. Rather than using the Challenge Grant to leverage the policies I’ve described here, it squanders an opportunity to strengthen early learning and development by extending and reinforcing the gains from birth – age 5.

The policy challenges outlined here—changes that have been implemented with success in cities across the nation—are the next step that early learning and development must take. They can bridge the gap between the success documented in decades of research on early childhood intervention and bring about a significant reduction in the nation’s persistent achievement gap. What begins well can end well, but only if we support and enrich it over time.

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