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Facing Up to Fade-Out: About Preschool and the Birth-to-Third-Grade Continuum

Published:  February 25, 2013

This morning, The Atlantic published a commentary I wrote with my colleague Laura Bornfreund about facing up to "fade-out." The article describes why, if Obama's preschool plan is to gain momentum, it would be smart to proceed with a two-pronged approach: give children deep learning experiences in their birth-to-five years and make improvements to the K-3 grades of elementary school.

Fade-out is not something the early childhood community likes to talk about. For years it has been trotted out by critics of preschool as a reason not to spend public dollars on early education programs. For those who follow the trials of Head Start, it is an especially sore subject, as the third-grade results from the Head Start Impact Study showed virtually no difference between a control group and a group of children who had been registered for Head Start four or five years prior.

The theories for the study's lackluster results are numerous and will probably be debated for years, but what is missing from the dialogue is any discussion of what the quality of teacher-child interactions looked like for children when they attended Head Start, when they attended kindergarten, when they attended first grade and so on. Because the study was not designed to do any measurement or observations of those interactions in elementary schools, solid answers may be forever out of reach.

Yet even without the Head Start study, there is reason to pay attention to questions of fade-out and start an honest discussion about where it exists and what it means. Our research (whether on teacher preparation or observations of classroom teaching) has led us to recognize that wide disparities in quality exist not only in pre-K, but also in kindergarten, first grade, second grade and on up the continuum.

Over the past several years, many early childhood experts have urged policymakers to pay attention to the continuum of early learning that starts before birth and continues through third grade. It is this continuum that builds a solid foundation of skills and knowledge needed for the more analytic, reading-dependent work of the fourth through twelfth grades. Building on this idea, here in the Early Education Initiative we have promoted a PreK-3rd approach that enables teachers of all the grades to build upon the learning of the child's previous year, instead of repeating, skipping, or ping-ponging children through a discontinuous system.  This requires  thoughtful, "two-way-street" alignment between the "birth to 5" world and the "K-12" world as educators and policymakers do the hard work of syncing standards, assessments, teacher preparation, the development of directors and principals and more.

Obama's preschool plan offers an opportunity to continue pushing that message. As we write in The Atlantic:

Fortunately, Obama's plan is not just about four-year-olds. In addition to expanding high-quality preschool, it envisions an early education continuum: more pregnant women and first-time mothers gaining assistance from visiting nurses if they want them and more families with access to public child care programs for children up through age three -- as well as more four-year-olds in high-quality preschool and more districts in which full-day kindergarten is readily available.

Less obvious -- but just as important when it comes to halting fade-out -- is how the proposal could allow for state leaders, not top-down federal intervention, to be the agents of change. States provide the lion's share of funding for public schools. They develop tests, set standards and design licenses for teachers. States could develop training programs that put preschool and kindergarten teachers together, allowing them to learn from each other. This would help ensure that preschool teaching is at a high level and that the gains children make aren't squandered in elementary school.

In a funding partnership with the federal government, states could be creating a new PreK-12 system, not simply positioning pre-K as an add-on to K-12 schools. In North Carolina, for example, the Power of K program helps kindergarten teachers and their principals to create classrooms that are designed especially for five year-olds, offering opportunities for exploration, investigation and socializing while also providing a challenging curriculum for all children. New Jersey, Maryland, and Washington state are undertaking similar efforts across the K-3 grades.

See the full article, Why Preschool Isn't Enough, here.


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