As part of Early Learning Day of Action, we are running a post that originally appeared at the National Journal Education Experts blog. In addition to the post below on the President's pre-K plan, we've also written on the proposed quality standards; partnership with states; pre-K momentum from business leaders and red states; proposed funding in the President's budget; debates on the President's plan; the idea of a tobacco tax; the cost of funding universal pre-K; and for The Atlantic, Lisa Guernsey and I explained why preschool isn't enough.
The President’s early education plan is a step in the right direction. It puts forward a vision of learning along a continuum, starting with pregnant mothers gaining assistance from visiting nurses, moving to expanding families’ access to public programs for babies and toddlers, adding more emphasis on preschool for 4-year-olds and continuing up through the next year, with a recognition of the need for more full-day kindergarten seats.
President Obama’s proposal recognizes that while preschool is certainly an important investment, its impact on children’s long-term success could be greater if it were linked with the rest of the education pipeline. His plan gives weight to the idea that we should no longer think of education as a K-12 system, but instead as a PreK-12 system. This is where I would like to see his plan go even further, by encouraging states to find ways in kindergarten to build instructionally on the knowledge and skills children gain in pre-K, ensuring that those benefits are sustained.
For years, we have seen forward-thinking states run by both Democratic and Republican governors make investments in pre-K. Georgia’s program, for example, is open to all 4-year-olds in the state. It began more than 15 years ago with 44,000 children. In the 2010-11 school year, enrollment nearly doubled, serving more than 85,000 children, approximately 61 percent of 4-year-olds in the state. Georgia’s program requires bachelor’s degrees for pre-K teachers. Meanwhile, Oklahoma’s public pre-K programs enroll more than 70 percent of the state’s 4-year-olds and require college-educated teachers. Oklahoma also pays pre-K teachers on the same scale as K-12 public school teachers. Additionally, Oklahoma is expanding access to quality baby and toddler programs.
States and localities have control of public schools. What they do across PreK-12 systems is what will keep children’s gains from preschool programs from fading out. For example, many people may not realize that free public full-day kindergarten is not available for every child across the country. Forty states do not require school districts to provide full-day kindergarten at all.
Consider, though, what is happening in North Carolina, where policymakers have decided that full-day kindergarten is a priority. Through its Power of K program, North Carolina has invested in a project to help kindergarten teachers and their principals create classrooms that are designed especially for five year-olds, offering opportunities for exploration, investigation and socializing while also providing a rigorous academic curriculum for all children.
Other states, such as New Jersey, Maryland and Washington, have made kindergarten, first, second and third grades a priority, by creating a seamless transition from preschool to elementary school. They have done so by developing preK-3rd grade standards and curriculum that are challenging and make sense for kids, and that build on the knowledge and skills they previously learned; and by helping teachers share information and plan together within and across grade levels.
These kinds of initiatives help sustain the knowledge and skills children have gained throughout their schooling. For too long, proposals to improve children’s chances for success in school and beyond have focused on intervention, remediation or turning around schools that are failing students, instead of on improving the experiences of our youngest learners in birth through age 5 early learning programs, making full-day kindergarten available and ensuring that early childhood programs have effective, well-trained teachers who provide students with a challenging, well-rounded curriculum and opportunities to learn from their peers and from the world around them.
President Obama’s plan is a step toward realizing this vision. His plan does not create a new federal program nor does it add new mandates for states or requirements for parents. Instead, it provides a way for Washington to collaborate with states and enhance the work that many of them are already doing.