The cute pictures of proud 5-year-olds in their miniature caps and gowns “graduating” this year from preschool are probably still being exchanged by family members via the Internet. Such ceremonies are a great excuse to feed kids cake and, for teachers especially, celebrate the end of the year.
But therein is an opportunity to address a major weaknesses of our education system: we don’t pay enough substantive attention to the transition of students from one level of schooling to the next.
One of the biggest gaps occurs between preschool and kindergarten. Sam Meisels, president of the Erikson Institute in Chicago, commented in an Early Ed Watch blog post recently that “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.” (Joe Klein, writing in Time magazine last week, called for killing Head Start because its measurable effects do not seem to last.)
This issue is getting a lot of attention now because the Obama Administration recently issued draft guidelines for a new program that would pour $500 million into state pre-kindergarten programs. This money is to be awarded in a Race to the Top competition and winning states will each receive $50 to $100 million. As Education Sector’s Anne Hyslop has noted, the competition presents states with some serious challenges.For many years early childhood education advocates have called for the federal government to augment state expenditures on pre-kindergarten. The feds spend heavily on child care and Head Start, the $7 billion program that arose out of President Johnson’s War on Poverty. School districts can, if they choose, use Title I money to pay for pre-kindergarten. But only a few actually do. This proposed investment would be a first.
But, rather than praise, the draft guidelines drew criticism from those who have argued for years that the investment in high-quality pre-kindergarten will be more likely to result in sustained learning gains if it is coordinated with what comes after. According to a recent article by The Hechinger Report, the PreK-3 movement is designed to “revolutionize early education through an ambitious list of connected initiatives, including universal access to free public preschool, mandatory full-day kindergarten, and curriculum that is seamlessly connected from preschool to third grade. Increasing parent involvement is also a major focus.”
But the Early Learning Challenge draft guidelines don’t require states to propose such a comprehensive program to be eligible to receive the money, though they can include the approach as part of their application if they so choose.
The evidence on whether PreK-3rd approaches are effective in maintaining learning gains is not yet robust. But we do know that failing to connect what happens to children before kindergarten with what comes after isn’t working all that well.
The president of the Foundation for Child Development, Ruby Takanishi, has been a strong voice and supporter of the PreK-3rd approach. She says that low-income children in particular need a “coherent, well-aligned education” from age 3 on, as is the case in places such as Sweden, Denmark, England and France. But that’s not happening in most U.S. communities. In New Jersey, for example, the state spends about $18,000 per child in preschool but “there’s absolutely no coordination between pre-kindergarten and kindergarten and from kindergarten to the elementary grades.”
Education Sector Intern Charlene Collazo contributed reporting to this post.