Take two kids, one from a low-income family, the other middle class. Let them run around and do little-kid things in their respective homes and then, at age 5, enroll them in kindergarten. Research shows that when the first day of school rolls around, the child from the low-income household will be as many as 1.5 years behind grade level in terms of language and prereading and premath skills. The middle-class kid will be as many as 1.5 years ahead. This means that, by the time these two 5-year-olds start school, the achievement gap between them is already as great as three years.
And yet early-learning programs, because of the way they are financed and administered, are not part of the entrenched educational system in most of the U.S. The vast majority of states are not required to offer preschool, and some states have no pre-K programs at all.
Against this backdrop, Pew is exiting the pre-K stage with several hard-boiled recommendations.
Stop thinking K to 12, and start thinking pre-K to 12
Once considered little more than day care, preschool (or nursery school) is regarded as a crucial beginning to a high-quality education. Part of a natural continuum of learning, these early years are too often separated from kindergarten and elementary school by artificial boundaries.
Strategically expand access
Some 27% of 4-year-olds in the U.S. were enrolled in state-funded pre-K programs in the 2009-10 school year. Factor in programs like Head Start, and the total rises to just 40% of 4-year-olds. That's not good enough.
Bring early-learning initiatives under one roof
Consider, the Pew study tells readers, the scattered system in Alabama, where child care, pre-K and kindergarten are all run by separate departments. It should come as no surprise, then, that early-learning advocates are trying to coordinate efforts and bring everything under one roof….Conceived as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty, Head Start is run by the Department of Health and Human Services rather than the Department of Education. Over the years, there have been calls, most recently during George W. Bush's first term in the White House, to move the program under the domain of the Department of Education.
Crazy as it sounds, it is possible to evaluate student learning even when those students are too young to be expected to know how to write their own name, let alone take a standardized test. But "we need more measures that look less at qualifications and more at how much teachers grow their kids," Kati Haycock, president of Education Trust, is quoted as saying in the Pew report…NIEER recommends two basic ways of evaluating a program's effectiveness. One is to have each teacher perform self-evaluations of each student as well as his or her own teaching ability and have the district and state also perform internal evaluations. The other is to commission formal research studies on the programs by outside firms, local universities or education consortiums.
Use the federal government to push pre-K reform
If the federal government uses NCLB to emphasize the importance of pre-K and makes it clear what funding streams are available to finance the programs, the states will follow the lead, says Marci Young, director of Pew's Pre-K Now initiative. Young urges legislators to think about how preschool can be included in the evaluation systems, curriculum standards and other reform initiatives likely to be part of the reauthorization; she would also like to see incentives offered to states that make progress on pre-K.
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About this Study
Jacksonville Community Council Inc. (JCCI) is completing its latest community inquiry, Children 1-2-3: Early Learning for Future Success. This community engagement process has been examining the question, "How can Jacksonville best foster early learning success for children from birth to age 3 in our community?" Over the course of the process (October 2011 through April 2012), the meeting schedule, meeting summaries, key handouts and relevant articles have all been posted here. To find out more, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.