Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children
Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children

It’s time for the entire country to remake early education.

“We need to reshape the primary years and re-envision the elementary school. The K-5 model starts too late and is usually disconnected from early care and education providers such as pre-K centers,” Laura Bornfreund and Lisa Guernsey wrote last week in a CNN opinion piece called “First day of kindergarten: A key transition.”

Bornfreund is the deputy director of the early education initiative at the nonprofit think tank New America, and Guernsey is the director of New America’s early education initiative and its Learning Technologies Project.

Zeroing in on that first day of kindergarten, Bornfreund and Guernsey point out that teachers often have very little information about the children who arrive in their classrooms.

“Which children have had the benefit of pre-K? Who has never held a book? How many know letters, recognize shapes, or can handle their emotions when a tower of blocks topples?” 

“This is an all too common scenario in American schools, and it is contributing to our nation’s education troubles. While transitions between elementary and middle school and middle and high school are typically well-orchestrated experiences, the transition into kindergarten is haphazard at best.”

The education system, they say, should start earlier and focus more closely on children’s development needs.

“The K-5 model starts too late and is usually disconnected from early care and education providers such as pre-K centers. Instead, primary education should start at age 3, and each year of a young child’s life should be marked by teachers who work together, grade by grade, to offer age-appropriate and research-based learning experiences up through third grade.”

“Today there is a false assumption that by age 5, children leave early childhood behind. That leads educators to make misguided attempts to make kindergarten and early grade classrooms resemble those for older students. But research on children’s development shows the benefits of guided play, exploration, read-alouds and socializations continue at least through age 8. Kids need to be taught in small groups and through hands-on activities.”

“States will need to improve the quality of teacher and principal preparation programs to give educators solid grounding in how children develop and learn best.

“Districts need to help connect schools with ‘feeder’ pre-K programs and should give educators opportunities across pre-K and the early grades for joint professional development, data sharing and developing a common understanding of expectations for learning.”

Much of this work is underway in a number of states including Massachusetts.

As we’ve blogged before, Massachusetts has been working hard to strengthen its early childhood system. The B-3 Advisory Team — made up of members of the Department of Early Education and Care, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Department of Higher Education — has worked to produce a document called “Building the Foundation of Future Success for Children from Birth Through Third Grade.”

“The essential competencies that are presented in this document are the precursors for the knowledge, skills, and qualities that were identified in the 2013 Definition of College and Career Readiness,” the document says. This definition was adopted by the state’s Boards of Elementary and Secondary Education and of Higher Education.

The document is one outcome of the state’s participation in the National Governors Association policy academy on improving learning outcomes from birth to third grade. Amy O’Leary, director of our Early Education for All campaign, serves on the B-3 Advisory Team.

Massachusetts’ cities and towns are also engaged in this work. In New Bedford, for example, education officials are looking at ways to build better birth-through-third grade pathways. Across the state, kindergarten readiness is increasingly the goal, and educators find that support for young children requires a multi-sector approach.

Among the other states that Bornfreund and Guernsey mention is Lansing, Mich., which has “recently reformed the school district’s structure by creating pre-K through third grade schools to create a ‘domino’ effect of student success that continued through the later grades. Other models, such as Oyler School in Cincinnati, Ohio, are linking schools to high-quality child care for infants and toddlers and offering ‘wraparound’ care for all ages during nonschool hours. And, in Orlando, the principal of Grand Avenue Elementary knows where his future students are coming from and invites the teachers from those child care centers to participate in professional learning with his teachers.”

The work won’t be easy, the authors say, because school districts “are under such pressure to hit the mark on third-grade tests that they often forget about the K-3 grades.” In addition, K-12 funding streams leave “preschool out of the picture. Often, because of these divisions, teachers in early learning centers do not trust people in ‘K-12’ and vice versa.”

Fortunately, educational innovations are underway and a great deal more could be done.

“Those children arriving in kindergarten deserve this re-envisioned elementary school, this cohesive, connected approach that starts younger and extends through the later grades. Just as those nervous, giggling 5-year-olds need guidance on where to hang up their backpacks, their teachers need a system that doesn’t leave them flailing around wondering who these new children are and guessing at what they need.”