Report sets forth early learning recommendations


Education organizations have joined together to support alignment of preschool through third grade education.

A comprehensive alignment of preschool through third grade (P-3) education is critical in ensuring that children develop a solid foundation in literacy, math, and social-emotional skills, according to a new report that offers recommendations for high-quality P-3 initiatives.

“The Importance of Aligning Pre-K through 3rd Grade,” released by the Pre-K Coalition, which includes the American Association of School Administrators, American Federation of Teachers, Council of Chief State School Officers, National Association of Elementary School Principals, National Association of State Boards of Education, National Education Association, and the National School Boards Association (NSBA), details best practices for improving early learning.

The report comes as the Obama administration has just awarded $500 million in Race to the Top funding to nine states to help make early learning programs more accessible and better capable of narrowing the achievement gap between those who start kindergarten without any formal schooling and those who do.

Gains made in high-quality preschool programs must be sustained and built upon throughout the K-3 years, according to the report. Robust P-3 initiatives align comprehensive early learning standards with state K-3 content standards in an effort to promote children’s healthy development, social and emotional skills, and learning. Those standards should be connected and build upon one another so that pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, and primary grade educators can develop and select effective curricula, teaching strategies, and assessment systems. Teaching teams should engage in joint professional development.

“Superintendents, principals, teachers, and state and local school board leaders agree that we need to think more systemically about the strategies and practices used in the early grades and their impact on reading achievement,” said Chrisanne Gayl, director of the Pre-K Coalition. “This requires a fundamental shift in perspective to paying greater attention to children’s earliest learning experiences—including those that occur before they ever enter formal schooling.”

The Common Core State Standards hold promise in helping schools connect early learning to later grades, but many state K-12 systems might not connect to early childhood education systems within the same state.

“As a result, we often miss a huge opportunity to influence student learning during the years when children have the greatest growth potential,” the report notes.

Early reading skills

The need to focus attention on children’s early learning years is more important than ever, the report states, because a third of the nation’s fourth graders are reading below basic levels. Even worse, 49 percent of low-income children are below basic levels.

Without a basic level of competency by third grade, students are more likely to struggle academically, have behavioral and social problems, be retained in grade, and drop out of school.

Recent research indicates that children who attend both preschool and half-day kindergarten have significantly better reading skills than those who only attended one year of full-day kindergarten.

Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) in Maryland set high goals for early childhood learning and reading achievement, giving student critical early learning foundations and linking skills gained in preschool with later grades.

Since implementing this initiative, 90 percent of MCPS kindergarteners enter first grade with key early literacy skills, and almost 88 percent of third graders read at proficient levels. The district’s racial and ethnic achievement gaps have dropped by double digits.

Recommendations

The brief highlights effective P-3 strategies and best practices in states and districts throughout the country, and it makes recommendations for how the federal government can help to support these efforts.

In particular, it suggests that federal policy makers:

  • Encourage the development of P-3 teaching credentials.
  • Support joint planning and professional development between early childhood providers and P-3 teachers.
  • Reduce parallel sets of regulations and reporting requirements across federal funding streams.
  • Allow blending of federal and state early childhood education and care funding to strengthen systems building efforts.

The report contends that federal leadership in these areas would help encourage states and local school districts to pursue P-3 strategies.

“There must be a culture of shared responsibility among all partners—local, state, and federal [officials], as well as parents—to support a comprehensive continuum of learning from pre-K to grade 3,” noted Anne L. Bryant, executive director of the NSBA, which is spearheading the coalition. “We are asking the federal government to become a true partner with states and local communities to ensure that students receive a high-quality start to learning.”

State and local best practices

States have also begun to adopt a more aligned P-3 approach. For example:

  • In Washington, the State Department of Early Learning Starting and the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction host a two-day conference for teachers, early childhood educators, principals, superintendents, parents, and policy makers, which aims to create a shared understanding of the research and key elements of pre-kindergarten through grade 3 models.
  • New Jersey has created a P-3 teaching credential, which recognizes the unique aspects of early childhood teaching—including child development, early childhood curriculum, developmentally appropriate practice, and philosophical and theoretical foundations of early childhood education. The certification is required of all lead teachers in preschool settings in Abbott school districts, and is a valid certificate for teaching in preschool through third grade in non-Abbott districts.
  • In Virginia, the State Board of Education collaborated with the governor’s office and many key agencies to focus on improving the state’s early education workforce. The effort has aligned P-3 teacher competencies with foundational documents and devised a Curriculum Review Rubric and Planning Tool for early educators, which is being piloted in several preschools.
  • Georgia has developed and implemented the Georgia Kindergarten Inventory of Developing Skills (GKIDS), a performance-based assessment intended to provide teachers with information about the level of instructional support needed for students entering kindergarten and first grade. This strategy has promoted the internalization of standards, curriculum, and instruction by P-3 teachers, as well as joint professional development opportunities to advance vertical teaming and transition children from pre-kindergarten into kindergarten and first grade.

The release is the third brief in a series of policy reports by the Pre-K Coalition. Earlier documents include “Framing the Future: Addressing Pre-K in ESEA” and “Ensuring America’s Future.”

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