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Vanishing Potential: How to Stop the Losses through Pre-k to 3rd Reform

This striking new report from the Foundation for Child Development documents how America’s public schools are coming up short in educating our youngest students--particularly those from racial and ethnic minority backgrounds.

Nationally, only one-third of American fourth-graders are proficient in reading, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federally administered test provides the best available information on how American students are performing and trends over time in their performance. The results are even more troubling for low-income and racial/ethnic minority students. Only 12 percent of black students, and 15 percent of Latinos, are reading proficiently in fourth grade.

These numbers would be striking in any circumstance, but are especially so because research shows that children who do not learn to read proficiently by the end of third grade are much less likely ever to do so. These children are more likely to require costly remediation services later in their education and are at greater risk for a host of negative life outcomes.

There is some good news: NAEP achievement levels for fourth-grade students have risen in recent years. But, as this new report shows, not by nearly enough. Our schools need to produce dramatically better results for elementary school students, and to do that, we need to make some significant changes in how we educate our youngest students.

This new FCD report also lays out a vision of what a new system, designed to bring all of our students to proficiency by the end of third grade, might look like. This vision of “Pre-k to 3rd” or “PK-3” education includes several core elements: high-quality, universally accessible pre-kindergarten available on to all children whose families want it starting at age 3; free full-day kindergarten programs; aligned standards and curriculum that allow each year’s learning to build on what children learned the previous year; high-quality and unified learning in well-staffed classrooms; well-prepared teachers and aides to educate children in the 3-8 range; strong principal leadership; professional development and common planning time to allow teachers to plan for effective coordination across and between grades; and policies and practices that include parents and communities and share accountability for Pre-k to 3rd students’ educational success.

Such a system would require both an expansion of high-quality pre-k and full-day kindergarten programs, and changes in the early elementary grades to improve quality there, so that elementary schools build on the learning gains children make in high-quality pre-k and full-day kindergarten, rather than allowing those gains to fade out.

This is a far cry from what many children are getting today, however. Only 35 percent of American 4-year-olds (and only 11 percent of 3-year-olds) are in publicly funded (state pre-k or Head Start) pre-k programs, and 30 percent of American 5-year-olds still attend kindergarten for only a few hours a day. While access isn’t a problem in the early elementary grades, quality is; research shows that only about 7 percent of children are consistently enrolled in classrooms that provide both high-quality emotional support and high-quality instructional support from first through third grade.

Pre-k to 3rd reform is a strategy for engaging policymakers, school districts, principals, teachers, families, communities, and diverse pre-k and early education providers to change these disturbing realities so that all children get a high-quality early education from ages 3 to 8 that ensures that they achieve grade-level proficiency in reading and math by the end of third grade. We know it’s possible to get much better results for children in the early years--now it’s up to adults to put in place the policies and resources needed to do so.


Vanishing Potential

Sara Mead makes some valid points re: children's educational outcomes. This situation will not change, for any income level family, unless and until the government sees education from preschool through university as a critical issue. During this long and drawn out presidential campaign, we have heard various candidate's views on education. Only Senators Clinton and Obama, and other legislators, have made any definitive mention of what they think it would take to improve our fractured educational system. Both rightfully feel change should begin on the Pre-K level. Head Start was a good beginning back in the 60s and early 70s but the original intent of Head Start has been shifted to become almost another subsidy-like "entitlement" program for low-income families. Many legislators like Senators Obama and Clinton know that to bring educational standards and outcomes up on a par with say, China, Japan, England, to name a few, will take time, perhaps another generation, and a huge infusion of funding pushed into the system. Partnerships with businesses, non-profits, and state agencies should be forged, so as to bring all stakeholders to help solve this problem. The government, because in the long term improved educational outcomes will produce young adults ready to work and contribute to the economy; businesses, because they will have the benefit of an educated workforce to flatten the "learning curve", non-profit organizations who may already have the expertise in specialized education and connecting large funders with the issues at hand; and state agencies to secure and match federal funding streams.

One of the most important aspects of a child's education, which is often overlooked, is parental stability and involvement in their children's educational future. I believe more focus should be placed on the family unit as a whole. This is where Head Start took somewhat of a leadership role, as in other early "school readiness" programs. In hard economic times, families (particularly single parent families) are stressed to the limit; not to say the least of their children, as a result. When a family is stable, so are the children, and they can settle down to their job of learning. But, I think perhaps that's a whole other problem to solve.