Published by the Southern Education Foundation
Having observed education reform at the local, state and national levels for more than 40 years, I am struck by the contrast in priorities between K-12 education reform and emerging efforts to create effective early childhood systems. My impression is that K-12 reformers focus primarily on academics whereas early childhood developers focus on the whole child.
In recent years, with more evidence of the impact of early experiences and brain development on long term success, there are increasing expectations, even demands, for a distinctive system of early learning that families can count on. The demand arises from multiple sources: a largely educated population that wants meaningful programs for their toddlers and preschoolers; the necessity for parents to find child care as women want to or must return to work; and K-12 educators who struggle with students who arrive with limited social and behavioral skills. Even business and military leaders, through groups such as Ready Nation and Mission Readiness, have called for pre-kindergarten education as a primary strategy to improve the workforce and the troops.
The development process for early childhood systems does not reside only in education departments in either state or federal governments. There is considerable evidence of collaboration between human service, public health and educational agencies. In Washington, a formal liaison position was established between the US Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education early in President Obama’s administration. Under the 2007 reauthorization of Head Start, every state was required to develop an Early Care and Education Advisory Committee comprised of state agency representatives from education, child care, health and mental health among others. Georgia is one of three states that have created a separate executive branch department for early care and learning.
The concept of education itself for very young children is much more encompassing of the whole child than K-12 education programs. In Georgia, early learning standards for children from birth through age three encompass physical development, emotional and social development, approaches to learning, as well as language and literacy development and academic skills. Standards for Georgia’s Pre-K for four-year-olds add four more areas: Mathematics, Science, Social Studies, Creative Expression. Quality Rating Systems for child care and education programs for children from birth to five further include family engagement practices. National evaluation instruments for the quality of early childhood programs assess physical, social/emotional and instructional practices.
The differences in K-12 and early childhood practices and measurements were brought home to me recently in reading an evaluation of Georgia’s Pre-K program that assessed student learning and the quality of their classrooms. Observations of classroom quality utilized a research-based instrument that assessed physical attributes, child-adult interactions, and instructional processes. The analysis related learning outcomes to quality measures and to various demographic data. As a result, the Department will be able to target its resources more effectively to improve access to and quality of Pre-K programs.
The study prompted me to question how K-3 classrooms would fare if their quality were evaluated using a similar instrument. Where in our education reform for K-12 have we assessed the child-teacher interactions, the physical learning environment, or the family engagement practices of our schools and their relationship to student outcomes? The education results published for K-12 schools reflect student performance but wouldn’t it be interesting to know the conditions of the classroom – materials, schedules, interactions, etc. – that produced those results? We have taken the valuable step of measuring achievement gaps between racial, ethnic and income groups but do we know if schools or their local communities are working to overcome the health or poverty issues of these groups that might affect learning?
Nationally, the call for expanded access to early education has been made by the President. It has generated new public discussions on the impact of early childhood programs, especially Head Start. Proponents focus on very long term outcomes that return $7 for every dollar invested as achieved through higher graduation rates, decreased criminal behavior, and lower welfare participation. Critics focus on “fade out,” the failure of children from early childhood education programs to maintain their “gains” once they get into elementary school. Do the critics assume that the elementary programs that receive them are sustaining the effective child development approach that prepared them for kindergarten?
Professionals in each of the education systems – early childhood and K-12 – talk about transitions to kindergarten. Transitions suggest differences that must be bridged. Perhaps those differences should not exist. A K-3 system that embraces the comprehensive child development model of our emerging early childhood systems could prove to eliminate “fade out” and, more importantly, secure the learning trajectory for the remainder of childhood and adolescence.
Head Start and other models like the Harlem Children’s Zone may seem cost prohibitive for implementation on a large scale. And yet, we already are investing in many poor children above and beyond the education dollar. Our direct costs for Medicaid, child welfare, and behavioral health services for children and often their parents are frequently delivered in silos rather than integrated for greater impact and greater convenience of families.
Instructing children in a nurturing, developmental environment is what most parents expect for their children. Constant and consistent family engagement and providing family resources could strengthen families and their parenting success for untold benefits to both children and parents far into the future. Early childhood system developers have a chance to get it right and to promote their “whole child” approach to the grades above them. They could be the standard bearers for all of education reform.