Should we test babies? How else do you get the message across about the importance of preschool for brain development? Even if you do test toddlers, there is disagreement over what to do about delayed development. Some researchers argue persuasively that instructive play is the most effective strategy. Others focus on the need to develop language skills in prescriptive ways. Regardless of philosophy, where this learning occurs matters.
The Center for American Progress report Examining Quality Across the Pre-school to Third Grade Continuum finds that gaps in learning are apparent at nine months and significant gaps are noticeable at 24 months. By kindergarten , forty-eight percent of poor children meet school readiness levels while 75% of moderate to high income children are ready. Children from low income families do attend preschools, but a study of these schools revealed quality gaps.
Five types of programs were evaluated using a 7 point scale from the Early Childhood Ratings-Revised. The study found that access to high quality early childhood education is limited and varies by type and by racial and socio-economic background. On average, all programs were above the minimal quality level (rating of 3). None of the programs, however, achieved an average rating of five to qualify as ‘good quality’.
Even within the same type of program, there is a range of quality. For example, the quality of Head Start programs for blacks on average, tends to be of much lower than for Head Start centers which enroll primarily white or Hispanic children.
- public school centers (4.64)
- private school (4.33)
- child care centers (4.20)
- Head Start programs (4.85)
- Preschool and nursery programs (4.58).
The classroom experiences of children from preschool to grade 3 differ. Children from low income families and children of color are less likely to receive instruction in crucial literacy and numeracy skills. In order to close achievement gaps in the early grades, preschoolers need support to develop not only basic skills but also appropriate higher order thinking and problem solving skills. In early elementary grades–kindergarten through second grade teachers appear to spend less time developing the higher order thinking skills that are critical for school success.
“By the end of kindergarten, children are expected to gain knowledge in letters, print recognition and phoneme awareness, recognize words, begin to read, spell, and write; and demonstrate increased vocabulary and knowledge of the world.”
The report concludes that “Academic skills alone may not help students develop the skills they need …Standards such as sharing, self control and building relationships with peers and adults have generally been left out for elementary, middle and high school students”.
The solutions are obvious but not easy. Children from deprived backgrounds need access to high quality early education. This will require greater investments at federal, state, and local levels. Standards should be aligned and include consistent metrics and data systems to track access to quality between preschool and third grade. Teacher preparation programs and professional development programs must incorporate information about children’s development in all domains to support higher order skill building.
The debate in the media challenges the critical thinking and problem solving standards introduced through the Common Core. Supporters, however, decry the limitations of didactic teaching and learning strategies. The operative words are ‘what children should know and be able to do’. Not all children may reach any given standard, but the objectives for instruction and access to quality must be clear. Instructional strategies will and should vary. Teacher preparation and development programs must focus on teachers’ content knowledge, developing effective problem solving and and higher order skills teaching strategies along with the methods to develop the social and emotional skills children need to be successful.
The problems are obvious. The learning goals are clear. What is missing are consensus and commitment. Change must be possible without imposing arbitrary standards and punitive measures. A commitment to changes in funding priorities at federal, state, and local levels must be made. If parents believed that a coherent strategy, well implemented was possible, their suspicions about the intrusive collection of data on children and the profiteering motives related to private sector involvement in curriculum and assessment might diminish.