Transforming Education in the Primary Years

We must invest in building a high-quality early education system that starts at age three and extends through the third grade.

When more than two-thirds of students cannot read at grade level and barely three-quarters are graduating from high school on time, it is time to reevaluate not just how well our schools and teachers are doing but whether the entire system needs an overhaul. That is where we find ourselves today. Reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress are embarrassingly low for all children and abysmal for minorities. Worse still, graduation rates, according to the National Center on Educational Statistics, are hovering around 60% in some states.

Better early education is a big part of the solution. Governments at the local, state, and federal level must start investing in systems that reach children before kindergarten and get serious about providing children with high-quality instruction in the earliest grades of their schooling. To do otherwise is to waste taxpayer dollars, ignore decades of research, and disregard the extraordinary potential of millions of children who otherwise have little chance of succeeding in school.

This is more than a repeat of the argument for creating universal pre-K. We need a much broader and deeper transformation of the educational system that starts, if parents choose, when children are as young as three years old and continues through the first few grades of elementary school. Early childhood does not stop at kindergarten; it extends through age eight, because children are still learning foundational skills in literacy, numeracy, social competence, and problem solving. A revision such as this requires more than extra funding, retraining teachers, and revamping buildings. It demands a full rethinking of the social contract that is at the core of the public education system.

During the past few years at the New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington, DC, scholars have put forth a series of papers that envision what we call a “next social contract,” a new agreement that sets forth the kind of institutional arrangements that prompt society to share the risks and responsibilities of our common civic and economic life and provide opportunity and security for our citizens. The need for a new contract becomes more apparent each year as the nation is rocked by social and economic shifts: increasing globalization, the aging of the population, and most recently the financial crisis that is reshaping the world economy.

Education has always been critical to the social contract. In fact, primary education is one of the few, if not the only, goods and services Americans have decided should be provided to all citizens free of charge. In the 18th century, the nation’s founders realized that an educated citizenry was essential to the success of the experiment in democratic self-government on which they had embarked. Over time, public education has become a foundational piece of the economic social contract too: Do well in school, attend college, and a good job will await you when you graduate. A well-educated U.S. workforce has enabled the country’s dominance throughout the 20th century. Expanding access to education has become an important policy tool for advancing social justice, economic opportunity, and global economic competitiveness.

Yet today, despite the success in expanding access to disadvantaged populations of children, the educational system is not producing students who can succeed. Test scores on international exams show that U.S. students are not achieving at the levels of their counterparts in countries such as Finland, Switzerland, Japan, South Korea, Canada, Australia, and others. Among those who have graduated from our high schools, 13% cannot read well enough to conduct basic activities such as reading a newspaper or restaurant menu, according to a 2003 report on adult literacy. Most troubling are the statistics on the low achievement of economically disadvantaged and racial or ethnic minority youngsters. Approximately 84% of African American fourth-graders cannot read grade-level texts well enough to hit the proficiency mark on comprehension tests. With each passing year, their chances of succeeding in high school recede, as do their chances of participating fully in civic life and landing a job that can pull them out of poverty.

Birth to age 8: The crucial years

Every month, new studies in neuroscience and psychology provide insights and warnings about how much of a person’s capacity for learning is shaped from birth to age 8. Young children need to experience rich language interactions with teachers, parents, and other adults who read to them, ask questions of them, and encourage their exploration of myriad subjects. Young children in households with educated parents and well-stocked libraries are more likely to experience those interactions. They are encouraged to participate in conversations and ask questions about what clouds are made of, what they saw at the zoo, what the backhoe was doing at the nearby construction site. Parents with lower education levels rarely have the resources and background knowledge to provide these experiences. For example, a now-classic study, released in 1995, showed that by the time they turn three years old, children from the most disadvantaged families will have heard three million fewer words in their lifetimes than children of professional parents. Without intervention, these children will be behind when they arrive at school. The vicious cycle will continue.

More than 50 years ago, when research was just starting to tell this story, federal policymakers decided to invest in early intervention. The answer then was Head Start, a program started in 1965 for children in families at or below the poverty line. It was designed to provide a preschool-like experience combined with health and nutrition services and a strong emphasis on parent engagement. Head Start programs were designed to be managed by local organizations that received federal dollars; they were decidedly not part of a state’s education system.

Head Start continues today, although only about half of eligible children are served, partly because funding is limited. In many areas, wait lists are common; one cannot just squeeze more children into classrooms because teacher/child ratios must be held low to ensure that children get the attention they need. Therefore, expansion is impossible without the money to hire more teachers. Still, even with small class sizes, the quality of the program has also come under fire. Head Start teachers, like most people in the early childhood profession, work for very low wages. This has probably dissuaded college graduates from considering careers in Head Start. In many cases, classes are led by teachers who have not received a strong education themselves and who may be limited in their ability to encourage children’s questions about the stories they hear or about phenomena they observe in the natural and physical world.

Efforts are under way to improve Head Start and raise the credentials of those who teach there. By 2013, for example, more than half of lead teachers must have a bachelor’s degree. From 2005 to 2008, the number of college graduates teaching in Head Start jumped from 40 to 46%.

Despite the hurdles facing Head Start, the program has been shown to make a difference in immunization rates, dental health, and some areas of children’s social and cognitive development. A nationwide longitudinal study, which started collecting data in 2002, showed that children who started Head Start at age four were faring better than their peers on 5 of 15 indicators of school readiness after a year of the program, and those who started at age three were doing better on 11 of 15 indicators.

But according to the most recent installment of the study, by the end of first grade, the evidence of that positive impact had evaporated. Head Start students were doing no better than non–Head Start students. Researchers are now trying to untangle the data to determine what led to the drop-off. Could the low education levels of staff or other quality measures account for it? Did something happen in the early years of public school to stall children’s progress? This latter theory has gained traction as anecdotal evidence has shown that some public school kindergartens are unable to adequately build on what children have already learned in Head Start. Unfortunately, data that would help to get to the bottom of these questions were never collected.

Other preschool programs have produced benefits that last much longer. In fact, the evidence of the effectiveness of high-quality pre-K programs is among the strongest findings in education research. Peer-reviewed, randomized controlled trials in the High/Scope Perry Preschool Project and the Chicago Child Parent Centers Program found that high-quality pre-K programs produced both short-term learning gains for participating students and long-term benefits, including reduced rates of grade retention, special education placement, and school dropout; higher educational attainment and adult earnings; and reduced likelihood of involvement with the criminal justice system. These studies began in the 1960s and 1980s, respectively, and followed children well into adulthood.

Even when children do have access to preschool, research shows that quality is highly varied, with many programs providing mediocre instruction that is not tailored to the natural curiosities and motivations of young children.

More recently, studies of large-scale and high-quality state pre-K programs in Oklahoma and New Jersey have found evidence that these programs also produce significant learning gains for participating children, gains comparable to those found in the Chicago program. Importantly, in each case, the preschool programs are considered part of the education system, opening the door to stronger connections and better alignment between what is taught when children are four and what is taught when they are five, six, and seven. Teachers in these programs also have bachelor’s degrees and receive continuous professional development. In other words, the programs are not provided on the cheap. Research is showing that there is a big difference between the kinds of intellectual, physical, and social explorations that can be guided by a well-qualified teacher compared to what is expected of someone hired to babysit, keep children’s hands clean, and dole out snacks.

Economists have been investigating whether the investments in high-quality preschool programs lead to financial benefits in the long term, when those preschool-age children grow up. One of the most often cited is Steve Barnett, an economist at Rutgers University and codirector of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER). Using his own research and that of colleagues at other institutions, Barnett sees a large return for every dollar invested in preschool, as long as the quality is high. The oft-cited benefit/cost ratio for these high-quality programs is $10 to $1.

James Heckman, a Nobel prize–winning economist at the University of Chicago, has also argued for more investment in the early years. His work has shown that programs will be most cost-effective if they are aimed at infants, toddlers, and children in preschool and the early grades. By the middle years of a child’s schooling, programs tend to produce less of a payoff, with remedial and job training being the least cost-effective.

Policy lags behind research

Given this knowledge, it no longer makes sense to postpone the start of public education until children turn five. More and more parents find it financially necessary or desirable to work full or part-time outside the home when their children are young. Until their children are five years old, most parents are left entirely to their own devices to find and pay for early education services. As a result, nearly half of three-and four-year-olds are not enrolled in nursery or preschool, according to U.S. Census data. Because of the cost of these programs, some of which rival the cost of attending college, children from low- to moderate-income families have much less access than those from more affluent families.

A growing number of states have tried to fill the gaps by creating their own pre-K programs, but they are typically available only to children from low-income families. (Florida, Georgia, and Oklahoma are among the few to offer universal access to pre-K.) But even accounting for federal and state programs combined, public programs are serving just over 40% of four-year-olds and less than half that proportion of three-year-olds, according to NIEER data.

Even when children do have access to preschool, research shows that the quality is highly varied, with many programs providing mediocre instruction that is not tailored to the natural curiosities and motivations of young children. Even relatively wealthy parents are often left in the dark about how to evaluate the programs available to them. This is true in publicly funded and parent-funded programs. The ad hoc patchwork that comprises the fledgling system we have today—Head Start, state-funded pre-K, subsidized child care, school-based pre-K programs, and parent-funded nursery schools—does not provide for consistency in quality standards, early learning experiences, or outcomes for young children. Although quality pre-K can narrow achievement gaps, current arrangements often exacerbate, rather than counter, inequalities.

One might think the picture becomes clearer once children enter kindergarten. But in fact, even kindergarten, which children typically attend in their fifth year, is not a stable part of schooling in the United States today. According to a 2010 report from the Foundation for Child Development, six states—Alaska, Idaho, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, and Pennsylvania—do not require school districts to provide kindergarten at all, and across the country, one-third of children attend only half-day programs. Yet data on the benefits of full-day kindergarten continue to accumulate. Several reports on the academic outcomes of a national cohort of children who attended kindergarten in the 1998–1999 school year show that full-day attendees were ahead of half-day attendees in reading achievement by the end of the year.

The early grades of elementary school are also in need of reform. Although research shows the imperative of preparing children to read and comprehend grade-level texts by the end of third grade, far too many elementary schools are not up to the task. In-depth observational research in U.S. elementary school classrooms, led by Robert Pianta at the University of Virginia, suggests that only 10% of poor children experience high-quality instruction consistently throughout the elementary years. The same studies show that only 7% of all children have consistently stimulating classroom experiences when both emotional and instructional climate are taken into account.

The evidence of the effectiveness of high-quality pre-K programs is among the strongest findings in education research.

On their own, these deficiencies seem bad enough. But the problem is even deeper. Current education policies have led to a fragmented approach to early education, with different services provided by different agencies with different funding streams that are not designed to coordinate or interoperate. The educational system typically groups children separately in pre-K settings (with their own multitude of agencies and services, whether at the local, state, or federal level) and K-5 elementary schools. Many elementary school teachers have relatively little training in early childhood development. Yet an elementary education credential typically allows teachers to work in any K-5 grade, even though the skills required to successfully teach first-graders to learn to read are very different from those required to teach fifth-graders to read to learn. What is worse, principals often know little about early childhood development. In order to improve the effectiveness of the schools in serving young children, we must ensure that all educators working with young children have a solid understanding of early childhood development and knowledge about to create seamless educational experiences.

A new vision for early education

Fixing and extending the primary years of a child’s education are not a silver bullet for the multitude of challenges that must be addressed throughout the education pipeline. But they are a critical first step. The next generation, the workforce of 2030, will not succeed unless today’s children are provided with a healthy, supportive learning environment from the day they are conceived.

In recent years, leading thinkers in child development have developed a new vision, one in which early childhood education is seen as extending through the elementary school years. Jacqueline Jones, the senior advisor on early learning to the U.S. Secretary of Education, is among the proponents of this approach, as is Ruby Takanishi, president of the Foundation for Child Development (an organization that funds part of my work). Instead of focusing on interventions that may affect a child for just one or two years, these experts advocate an approach that spans the continuum of early childhood. This more seamless approach is often called PreK-3rd.

How do we build such a system? The first step must be the expansion of access to high-quality early learning opportunities for all preschool-aged children, starting at age three. To be clear, starting public education at age three does not mean turning the primary grades into college-preparatory machines. It does not mean sticking preschoolers in classrooms that are clearly inappropriate for their age or expecting them to work all day, as if naps were just nuisances in the way of academic training. Instead, an early start means respecting the cognitive, social, and physical needs of young children in a way that is developmentally appropriate. Indeed, we need to elevate those needs to the level they deserve, instead of just assuming that they will be magically met by well-meaning but untrained adults or assuming that children will just absorb knowledge and skills by osmosis.

Pre-K should be a fundamental component of the education system, not an optional add-on. We need to make it universally available to all children whose parents want to enroll them, regardless of family income level or other factors. Americans would never countenance the notion that some children should be denied access to publicly funded third grade or high school based on family income or limitations on available state resources. Participation in pre-K programs, unlike in K-12 schooling, should be voluntary, and parents should have the opportunity to choose among multiple pre-K options in deference to the important role of families as children’s first teachers. But again, any parent who wants to enroll his or her child in pre-K should have that option.

Although providing universal pre-K may appear more costly than targeting pre-K only to low-income youngsters, several facts argue in favor of universal provision. Families with young children often experience considerable fluctuations in income, so eligibility criteria based on family income may lead to disruptions in children’s early learning experiences, undermining public investments in income-based pre-K. Making pre-K universal would also address the needs of moderate-income families, who as noted above currently have the greatest difficulty in obtaining quality early childhood opportunities for their children. For example, a family of four with a household income of $29,000 is too wealthy to qualify for Head Start. Perhaps most important, providing pre-K universally would encourage greater consistency in the early learning experiences that children have before entering school. It would reduce the tremendous variation that currently exists in the skills of entering kindergarteners and allow kindergarten and early-grades teachers to align their curriculum and teaching practices with children’s pre-K experiences.

Providing universal pre-K would also ensure that pre-K programs have the same resources and funding levels as elementary and secondary schools. Most states with publicly funded pre-K programs spend only a fraction on pre-K compared with what the state’s schools spend on K-12 students, even though providing the kind of experience that produces lasting educational benefits requires quality standards and highly skilled teachers—and by extension, funding—comparable to that provided in the elementary and secondary grades. Ideally, pre-K funds should flow to schools and community-based providers on a per-pupil basis through the same school finance system as funding for other elementary and secondary students. Systems of data collection, quality monitoring, and accountability for pre-K programs should be integrated into the larger data and accountability systems used for the entire public education system.

Establishing universal pre-K does not mean that pre-K programs should be just an extension of the public schools. The United States has a rich and diverse network of community-based early childhood education providers, including child care centers, family home care, and Head Start. We must take advantage of the capacity, experience, and unique assets these programs offer by enacting public policies that help them improve the quality of their services and build linkages between community-based pre-K programs and the public schools.

To create seamless transitions, school districts must shore up and improve their kindergarten programs. Kindergarten should not be considered a separate line item in a district’s budget where it can be vulnerable to cutbacks. It should also run for a full day, providing enough time for learning and allowing teachers to introduce children to a full range of subjects, rather than focusing heavily on language and literacy, as many currently do. A full day would also allow teachers to incorporate more time for child-directed and imaginative play, which plays a critical role in developing children’s self-regulation and other essential skills.

In the elementary grades, whether conceptualized as K-3rd or 1st-3rd, there is clearly room for improvement. Many schools, because of a combination of poor understanding of child development and an increased emphasis on early academics, do too little to support children’s social and emotional development during this period. A preK-3rd approach would bring a new focus to the years when children are not only acquiring literacy and language skills but also developing social-cognitive skills such as the ability to self-regulate, defer gratification, focus on a task, and communicate one’s needs and feelings verbally, rather than by acting out. These qualities are as important to an individuals’ long-term success in life and the workforce as are academic accomplishments.

To do all of this, schools and their communities must take a much more systematic approach to developing children’s skills, both academic and social-cognitive. Standards, curriculum, formative assessments, and instructional strategies must be aligned with one another, working together to support children’s learning. This alignment must be vertical (from grade to grade) and horizontal (within the grade level), so that all elements are cohesive and children in different classrooms have a common learning experience. Standards must be aligned from grade to grade and over the course of the year. This means that children who learn about, say, triangles and rectangles in kindergarten, receive geometry lessons in first grade that do not just have them mindlessly repeating last year’s vocabulary but ask them to build on their knowledge of shapes through new math and engineering exercises.

Effective elementary schools use a clearly articulated curriculum that is simultaneously content-rich, developmentally appropriate, and aligned with student learning goals articulated in the standards. Accordingly, effective preK-3rd educators use developmentally appropriate formative assessments and benchmarks to monitor children’s progress against the curriculum and standards, to inform instruction and identify gaps in children’s knowledge before they fall behind, and to target interventions and supports to struggling youngsters.

Faithful adoption of this approach will require a fundamental rethinking of the culture of teaching and the work that teachers do. Too many public schools operate under an egg-carton model, with teachers working in isolated classrooms, rarely engaging one another or sharing lessons. In preK-3rd schools, teachers are constantly working together, in grade-level and cross-grade disciplinary teams, analyzing student data, regularly communicating about children’s progress, and sharing and refining lesson plans. Teachers have common language and vocabulary to talk about their goals for students and students’ progress towards those goals.

In implementing the preK-3rd approach, it will be important to monitor progress. Policymakers must develop systems and infrastructure to track the quality of pre-K and kindergarten programs and hold them accountable for results. These systems should measure how well a child is developing socially, emotionally, and cognitively, as well as track the long-term effects of the programs on children’s academic performance. This information must be easily available to teachers and parents and available in the aggregate to policymakers to determine which programs are measuring up to high standards. Only when data show that the education system is finally meeting quality standards—only when most U.S. children are proficient in reading, math, and social-emotional skills by the end of third grade—will we be able to say that the social contract for public education is no longer broken.

In his February 2009 address to a joint session of Congress, President Obama set the goal that “by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.” But the current focus on high-school reform and policies to expand college access and completion ignores the strong body of evidence that says a student’s chances of college success are often determined long before he or she enrolls in high school. The pathway to college graduation really begins at conception, with babies and toddlers receiving the support of parents, families, and communities. By the time their children are three, parents should have the choice of enrolling their children in publicly funded, accessible, and high-quality learning environments. That high quality must extend through kindergarten and the early grades of elementary school.

In short, high-quality early education is the foundation on which all future learning rests. It is imperative that government invest in such a system. Without it, we will continue to squander the potential of American children to grow into productive, inquisitive, and high-achieving adults, and we will make life harder for all Americans as a result.

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Cite this Article

Guernsey, Lisa, and Sara Mead. “Transforming Education in the Primary Years.” Issues in Science and Technology 27, no. 1 (Fall 2010).

Vol. XXVII, No. 1, Fall 2010