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Want to Close the Achievement Gap? Require Pre-K

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We are a nation convinced our schools need to be different, our students more successful, and our graduates more ready.  In our quest to achieve this, opposing camps have formed regarding standards and assessment.  It seems common sense and common ground are receding to the background.  Let's bring them forward and start at the beginning.  There are some fundamentals that could help. Using some data that is widespread and accepted, generally speaking, we should agree on these points:

  • Children enter kindergarten with great differences in skills and abilities both academic and social.
  • Children who come from homes living in poverty are less prepared for the experience of kindergarten than their middle and upper class peers.
  • Not all states require that public schools offer kindergarten.
  • Children who live in poverty are less likely to graduate, or to go to college than their middle class or upper class peers.
  • Our nation is focused on college and career readiness and, as such, most states have adopted the Common Core Standards in an attempt to provide a more rigorous learning experience for our students.

While the battle ensues between the believers in the Common Core State Standards and the assessments that measure their implementation, our underprepared youngsters will still lag behind their peers.  Perhaps the common sense approach to improved student achievement in this country should begin with the beginning. 

The characteristics that are lacking in the poverty environment are those that help foster effective learning and academic success.  Emotional draining and negative self-status can literally zap the motivation to learn out of children (Pellino, 2007). 

Waiting until a child is 5 or 6 years of age to address the shifting of that tide makes little if any sense at all.  In addition, we, who do not live in poverty, have yet to acknowledge how little we understanding about the experience of being poor.  Author Beth Lindsay Templeton conducts workshops in which she facilitates simulations of the living experiences of our poor.  These simulations offer the unaware among us a powerful hint at the frustrating, demeaning, lonely, hungry, drastic choices that our poor have to make. Her book Understanding Poverty in the Classroom:  Changing Perceptions for Student Success and her work at OurEyesWereOpened introduce the world of poverty to us. We may think we understand that world.  But most of us have never lived it. 

What would happen if we began at the beginning and shored up our students as early as possible? What if our first steps were to close the gap early and open the possibilities for learning at a new and more rigorous standard even for our youngest and poorest?  Oklahoma appears to be trying to do just that. They have been named a national model by the National Institute of Early Education Research (NIEER). The Oklahoma State Department of Education's website reports:

Children who are age four on or before September 1, are eligible for the voluntary public school pre-kindergarten program....Children who are age five on or before September 1 are eligible for the public school Kindergarten program.  By the 2013-2014 school year, full-day Kindergarten will be offered in every school district in Oklahoma (some exceptions apply).

Motoko Rich's October 21st article in the NY Times reported, "professional parents speak so much more to their children, the children hear 30 million more words by age 3 than children from low-income households."  That leaves a lot of catching up for little ones to do when entering school at age 5!

In his November 9th NY Times Op Ed, Nicholas D. Kristof reported:

Oklahoma began a pilot prekindergarten program in 1980, and, in 1998, it passed a law providing for free access to prekindergarten for all 4-year-olds. Families don't have to send their children, but three-quarters of them attend....

In addition, Oklahoma provides more limited support for needy children 3 and under. Oklahoma has more preschools known as Educare schools, which focus on poor children beginning in their first year, than any other state.

This is not a competition to see which state gets it right first.  It is the best of a learning community of field leaders when we observe those who are solving problems differently from us.  Sharing our thinking, successes, and our failures prevents all of us from having the same failures and from losing time.  Each year lost for a child is takes several to make up.  We can think of no reason to disagree with the value of early childhood education.  And if we look at it from another perspective...where are our schools succeeding?  Where are our schools already graduating students who are college and career ready?  In our affluent neighborhoods.  So doesn't it simply make common sense that our first steps and highest investment in energy and capital be with our youngest and our poor? 

In our quest for developing young, creative entrepreneurs let us not forget this country's economic gap...and the learning gap that even our youngest learners suffer.  Noted author Yong Zhao acknowledges that...

...education must be designed around the child and be child centered.  Good education should aim to meet each child's unique needs, capitalize on each child's strengths, and grant the child autonomy so he or she can take the responsibility for learning (p.156).

Learning is a lifelong journey and the skills learned early on, the wonder of vocabulary acquisition, excitement at learning to understand the written word, deciphering the meaning of numbers and signs on a page are priceless experiences all children deserve.  Our children who live in poverty are living with more than a lack of money.  "It becomes a way of thinking, reacting, and making decisions" (Templeton, 2011. p.20).  These youngsters are being raised by parents who live with a fear of failing at survival.  This does not and can not prepare them for the exciting learning opportunities that await them in our public schools. 

Let's keep an eye on Oklahoma.  Let's think about our priorities.  Let's figure out how to ensure we can close the learning gap our 4 and 5 year olds living in poverty carry with them throughout their school careers.  Let's remember that public schools have been the vehicles of hope for generations. If America wants to have a nation of graduates prepared to lead in this century and the next, we must use our leadership moment, this one, to clear the path for children in poverty as we have for the children of affluence. 

Resources:

Templeton, Beth Lindsay (2011).  Understanding Poverty In The Classroom:  Changing Perceptions For Student Success.  Lanham, Maryland:  Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Zhao, Yong (2012). World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students.  Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin

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