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Education Commission of States Kicks off National Forum in Atlanta

The early learning years took center stage on the first day of the Education Commission of the States annual National Forum on Education Policy, which kicked off Monday in Atlanta. (Later this week, those attending can expect to hear talks by Microsoft founder Bill Gates and former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor on high-quality teacher support and civics education, respectively. But those big names haven't quite made their entrance yet.)

Monday's kickoff included a discussion of issues concerning prekindergarten through the 3rd grade (or P-3 in the education world), led by Kristie Kauerz, program director of P-3 education at the University of Washington.

Kauerz said that while individual districts have created collaborations between schools and early child care providers—she highlighted one in Washington state that involves sharing curricula and professional development—states often struggle to use flexibility in a way that doesn't involve statutes or legislation.

She cited as opportunities for flexible, productive strategies include making the K-12 community an advocate for strong Quality Ratings and Improvement Systems for early-learning programs and making sure districts are up-to-date on federal guidelines such as Title I money available for pre-school programs.

Additional pressures from the U.S. Department of Education in terms of accountability, Kauerz added, have made it harder in some cases for states to use their non-statutory authority to create new opportunities for K-12 and birth-to-5 programs to become vertically integrated.

"This world of P-3 is harder at the state level. It is exciting and innovative at the local level," Kauerz said. "If locals can figure this out, surely we can."

Public-private partnerships, such as the creation of a principal's academy with a focus on early learning in New Jersey between the state department and a children's advocacy organization can help state officials meet their P-3 goals, particularly in cash-strapped times, she noted.

In a separate session, Paul Kelley, CEO of Innovation Trust in the United Kingdom, stressed that schools must increasingly move away from buildings that are "crowded, noisy, dark, and have poor air quality."

Apart from academic strategies, Kelley stressed that very basic but often overlooked physical factors can have large impacts on a child's performance in school. Rectangular classrooms have poor acoustics, Kelly said. Students experience a spike in alertness levels once a classroom's illumination reaches 1,000 lux (which measures the illumination of a room), which can be far above the average illumination of a classroom. He said and a nanogel roof that lets in natural light and diffuses it make for a better learning environment.

For a child's "internal" set of factors, he highlighted the benefits of starting the school day at 10 a.m. to help both academic performance and the child's health. Alternating learning "stimuli" with breaks, instead of constant instruction, can help to create stronger long-term memory, he said. However, he cautioned that this practice does not necessarily help on test performance, since the creation of such long-term memory involved different processes than memory retrieval.

Finally, when it comes to the best broad policy approaches for improved learning, many ideas with long histories that have broad support, such as smaller class sizes or performance pay, don't work as well as ideas such as meta-cognition, or knowing how students know an academic concepts, Kelley argued.

"What teachers do make a difference," he said, acting that understanding and implementing these practices doesn't cost any additional money.

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