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A few years ago, preschool teachers in Santa Maria, a low-income, mostly Hispanic city north of Santa Barbara, CA, attended a series of meetings with kindergarten teachers in the district. Most had never met. Although their students were only a year apart in age, teachers had little idea what happened in each other’s classrooms.
What they discovered changed the course of early education in this small city, and is at the heart of a new national reform movement known as PreK-3.
Among the revelations, the kindergarten teachers told the preschool teachers that their five-year-olds, many of them immigrants, struggled with stories covered in the kindergarten reading curriculum. They weren’t hearing American classics like “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” or “Humpty Dumpty” at home. So the preschools began incorporating those stories into their curriculum, to help better prepare their students.
“Preschool and kindergarten were operating differently,” said Karin Dominguez, a former teacher who has directed Santa Maria’s kindergarten readiness program. “It was important for them to learn from each other.”
The PreK-3 movement, which refers to the years spanning prekindergarten to third grade, wants to revolutionize early education through an ambitious list of connected initiatives, including universal access to free public preschool, mandatory full-day kindergarten, and curriculum that is seamlessly connected from preschool to third grade. Increasing parent involvement is also a major focus.
But some educators and experts have questioned how feasible and replicable the agenda is, especially as the financial crisis has forced states to cut preschool and full-day kindergarten. And critics and advocates alike have acknowledged that evidence supporting the collective reforms is scarce. The few schools and districts that have implemented parts or all of the PreK-3 agenda have shown mixed results so far.
“There are a lot of reasons why it should work, and why it would work,” said Robert Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. “We just haven’t been able to pin the model down in a way to evaluate to say that it’s proven effective in improving achievement.”
Nevertheless, the PreK-3 movement has gathered increasing attention and private money over the past five years. Proponents say their ideas could help stop gaps in achievement between disadvantaged and advantaged students before they start, and save money on interventions for older students.
A handful of foundations, including the Foundation for Child Development, the Gates Foundation, and the New Schools Foundation in Washington State, together are spending millions to support the movement. (Disclosure: The Foundation for Child Development and the Gates Foundation are among The Hechinger Report’s many former and current funders.) At the same time, an increasing number of schools, districts and even whole states, including Nevada, Wyoming, and Washington, are in the process of implementing the reforms.
“There isn’t anybody in education now that doesn’t understand if you can get it right, pre-school to kindergarten through 3rd grade, that kid is going to succeed,” Gov. Christine Gregoire of Washington said in a radio interview last year.
The PreK-3 movement was formed as a reaction to a large body of research showing that children who attend preschool can make large gains in literacy and math, but that these gains disappear after a few years.
“Whatever gains were made by these programs were not sustained. That seemed to us fairly clear…especially if they were low income, and went to low-resource schools,” said Ruby Takanishi, president of the Foundation for Child Development. The main goal was to find ways to end that fade out, principally by turning away from “one-shot programs” to more systematic, longer-term models.
The growing momentum behind PreK-3 is less than five years old – younger than the charter school movement or the accountability measures prompted by the 2002 No Child Left Behind law. But the ideas fueling its agenda can be traced back to the 1960s, when researchers were first examining the diminishing effects of Head Start, the federally-funded preschool program for low-income children.
Not long after Head Start was established in 1965, researchers began tracking achievement among the children who attended, and noticing that spikes in performance tended to fade. The Johnson administration started a new program, called Follow Through, which was intended to ease the transition for Head Start preschoolers as they entered first grade and beyond.
Follow Through mainly tested how maintaining a similar curriculum could help children once they entered elementary school, and its results were disappointing.
Since then, similar projects to make the transition from early education to elementary have been tried, with mixed results. Part of the problem is that many of these programs focused on more superficial activities, like one time meet-and-greets between teachers, and didn’t go deep enough in transforming curriculum or in altering how teachers teach, PreK-3 advocates say.
There have been successes, however. The Chicago Parent Centers (CPCs), started in 1968 for low-income students, implemented a series of intensive interventions including very small teacher-student ratios, an enriched math and literacy curriculum, and specialized training for the teachers. Children can enroll as early as age three and stay in some cases until third grade.
The results have been more promising. Arthur Reynolds, a professor of social work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has studied the CPCs, found in one study that students who were a part of the project until age 8 were less likely to need academic help and behaved better.
“When you plan and design a coordinated intervention from preschool to third grade, those transition experiences, they can create a synergy…that give you a larger effect ultimately,” Reynolds said. “You’re altering all the elements of the educational process that make a difference to kids.”
Other, more recent examples include the South Shore K-8 School in Seattle. The school was opened in 2001 with the help of a private foundation as a model for PreK-3 reforms. It has implemented a research-tested curriculum that extends from preschool through elementary school, small class sizes, and intensive training for teachers.
A 2010 report by ECONorthwest, a research company, found that students at the school scored higher than expected on Washington state reading and math tests. The school did not close the achievement gap for its African American students, but they did perform better than their peers at other Seattle schools.
Test scores dipped dramatically at the school last year, but administrators say an influx of new students from schools that closed nearby is behind the drop in performance.
“We like to think if a child starts here and matriculates here, data shows that students are quite successful,” said Keisha Scarlett, the South Shore principal.
The broad goals of the PreK-3 agenda have led to concerns that it is too vague, which could lead to mediocre outcomes as school districts try implement it. “I think there are common perimeters,” Pianta said. “But I don’t think there’s a lot of clarity.”
In response to these concerns, advocates are creating a more defined description of what a successful PreK-3 model should look like. One of the leaders of this effort, Kristie Kauerz, program director for PreK-3rd Education at Harvard Graduate School of Education, said the final product will be like a prix fixe menu. “There are different ways of doing it,” she said. “But there are certain categories you must order from.”
Kauerz also runs a training program for schools, districts and states interested in PreK-3. So far, she says, delegations from school districts across the country and states including Nevada and Wyoming have attended.
There are other concerns about the PreK-3 model. Ron Haskins, co-director of the Brookings Center on Children and Families, says his critique of PreK-3 “can be summarized in one word: money.”
“We are not going to have the resources at the federal or state level to make the PreK part of this universal for many, many, many years,” he said.
Kauerz acknowledges that universal preschool may be an elusive piece of the PreK-3 puzzle. “That said, we can be thinking about how do we change the nature of the quality, and what’s going on in the programs where children already are,” she said.
Many districts have relied on foundation funding to implement elements of the PreK-3 reforms, but private money is scarce, and usually time-limited.
In Santa Maria, a lack of money is one of the problems that administrators and teachers have encountered. Even as they work to improve connections between preschool and the elementary grades, many children still do not have access to early education at all. So far, the city’s efforts have corresponded with only small test score gains.
The escalating fiscal crisis in California means the likelihood that preschool access will be expanded anytime soon is very unlikely, and last year, Santa Maria’s funding for its transition program was eliminated entirely, meaning adopting the other pieces of the PreK-3 agenda would be difficult.
But down the road, Santa Maria’s ideas are being carried on, and expanded. In the seaside town of Carpinteria, educators borrowing from Santa Maria are trying to create an educational path that extends from “cradle to college” for every child in the district.
The local school district is working to improve the quality of teaching so that children won’t lose momentum once they reach elementary school. At the same time, using grants from the state’s First Five fund for early education and from local foundations based in nearby, wealthy Santa Barbara, the town has created a community center that includes preschool classes, English classes for adults, and even classrooms where stay-at-home moms can bring their toddlers for a preschool-like environment.
There is no evidence that the project is working yet, but town officials, just like their counterparts in the national PreK-3 movement, are hopeful that in the next few years, more definitive research will show their approach is right.
“It used to be the idea that if everybody completed preschool, they were going to be fine. But that may not cut it,” said Paul Cordero, the Carpinteria superintendent. “It’s like a 30-cylindar engine. All the parts have to work.”
Others remain skeptical.
“I don’t think that there’s good evidence that if we could somehow shape the preschools to be more consistent with the public schools or vice versa that it would have a major impact,” said Haskins. “But it’s still a good idea. Education ought to be organized.”