In the world of early learning policy, the disconnect between pre-K and K-3 policy is a popular topic of discussion. Birth to age 8 represents a critically important window of opportunity to develop a child’s full potential and to shape key academic, social, emotional and cognitive skills. A child’s experiences during these years can set them up for future success, or for failure, thereby exacerbating the achievement gap.
Pre-K quality and accessibility have received much attention over the past 15 to 20 years and state and federal policymakers continue to allocate resources and prescribe policies geared toward ensuring high-quality pre-K experiences. While these efforts have provided a strong foundation for student success, it is important to simultaneously focus on improving the quality of the K-3 years. Without giving due attention to the quality of K-3, we are missing an opportunity to continue the positive momentum created by improved pre-K experiences.
This week, Education Commission of the States released a 50-State Comparison and Companion Report summarizing state statutes, rules and regulations related to K-3 quality. This resource is meant to serve as a tool for policymakers and education leaders as they generate solutions to K-3 issues.
We researched multiple areas, but a few key issues stood out as particularly important: pre-K to kindergarten transitions, social-emotional learning and third grade reading policies. The comparison also addresses other issues impacting K-3 quality, including full-day kindergarten, teacher-to-student ratio requirements and instructional quality.
Pre-K to Kindergarten Transition: As children move from their pre-K classroom into kindergarten, they need support and guidance and strong ties should exist between the pre-K program and the feeder elementary school. Currently, only 19 states provide guidance for the pre-K to kindergarten transition process. Many of these states require written transition plans and 14 states require that children’s families are engaged in the transition process. Increasing the number of states providing guidance for this transition would be a big step toward creating a consistent, seamless continuum from pre-K to kindergarten. However, it is not enough to focus on this disconnect in the transition process. To avoid creating or exacerbating educational disparities, more attention and resources must be committed to what happens during the K-3 years.
Social and Emotional Learning Social and emotional learning is one of the many factors that impacts student learning-especially in the early years of development. Students that receive high-quality social emotional supports demonstrate higher levels of academic achievement, improved attitudes, fewer negative behaviors and reduced emotional distress. Our research shows that social emotional learning is usually incorporated into one of four areas in state policy: early learning guidelines, school readiness definitions, teacher preparation/professional development requirements and/or kindergarten entrance assessment measurements. While 36 states, plus Washington, D.C., emphasize social emotional learning in at least one of these key areas, only 13 states explicitly require K-3 teachers to have training in SEL. Teachers need to be trained to provide quality SEL experiences and to work with families in order to provide students with the best chance for success in the classroom.
Third Grade Reading Policies: The ability to read by the end of third grade is a critical benchmark. Students who are not reading proficiently by the end of third grade are six times more likely to drop out of school and data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that 31 percent of fourth grade students performed below basic levels in reading in 2015. Our current K-3 system does not serve these children effectively. To work toward more consistent positive outcomes, policies in K-3 should identify struggling readers and provide them with high-quality interventions from trained personnel. We discovered that most states implement a system of assessment to identify struggling readers coupled with a system of interventions in K-3. Additionally, some form of teacher preparation and/or professional development in reading instruction and the use of assessments and interventions is required in at least 37 states. While most states have these systems in place, the timing of assessments and types of interventions provided varies significantly amongst states.
State policies lay the groundwork for consistent implementation of quality K-3 programs and continual access to quality teachers, classrooms and leadership from kindergarten through third grade will provide opportunities for all children to build upon the gains they made in quality pre-K settings. The long-term success of our children depends on our ability to provide them with the learning experiences that they deserve in preschool through third grade. It is time to pay more attention to the disconnect and to the quality of K-3.
Alyssa Auck is a policy researcher at the Education Commission of the States, where she specializes in early education.