Schools need to reimagine the crucial first years of primary education, the authors say.

Editor’s Note: Laura Bornfreund is deputy director of the early education initiative at the think tank New America, which is based in Washington. Lisa Guernsey is director of the early education initiative and the Learning Technologies Project at New America. The opinions expressed are those of the authors.

Story highlights

Authors: Schools need to make stronger connections between the last year of pre-K and the early primary grades

They say there are many missed opportunities when schooling abruptly transitions without enough preparation

CNN  — 

The first day of school is always a little nerve-racking, but the first day of kindergarten is particularly fraught. The kids are little bundles of energy, still learning how to zip their backpacks and print their names.

Their parents are either hyper-chirpy, weepy or some hybrid version of both.

Laura Bornfreund
Lisa Guernsey

And the teachers, well, their job may be the hardest yet: They have very little information on what all these kids need or how they learn best. Which children have had the benefit of pre-K? Who has never held a book? How many know letters, recognize shapes, or can handle their emotions when a tower of blocks topples?

This is an all too common scenario in American schools, and it is contributing to our nation’s education troubles. While transitions between elementary and middle school and middle and high school are typically well-orchestrated experiences, the transition into kindergarten is haphazard at best.

It’s time to do something different. We need to reshape the primary years and re-envision the elementary school. The K-5 model starts too late and is usually disconnected from early care and education providers such as pre-K centers. Instead, primary education should start at age 3, and each year of a young child’s life should be marked by teachers who work together, grade by grade, to offer age-appropriate and research-based learning experiences up through third grade.

This does not mean shoving little kids into schools made for big kids. In fact, a re-envisioned elementary model can include classrooms that are situated off campus and run by community organizations. What matters is not the location so much as the fact that their teachers and leaders work in tandem with those in other grades.

Today there is a false assumption that by age 5, children leave early childhood behind. That leads educators to make misguided attempts to make kindergarten and early grade classrooms resemble those for older students. But research on children’s development shows the benefits of guided play, exploration, read-alouds and socializations continue at least through age 8. Kids need to be taught in small groups and through hands-on activities.

In the past few years we have seen heightened national, state and local attention on high-quality, publicly funded pre-K. That’s great — all children need access to high-quality pre-K programs — but there should be at least an equivalent emphasis on following it up with strong, well-coordinated teaching and learning in kindergarten, first, second and third grade. Discouragingly there is not. In fact, many students experience a slump in success in these forgotten years.

Data from evaluations of Head Start, the federally funded preschool program for children in poverty, has shown that the gains children make in its classrooms do not stick by the end of third grade. In Oklahoma, a state with high-quality preschool programs that have led to good outcomes for low-income, Hispanic and middle-class children after one year, reading scores a few grades later are nothing to celebrate.

Teachers and principals in the K-3 grades need help. States will need to improve the quality of teacher and principal preparation programs to give educators solid grounding in how children develop and learn best.

Districts need to help connect schools with “feeder” pre-K programs and should give educators opportunities across pre-K and the early grades for joint professional development, data sharing and developing a common understanding of expectations for learning.

States should require districts to offer full-day kindergarten, so every child has access to a more equitable and enriching kindergarten experience. And the federal government should offer incentives to states and school districts that commit to doing these and other activities to help improve children’s learning outcomes in all the early grades.

In pockets around the country some of this is already happening. For example, leaders in Lansing, Michigan, recently reformed the school district’s structure by creating pre-K through third grade schools to create a “domino” effect of student success that continued through the later grades. Other models, such as Oyler School in Cincinnati, Ohio, are linking schools to high-quality child care for infants and toddlers and offering “wraparound” care for all ages during nonschool hours. And, in Orlando, the principal of Grand Avenue Elementary knows where his future students are coming from and invites the teachers from those child care centers to participate in professional learning with his teachers.

Schools should explore models that take advantage of child care partnerships and promote sharing between primary schools and community-based organizations that serve families.

No, transformation won’t easy. School districts are under such pressure to hit the mark on third-grade tests that they often forget about the K-3 grades. Public education is now bogged down in entrenched funding streams that are marked as “K-12,” leaving pre-K out of the picture. Often, because of these divisions, teachers in early learning centers do not trust people in “K-12” and vice versa.

But if we keep thinking that early childhood ends with pre-K, our kids will be missing out on learning experiences at a critical moment in their young lives, a moment that is primed for building a foundation for their academic and social success. They will struggle. And our public education system will keep expending excess energy and resources trying to cope with the consequences.

Those children arriving in kindergarten deserve this re-envisioned elementary school, this cohesive, connected approach that starts younger and extends through the later grades. Just as those nervous, giggling 5-year-olds need guidance on where to hang up their backpacks, their teachers need a system that doesn’t leave them flailing around wondering who these new children are and guessing at what they need.

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