The purpose of this post is to urge that our community needs to develop an ambitious, aggressive, comprehensive strategic plan with measurable community objectives and a timetable leading to a pre-k program that is equal to or better than any community program in the Country. I believe that it is not enough to simply try to do more. I believe that we need to do what is required, and what is require is to develop a plan to meet all of our needs, not just to do as much as we can.
A number of communities in the United States have undertaken truly ambitious pre-K community programs. The City of Tulsa has recently been covered in a National Public Radio program, Early Childhood Education, Tulsa, Stands out. Union City, New Jersey, one of the nation’s poorest urban centers, armed with funding provided as a result of groundbreaking state constitutional litigation, has allegedly made significant progress in part by adopting a major pre-K initiative in coordination with its public school systems. Itasca County’s public school districts and others have combined to initiate “Invest Early.” Cincinnati Strive has made early childhood education a central shared objective of the public schools, municipalities and counties, and the diocese among other partners.
What are the elements of a successful Pre-K community initiative? The literature seems to support the following objectives.
A. All students whose families want Pre-K education, receive it. To provide children with a solid foundation for success before they enter school, we need to start treating pre-K as a fundamental component of the education system, not an optional add-on. Universal access to voluntary, High quality pre-kindergarten programs for all 3- and 4-year-olds whose parents want pre-K. “America’s Vanishing Potential: The Case for PreK-3rd Education” (New York: Foundation for Child Development, 2008.) I believe that we have not yet as a community accepted this as a community mission. Adopting this as a central mission—objective—would require us to assess the cost of meeting this objective, and then undertaking to find additional resources to meet that objective. Transferring scarce funds out of elementary and secondary education is not sufficient, because the research makes it clear that early childhood initiatives only pay dividends when they are followed by outstanding elementary and secondary programs.
B. Properly Trained Teachers. Pre-K programs employ highly skilled teachers who have appropriate credentials. “Teachers working with young children must have higher education levels that enable them to support that development.” In a truly successful program, “Qualified teachers with both a bachelor’s degree and specialized training in how young children learn.”
C. Outstanding Curriculum. Pre-K programs must also have clearly-defined, developmentally-appropriate curricula and expectations of children’s learning that are aligned with expectations for elementary and secondary students. Quality, developmentally appropriate curriculum and standards aligned from pre-K through third grade.
D. Monitoring/Continuous Improvement. Equally important, policymakers must develop systems and infrastructure to monitor the quality of pre-K programs and hold them accountable by tracking comprehensive indicators of child development and long-term effects of pre-K programs on children’s academic performance in school.
E. Integration with K-3 Education. Research that shows that pre-K programs can improve student learning also shows that they are not as effective if children move from quality pre-K programs into poor- quality elementary schools that are ill-equipped to sustain pre-K learning gains. Strong leadership committed to providing children with a seamless educational experience. We must ensure that all educators working with young children in this age range have a solid understanding of early childhood development, recognize the importance of the PreK-3rd years in children’s development, and are committed to creating a seamless educational experience in these years. Merely calling ourselves “partners” cannot achieve this objective. It is easy to form a partnership in name, but actually assuring robust and coordinated curriculum demands developing concrete mechanisms to make the objective a reality.
F. Emphasis on both academics and social/emotional development in early grades. If our schools are to be effective in preparing our youngest children for success—in school, work, family, and life— they must prioritize social and emotional development in the PreK-3rdyears, as well as academics.
G. Alignment of Standards, curricula, formative assessments, and instructional strategies must be aligned with one another so that all work together to support children’s learning. This alignment must be both vertical—from grade to grade—and horizontal, so that all elements work together and children in different classrooms have a common learning experience. Standards must be aligned from grade to grade and over the course of the year, so that children’s learning builds in a seamless progression on top of what they already know.
H. Parental Engagement. Effective PreK-3rd educational systems do not operate in a vacuum, but actively establish connections with the parents and communities they serve. Parental engagement is important at all levels of the educational system, but it is particularly important in the early years. PreK-3rd programs must also respect and reflect the broader cultures and communities their children come from.
I. Coordinate with University Education Actually transforming university education requires courageous action at the university level, because the Minnesota University culture is not always ready for change.
J. Develop Targeted Programs for Non-English Speakers and their Parents
Meeting these objectives cannot be accomplished by any public entity alone. Early childhood education starts with parents, of course. But a few communities across the country have discovered that by acting courageously and ambitiously, they can significantly enhance the quality of education of the entire community. To date, we in Minnesota and in the St. Cloud community have barely scratched the surface of what can be done. to accomplish the objective of universal quality pre-K. The choice we face as a community, I believe, is whether we want to make incremental change, inching our way forward, as resources permit, towards the ultimate but unreachable goal, or whether we want to set ambitious objectives, funded by grants, or special taxing authority, or special legislative authority, or by a constitutional litigation like that which resulted in the funding of Union City. At the rate we are now moving forward, it is not at all clear that in two decades time we will be any further along towards the objective of universal pre-k than we are today.