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Making Children Successful in the Early Years of School
By Gene I. Maeroff
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2006 Gene I. Maeroff
All rights reserved.
A WORLD OF NEW BEGINNINGS
When Lillian Emery Elementary School in Indiana died in 2005, it was almost immediately reborn as the Children's Academy of New Albany. Shorn of its fourth and fifth grades, it became a PK-3 school, serving only prekindergarten through third grade. This new configuration meant that the Children's Academy could tighten its focus on primary education, a vital goal for a school that had ended the year with the lowest-ranking fourth graders of all of southern Indiana's elementary schools.
In light of abundant evidence that students who complete third grade as poor readers face an almost certain struggle for the remainder of their schooling, the entire faculty was dismissed and members had to reapply for their jobs, along with others who wanted to work at the reconstituted school. The New Albany–Floyd County Consolidated School Corporation had concluded that the Children's Academy would need the best teachers it could find, new leadership, a curriculum stressing language and literacy, and the expectation that every student could learn to read proficiently.
Without fourth and fifth graders in the building, the entire atmosphere and orientation of the Children's Academy shifted and the staff could concentrate exclusively on the needs of students in the early elementary grades. This change was important to a school in which in the previous year teachers had made 1,200 referrals to the principal's office for discipline. Placing unprecedented emphasis on literacy instruction, the new Children's Academy fashioned a school day that gave teachers time for professional development and collaborative planning. Everything pointed toward third grade: by the end of that year pupils everywhere, not only in New Albany, must shift from learning to read to reading to learn.
Critics of American education cite lagging test scores, high dropout rates, and the need for remedial courses in college as signs of the deficiencies of public schools. If nothing changes in schools, the income of workers in the United States will decline as the least educated portion of the population continues to grow fastest. Meanwhile, India, China, and other countries that compete with the United States on a host of fronts are gaining rapidly in education, graduating increasing numbers from colleges and universities.
Seldom do those alarmed by such trends pay enough attention to what happens at the beginning, when the foundation is put in place for all that follows. Actually, Thomas Jefferson recognized this imperative as long ago as the eighteenth century, observing that democracy depends on an educated electorate. He called for establishing elementary schools to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic and proposed that "every child was to be taught gratis for three years." Surely, a solid foundation and a commitment to learning put in place during the early years will contribute much to stem the rate of high school dropouts and to boost the numbers entering and completing college.
Above all, education in the earliest years should concern itself with preparing youngsters to become confident readers and adept at mathematics in the ensuing years. Schools must organize themselves around this mission. "[A] consensus has emerged over the last 20 years about the critical nature of the primary grades—preK-3—in terms of literacy development," Joseph Murphy, an authority on educational leadership, writes in a book that examines the role of principals in leading reading instruction.
A PK-3 school encompasses preschool, kindergarten, and the first three grades, positing its rationale on the commonalities of these grades and the opportunity that such an approach gives administrators and teachers to enhance child development at its most fragile and potentially most productive time. The fragility is especially pronounced at the new Children's Academy, which draws 40 percent of its students from three publicly subsidized housing projects and where poverty is so pervasive that more than nine out of ten students qualify for federally subsidized meals.
But a configuration emphasizing the early years is by no means an act of desperation, whether it happens at a troubled school like the Children's Academy or at high-achieving PK2 schools like those in affluent Glen Ridge, New Jersey, where nine out of ten students score at or above the proficient level and two-thirds of the adults have bachelor's degrees. A PK-3 approach fortifies early education in the following ways:
1. Emphasis—Designation of pre-K through grade 3 as a unit unto itself with specific goals is a first step toward assuring that the youngest children do not get shunted aside as older students receive precedence.
2. Teamwork—In a PK-3 school or unit of their own, staff can more readily plan across grade levels and classrooms, viewing the youngsters as one unified learning community. They can form both horizontal teams for teachers of a particular grade level and vertical teams with one teacher from each grade level, preschool through third grade.
3. Grouping—Flexible small-group instruction of pupils that reaches beyond a single classroom and crosses grade levels acknowledges the uneven progress of students at these ages.
4. Staff Development—Educators at this level share common professional interests best addressed through joint continuing education that recognizes the interlocking nature of their work.
5. Culmination—Third grade, as a concluding point, takes on significance as the juncture at which to gather the fruits of early learning to make success more likely in the grades that follow.
Unprecedented attention to schooling from preschool through third grade offers greater promise for improving outcomes than almost any other step that educators might take. Doing it right in the first place is the most obvious way to give students what they will need to prosper in the classroom. Otherwise, every intervention afterward becomes remedial—expensive, difficult, bruising to children. As prekindergarten grows universal and kindergarten expands to fill the entire school day, schools will best sustain early gains by reinforcing the entirety of primary education. Coordination should be the watchword of this effort, with standards, curriculum, instruction, and assessment aligned across the PK-3 continuum like the moving parts of a finely designed mechanical clock.
Students who come out of third grade as fluent readers can approach much of the rest of the curriculum with confidence. Learning to reason with numbers during the primary years will not make an Einstein of every child, but it will lift the mystery from mathematics and enhance their prospects. A PK-3 structure, by reducing the need for remediation, can lead to more productive learning in the upper elementary grades and in secondary school. An approach that emphasizes reading and math by no means implies that schools ought to ignore other subjects. Teachers can offer social studies and science in tandem with reading and math. The arts, as well, have a place in the education of young children.
Strengthening early childhood education is possible by looking at schooling from preschool through third grade as a distinct period of schooling. Educators could devote separate schools to children from about the age of three or four to the age of eight or nine. Or, the primary grades could have their own discrete identity in the elementary school with, perhaps, their own assistant principal. In such a setting everything would revolve around this age group.
Such an idea is neither new nor untried. The National Association of State Boards of Education in 1988 called on the nation's elementary schools to create early childhood units to serve children from the ages of four through eight. Even ten years earlier, Edward Zigler of Yale University, an originator of Head Start, proposed aligning preschool with the early elementary grades. He thought that efforts to raise achievement, especially among the poorest children, depended on programs from birth to age three similar to Early Head Start, followed by preschool, and then by a focus on the primary grades. He wanted schools to "provide quality education through grade three so that children read on grade level by the end of third grade."
The prestigious National Academy of Sciences said that advances in knowledge and changing circumstances call for a fundamental reexamination of the nation's ways of dealing with young children and their families. This group of experts pointed out that society continues to use outdated policies and strategies that do not recognize what has been learned about young children through research. A PK-3 approach represents an appropriate fresh response.
Prekindergarten amounts to a new grade added to formal schooling—at the beginning rather than the end. What has been a journey of 13 years will extend to 14 years—or 15 years if pre-K includes three-year-olds. This is monumental. Kindergarten is the most recent addition to the continuum, which until a half-century ago started in most places with first grade. The period of years that begins with preschool and runs through the end of third grade accounts for more than a third of elementary and secondary education. No other phase of a student's schooling figures more prominently in shaping the child's future.
Ideally, a PK-3 school could underscore its connection to what occurs in the lives of children from birth to age three by reaching out to help young parents enrich settings for infants and toddlers. Many of these mothers and fathers have never before prepared a child for school. Then, it would make preschool available to children starting at the age of three, provide full-day kindergarten, and align the academic work through the third grade, letting pupils move through the continuum at rates appropriate to their social, emotional, and educational development. High-quality child care, infused with learning opportunities, would be available before and after classes, recognizing the needs of today's families.
Schools in the United States have sometimes organized themselves to emphasize the early grades, and other countries, notably the United Kingdom, have also used this configuration. The British infant school—designed specifically to accommodate children between the ages of five and seven—dates back to the 1820s and became official in the 1870s. As recently as 1988, in the Education Reform Act, the British government identified schools and departments for children from five to seven years old as the first key stage of the educational process.
Separate infant departments in elementary schools or freestanding infant schools continue to serve some children until they move to the second key stage, from the age of 7 through 11, but fiscal pressures in the United Kingdom have forced the consolidation of smaller infant programs into elementary schools that include a longer age span. Still, thousands of youngsters in the age group attend schools that focus on young children who then transfer into an upper elementary school at the age of seven, eight, or nine.
A self-contained PK-3 continuum could also be a vehicle for a non-graded, interage program, letting youngsters progress at rates appropriate to their individual development, with less concern about grade-to-grade promotion. This would allow for more emphasis on assuring that students reach a specified threshold of learning by the end of third grade. Currently, some parents delay the entrance of five-year-olds into kindergarten for a year to give them more time to gain maturity, and some schools hold over pupils deemed unprepared for first grade for a second year of kindergarten.
Measures of this sort would be largely unnecessary in a PK-3 setup, where multiage grouping could provide a more flexible learning ladder for children to climb. Such schools could also give closer attention to the uneven progression of special education students and English-language learners.
For decades, education in the United States operated in lock-step fashion, with students taking a precise length of time to pass through each stage. The lock-step has been flying apart for years at its upper levels—high school and college—in a seemingly contradictory way. Some students take longer to complete their studies and some do it more rapidly. The practice of repeating a grade to get a better grounding and improve marks, for instance, has become ever more widespread at elite boarding schools, which have long offered a post–senior year to public high school graduates who want to burnish their records. Many students, particularly in big cities, fail to get their diplomas in four years, requiring five or six years to do so. Clifford B. Janey, school superintendent in Washington, D.C., proposed flexible programs for high school students so that they might take five years or more to complete the four years of high school. He had earlier used the approach as superintendent in Rochester, N.Y., to increase graduation rates.
One-third of the students who enter college take remedial courses that, in effect, are high-school-level studies, further extending the time to degree completion. People no longer look askance if a student does not earn a baccalaureate in four years, which only 43 percent of students now do. The average time from start to finish has expanded to five years, according to Clifford Adelman, an analyst with the U.S. Department of Education. These various developments represent a slowing down of the academic progression.
Meanwhile, other students speed up the process by blending high school and college. Between 10 and 30 percent of high school juniors and seniors take college-level work while still enrolled in high school, through such programs as Advanced Placement, dual enrollment, early-college high schools, and examination-based college credits. Florida even lets some students skip the senior year of high school and move on to college.
Yet, the early elementary years remain largely untouched by such trends. Despite huge developmental differences among young children, schools make few accommodations for differences in their social, emotional, and academic growth. The flexibility of the PK-3 continuum could change this. Not only might some children spend extra time in preschool or the first grade, for example, but in appropriate instances they could attend classes on more than one grade level during a single day. In any event, PK-3 offers a chance to have fewer controversies over social promotion or nonpromotion. Teachers can freely guide students through the work they need at rates suited to each child.
EMPHASIZING THE EARLY GRADES
Not all schools that opt to focus on the early grades adopt a PK-3 or PK-2 configuration. More often, in fact, this emphasis arises from giving closer attention to the younger children in schools that run through fifth, sixth, or eighth grade. It occurs when school districts recognize that outcomes at the upper grades will not improve without bolstering the education of children before they reach the middle years of elementary school.
Montgomery County, Maryland: To Close the Achievement Gap
Jerry D. Weast, superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools in the suburbs just north of Washington, D.C., saw the need to reach children in the earliest grades if he were to improve the system, which hid its problems under a veneer of affluence. The mansions of Potomac and the glittery shops and upscale restaurants of Bethesda made it easy to overlook the poverty of Silver Spring and Takoma Park and the growing influx of blue-collar, Spanish-speaking immigrants from Latin America. Residents did little more than grumble as an achievement gap of monumental proportions carved a schism through the spine of the sprawling school district of 140,000 students.
It took the arrival of Weast as an impertinent new superintendent in 1999 to force residents to confront—and do something about—the mounting difficulties in their schools. Fresh from having merged three school systems in North Carolina to create the Guilford County Schools and armed with insights gained during 27 years as a superintendent, Weast set out to seek improvement in Montgomery County by rubbing the noses of residents in the egregious situation they had chosen to overlook. He recognized that the Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) had, in effect, turned into what amounted to two separate school systems. He decided that the only way to fix the situation was by emphasizing the earliest years of schooling.
Excerpted from Building Blocks by Gene I. Maeroff. Copyright © 2006 Gene I. Maeroff. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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