Should publicly supported, high-quality pre-kindergarten be available to all children, or should states “target” pre-k to children at the greatest risk of poor achievement?
High quality pre-k can no longer be considered a luxury for upper income families or a special program for the disadvantaged. Based on what we now know about children’s brain development during these crucial years, pre-k has become just as necessary as kindergarten or first grade.
While targeted programs in some states have served at-risk children for more than a decade, experts believe that all children need the benefits of a high-quality pre-k education in order to succeed. Policymakers, business leaders, and early childhood experts are calling for change, citing the following reasons:
Research demonstrates that high-quality pre-k increases a child’s chances of succeeding in school and in life. Children who attend high-quality programs are less likely to be held back a grade, less likely to need special education, and more likely to graduate from high school. They also have higher earnings as adults and are less likely to become dependent on welfare or involved with law enforcement.
Today’s Kindergarten Is Yesterday’s First Grade
In many states, today’s kindergarten is yesterday’s first grade. With more “academics” being presented in kindergarten, children must learn the pre-academic foundations for formal reading before they enter kindergarten. In pre-k, children become familiar with books, new words and ways to use language, numbers, and problem-solving strategies. They also learn the social skills they need to get the most out of school -- how to pay attention in class and interact with peers.
Start Behind, Stay Behind
Children who enter school behind their peers often stay behind. For example, children who do not recognize the letters of the alphabet when they enter kindergarten demonstrate significantly lower reading skills at the end of first grade. Eighty-eight percent of children who are poor readers in first grade will still be poor readers by fourth grade. Seventy-four percent of children who are poor readers in third grade remain poor readers when they start high school.
Nearly half of all kindergarten teachers report that their children have problems that hinder their success. For example, 46 percent of teachers feel that at least half of the children in their classes have difficulty following directions, 36 percent feel that half the children have problems with academic skills, and 34 percent find that more than half of their children have difficulty working independently.
Children unprepared for kindergarten tax the resources of the entire system. One in every six kindergartners needs specialized one-on-one tutoring or special instruction in a small group. Each year more than 200,000 children repeat kindergarten. North Carolina spent more than $170 million for children retained in kindergarten, first, second, and third grades during the 2001-2002 school year.
Efficiency and Productivity
Classrooms where all children are prepared have higher learning productivity and classroom efficiency. More able children perform more capably in the classroom and enhance the learning of other children. Teachers spend more time working directly with children and less on classroom management.
No Child Left Behind
No Child Left Behind (NCLB) requires schools to ensure that all children perform at high levels. States must show that all children make yearly progress so that by 2014 all children are achieving at a “proficient” level. States are required to close the gap between low-income and minority students and their wealthier, non-minority counterparts, raise overall student achievement, and improve high school graduation rates. Pre-k can help schools meet these requirements.
Middle Income Children
Many middle income children are starting school without the social and academic skills they need for school success. The readiness gap between middle and upper income children is greater than the gap between middle income and lower income children. Forty-nine percent of the children who don’t recognize the letters of the alphabet when they enter kindergarten are middle income or higher. Twelve percent of middle-income children repeat a grade and 11 percent drop out of high school.
The Failings of Targeted Programs
Targeted programs sometimes fail to reach all the children they seek to serve and often have lower quality. Some families whose children qualify for services will not enroll due to the stigma associated with a program that only serves poor children. Targeting pre-k programs toward at-risk children creates separate and potentially unequal programs for lower, middle, and upper income children.
Streamlining the System
Today’s early childhood system is fragmented and haphazard, with some children qualifying for more than one program and other families unable to find a quality program even if they can afford it. By funding pre-k for all children, states can increase standards, require research-based practices, and offer parents choices.
2005 Pre-K Now