Lessons Learned: Kindergarten Is Old School (Winter 2012 Trust Magazine)

Source Organization: The Pew Charitable Trusts

Author: Tim Warren

01/04/2012 - In 2000, pre-kindergarten education in the United States was seen by many as little more than assistance for working parents—child care by another name. Thirteen states offered no public school pre-kindergarten at all and only five offered programs that met at least 8 of 10 significant benchmarks for quality.

Yet expanding research showed that these early years could be times of essential learning, having an impact not only on the development of millions of young children but also in America’s ability to educate its people and remain competitive in the global marketplace.

The research had not been widely circulated, but at The Pew Charitable Trusts it attracted the attention of Susan Urahn, then director of education programs. “The evidence was strong and compelling that early learning programs can help children develop the cognitive, social and emotional skills necessary for success in school and in life,” said Urahn, now managing director of the Pew Center on the States. “We were convinced that pre-k was the right policy at the right time.”

That belief launched a Pew initiative to shape and accelerate the growth of high-quality, state-funded pre-k programs. A decade later, funding for pre-kindergarten nationally has doubled, to more than $5 billion, and children enrolled in early education programs increased from 700,000 to 1.3 million. Over the years, Pew’s efforts, led by its Pre-K Now campaign, expanded into 30 states, using coalitions that included advocates, business leaders, law enforcement groups, faith-based organizations, physicians, education stakeholders, and national and state policy makers.

Today, 10 states have expanded access to pre-k to all 4-year-olds. Three of the original 13 states without programs now have pre-k, and 23 states and the District of Columbia meet 8 of the 10 essential criteria for quality.

“Pew wanted people to think of pre-k as part of public education,” said Marci Young, the campaign’s director. “Ten years ago, people didn’t see that connection. Pre-K Now’s efforts changed that.

“What kids learn in pre-k sets the foundation. They learn not just letters and numbers, but how to learn. They develop skills like persistence, working through challenges, developing focus, how to work with and get along with others. These are fundamental to building strong cognitive skills over a lifetime.”

Early on, the campaign took a measured, pragmatic approach, emphasizing the many advantages of early education to specific audiences of potential supporters. To policy makers, it highlighted pre-k’s role in narrowing or preventing student achievement gaps and its return of as much as $16 in benefits for each taxpayer dollar invested. To law enforcement groups, it cited research indicating youngsters who had participated in quality pre-k were less likely later on to indulge in criminal behavior. To business groups, Pew stressed that pre-k could help develop a skilled workforce needed to compete in a global economy. Sara Watson, the initiative’s first director, has continued to tout the long-term benefits of pre-k at meetings of business leaders sponsored by Pew’s Partnership for America’s Economic Success, which she now heads.

“We wanted this campaign to be about specific, practical steps, not just a vision,” said Libby Doggett, who oversaw the campaign for the longest period. “Our campaign had three underpinnings: research, communication and advocacy. And most of our partners were really smart state advocates. That was important because we needed partners who were focused and could be very strategic.”

Sustaining momentum for 10 years, she said, meant “building effective coalitions at the state level. There was a lot of attention to helping partners learn from each other and bringing new resources and more sophisticated tactics to their efforts.” Among other things, Pew helped advise advocates in the use of online communications and lobbying state legislators.

“The main thing was constant re-analysis of the steps to achieve the campaign objective,” Watson said. “The overall goal never changed, but there were a lot of ways to get there. If one road was blocked, what was the other road? If the opportunity closed in one state, we went to another.”

In October, the campaign marked its 10 years in the field with a capstone event in Washington, DC. The gathering also highlighted the campaign’s final report, Transforming Public Education: Pathway to a Pre-K-12 Future, which among other things offered recommendations on how to make pre-k a fully integrated part of the nation’s public education system. In a cover story on the pre-kindergarten movement, Time magazine quoted heavily from the report and credited Pew, which is closing the campaign at the end of 2011, with bringing “a lot of progress” to the cause.

Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) of Vermont, who in May 2011 had signed legislation removing restrictions on the number of state students who could enroll in pre-k, was among several speakers at the event who praised Pew’s role. Early education, he told the crowd, is “about having a workforce for the 21st century, it’s about allowing states to balance budgets and spend dollars on smart investments.”

Watson, who had spent a decade watching the growing interest in early education, was amazed. “When I heard the governor of a state talk like that about pre-k, I knew we had come a long way,” she said.

Pew president and CEO Rebecca W. Rimel told the gathering that the pre-k campaign became a model for others within the Pew Center on the States and elsewhere in the institution. “This approach—to come armed with the facts, have select states lead the charge for reforms and build momentum for others to follow—proved enormously successful,” she said, adding that it “has served as a major source of inspiration for us all at Pew.”

“Pew helped change the way people thought about pre-k and built champions from both sides of the aisle,” said Jason Sabo, senior vice president of public policy at United Ways of Texas, a partner in the campaign. “It put the power of research to work and showed that investing early pays off for kids and for society.”

Tim Warren is a contributing editor to Trust. His work has appeared in Smithsonian, Washingtonian, the Washington Post and elsewhere.

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