Deep Creek Elementary School is an education success story. In 2001, Deep Creek, where more than three-quarters of students come from low-income families and 80 percent are black or Hispanic, was one of the worst elementary schools in Baltimore County, Maryland. Its third-graders were reading at a first-grade level. But the new principal, Anissa Brown Dennis, expanded collaboration and professional development for teachers, implemented an aligned reading and math curriculum from pre-K through third grade, and offered summer learning and after-school programs for struggling students. Today, nearly three-quarters of Deep Creek students read on grade level, teacher and student morale is up, and the school has received local, state, and national recognition for its improvement. The key to Deep Creek's transformation: a clear vision of high-quality early education, starting in pre-K and continuing through third grade.
Advocates of universal pre-K are nothing if not visionary. They view universal pre-kindergarten as not just an end in itself but also a first step toward much more comprehensive public social welfare programs for preschool-age children and their families: prenatal care, parental leave, universal children's health care, and quality child care. For these advocates, the case for universal pre-K is also the case for new state-level systems, policies, and institutions that would serve children from birth through preschool.
Curiously, there's much less discussion of pre-K's potential to spur improvement in the schools children enter after they leave pre-K. The phrase "school readiness" is illustrative: If pre-K gets kids ready for school, then it's not school. As a result, school reformers focus on kindergarten through high school and stay away from pre-K advocacy, while early childhood advocates tend to focus on birth to age 5 and steer clear of school reform. That's a mistake. The universal pre-K movement isn't just about offering another social service: Pre-K advocates are actually building a whole new system of public education, and that has implications for the existing K-12 public education system. Without significant improvements in the public schools that children move on to after preschool, the pre-K movement will struggle to deliver promised results.
Research shows that high-quality pre-school has a positive impact on children's lives: Adult alumni of high-quality preschools have higher education attainment, employment, and earnings, and are less likely to be involved in crime than adults from similar backgrounds who didn't attend pre-K as children. Kindergarteners who attended good preschools also have stronger cognitive and academic skills than children who did not.
The trouble is, these academic differences disappear by third grade -- a phenomenon knows as "fade-out." That's fodder for conservative pre-K critics. During the 2006 debate over a referendum to establish universal pre-K in California, the Heritage Foundation, Reason Foundation, and other conservative groups published articles highlighting fade-out. The referendum failed. In an era of education accountability, politicians and the public expect preschool investments to improve elementary school test scores, so fade-out can undermine support for early education programs.
But evidence shows that fade-out is not a failure of pre-K; it is more deeply connected with children's ongoing education. Research by economics professors Janet Currie and Duncan Thomas has found that African American children who attend Head Start programs disproportionately go on to attend lower-performing public schools -- and this accounts for much of the fade-out in Head Start's academic results.
Rather than fearing fade-out, or trying to downplay it, pre-K supporters should highlight it as an argument for improving early elementary school programs. Education reformers and pre-K advocates should join forces to promote a comprehensive reform package that starts with high-quality, universal preschool for all 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds whose parents want it, followed by universal full-day kindergarten, to give kids more time to learn. In this vision, goals for children's learning and development -- including not just academics but also physical, social, and emotional development -- would be clearly articulated and extend from pre-K through third grade in a seamless progression. Lead teachers would all meet the same high-quality standard -- a bachelor's degree and demonstrated knowledge of how young children learn. This would allow teachers to work collaboratively across grade levels, so each year's learning builds on what children already know. (And ideally, talented preschool teachers without formal degrees would receive support and funding to pursue further schooling.)
The entire system would focus on ensuring children finish third grade with the skills they need to succeed in the next level of their education. Third grade is a turning point when children shift from learning to read to reading to learn. Children who can't read and do basic math well by then are unlikely ever to catch up. Indeed, proficiency by third grade is so critical that at least four states are known to use third-grade test scores to predict how many prison beds they'll need years later, reports the National Center on Education, Disability and Juvenile Justice.
Critics of the universal pre-k movement sometimes fret that pre-K advocates want to "extend public schooling down," to serve younger children for whom it's not appropriate. In fact, public education would actually benefit from extending some characteristics of high-quality early childhood programs up into public elementary and secondary schools.
This is precisely what happened at Deep Creek Elementary School and dozens of primary schools across the country that have implemented similar reforms. There, educators don't see preschool as just an add-on. Integrating pre-K and other early childhood programs with existing elementary schools can actually spur those schools to serve children better in the years following pre-K.
Let's look at the details: Most high-quality preschool programs focus on developing children's social and emotional competencies -- self-control, sticking with difficult tasks, resolving conflicts verbally rather than by force -- as well as academic skills. They build connections with parents and communities -- sometimes even using community-based providers to deliver early childhood education. They also often provide comprehensive services -- nutrition, health screenings, and parent education and involvement -- to address the myriad challenges that make it difficult for many children to succeed in school. These features are part of what make preschool programs successful, but too often they are woefully missing from elementary schools that are emotionally barren, devoid of resources to respond to the non- educational problems children bring to school with them, and disconnected from parents and communities. As advocates work to build publicly funded pre-K systems that emphasize social and emotional development, community connections, and comprehensive services, they're creating proof points that demonstrate how entire public education systems can deliver these things -- and why they must.
The universal pre-K movement also offers public education advocates and reformers models for academic reform. Changing existing systems is incredibly difficult; because states are building universal preschool systems from the ground up, there is more space for innovative thinking than in the established public education system. When it comes to evaluating the quality and effectiveness of schools and pre-K programs, for example, pre-K accountability systems use a much broader definition of quality than No Child Left Behind. Some use child assessments to measure pre-K learning, but they also look at resources and what actually goes on in pre-K classrooms: What kind of activities are children engaged in? How do teachers interact with children? A recent report from the National Early Childhood Accountability Task Force describes promising state and local models to evaluate the quality of pre-K programs. These models can help educators develop more nuanced ways to measure quality in public elementary and secondary schools.
States must also build new systems of teacher preparation and professional development to help experienced preschool teachers who lack a bachelor's degree meet new, higher education standards. Education reformers have long bemoaned the quality of K-12 teacher preparation and certification: Too often these programs fail to equip teachers with the skills to effectively teach diverse students, while their cost and time demands dissuade some potentially good teachers from entering the profession. New models to prepare preschool teachers could provide a potential leverage point for broader changes in K-12 teacher training.
Early childhood advocates and school reformers should be natural allies in building a better future for children, but too often they operate in separate spheres. The expansion of the pre-K movement, and the need to combat fade-out, create an opportunity to bridge that divide. By working together to build high-quality pre-K programs, education reformers and pre-K advocates can also open the door for improvements in the elementary and secondary education system. This kind of collaboration can make stories like Deep Creek's not the exception but the rule.