Recently, New America published an article suggesting that it is time to re-envision elementary education. Authors Lisa Guernsey and Laura Bornfreund argue that the current school structure, with preschool education ending at pre-kindergarten and elementary education starting at Kindergarten, no longer makes sense (if it ever did). They believe that the K – 5 model starts too late, leaving elementary school teachers disconnected from early care and education providers.
In fact, early childhood education is a continuum that begins at birth and runs through age eight. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) provides resources for parents, childcare providers, and educators working with children up to eight years old. Their mission is to promote high-quality early learning for all children, birth through age 8, by connecting practice, policy, and research.
Young children learn best in environments that are bright, engaging, and offer multiple opportunities for social interaction and physical exploration. According to the NAEYC website, “play is an important vehicle for developing self-regulation and promoting language, cognition, and social competence.” Hands-on experiences and an integrated curriculum provide concrete connections among subjects.
Too often, early childhood education centers are seen as “daycare.” Kindergarten is thought of as the beginning of “real” school. As a society, we need to reframe our thinking; we must recognize that learning begins at birth and that a serious commitment to eliminating the achievement gap requires that we invest in our youngest children. In addition to parental education level, income is the strongest predictor of academic achievement.
There are several things we can do to ameliorate the achievement gap. First, all secondary schools should offer a course in human development as a part of the science curriculum. This class would emphasize topics like the importance of secure emotional attachments to a baby’s developing brain and the process through which neural connections are strengthened and pruned during childhood. In this way, every potential parent (or caregiver) will have a basic understanding of the biology underlying every child’s development.
Next, communities should offer a continuum of parent education and support programs to all families with children from birth to age five. These offerings might range from home visiting programs, to weekly parent/child playgroups, to monthly evening sessions on common parenting challenges (such as weaning, potty training, or behavioral issues). This would ensure that parents and caregivers have the resources they need to provide secure, nurturing homes for all children.
As in many other developed countries, parents could enroll their children in accredited early childhood education centers in every community, with costs based on family income. This would increase the standards for early childhood educators: currently, many daycare providers are not accredited in any way, and in most preschools, teachers are only required to have an Associates degree. A recognition that early childhood educators are as significant as elementary and secondary teachers would require an increase in their qualifications.
The second impact this would have is that all children, even those at greatest risk of falling behind, would have access to high quality early education. Parents who earn the least amount of money could still enroll their children in accredited programs so that they could learn and grow alongside their wealthier peers. Income would no longer determine the quality of early learning experiences to which children are exposed.
Because all early childhood centers would be accredited, teachers of young children will be as well-prepared as their counterparts in K – 12. They will have access to the same professional development opportunities. Any developmental delays or learning differences can be identified early and communicated to each child’s parents and future teachers.
Kindergarten and primary classrooms might change, as well. Developmentally appropriate practices such as guided play, opportunities for hands-on exploration, and read-alouds would continue, while emphasis on standardized testing would decrease. Students would spend more time interacting with one another and being physically active, and less time sitting in desks concentrating on individual tasks.
In this scenario, perhaps schools would change completely. If we commit to early childhood education in the same way we’ve committed to K- 12 education, we might have early childhood learning centers that serve kids ages birth – grade 2; elementary schools that serve grades 3 – 5; middle schools for grades 6 – 8; and high schools housing grades 9 – 12.
Early childhood learning does not begin or end at pre-kindergarten. Education does not begin in Kindergarten, nor does it end at twelfth grade. Human beings start learning from birth, and we continue to learn throughout our lives. If we truly want a democratic society in which every child can live up to his potential, then we have to re-imagine our educational system.
This post was also published at GoLocalProv.