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Transforming Education in the Primary Years

Issues in Science and Technology

November 2010

By Lisa Guernsey and Sara Mead

When more than two-thirds of students cannot read at grade level and barely three-quarters are graduating from high school on time, it is time to reevaluate not just how well our schools and teachers are doing but whether the entire system needs an overhaul. That is where we find ourselves today. Reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress are embarrassingly low for all children and abysmal for minorities. Worse still, graduation rates, according to the National Center on Educational Statistics, are hovering around 60% in some states.

Better early education is a big part of the solution. Governments at the local, state, and federal level must start investing in systems that reach children before kindergarten and get serious about providing children with high-quality instruction in the earliest grades of their schooling. To do otherwise is to waste taxpayer dollars, ignore decades of research, and disregard the extraordinary potential of millions of children who otherwise have little chance of succeeding in school.

This is more than a repeat of the argument for creating universal pre-K. We need a much broader and deeper transformation of the educational system that starts, if parents choose, when children are as young as three years old and continues through the first few grades of elementary school. Early childhood does not stop at kindergarten; it extends through age eight, because children are still learning foundational skills in literacy, numeracy, social competence, and problem solving. A revision such as this requires more than extra funding, retraining teachers, and revamping buildings. It demands a full rethinking of the social contract that is at the core of the public education system.

During the past few years at the New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington, DC, scholars have put forth a series of papers that envision what we call a “next social contract,” a new agreement that sets forth the kind of institutional arrangements that prompt society to share the risks and responsibilities of our common civic and economic life and provide opportunity and security for our citizens. The need for a new contract becomes more apparent each year as the nation is rocked by social and economic shifts: increasing globalization, the aging of the population, and most recently the financial crisis that is reshaping the world economy.

Education has always been critical to the social contract. In fact, primary education is one of the few, if not the only, goods and services Americans have decided should be provided to all citizens free of charge. In the 18th century, the nation’s founders realized that an educated citizenry was essential to the success of the experiment in democratic self-government on which they had embarked. Over time, public education has become a foundational piece of the economic social contract too: Do well in school, attend college, and a good job will await you when you graduate. A well-educated U.S. workforce has enabled the country’s dominance throughout the 20th century. Expanding access to education has become an important policy tool for advancing social justice, economic opportunity, and global economic competitiveness.

Yet today, despite the success in expanding access to disadvantaged populations of children, the educational system is not producing students who can succeed. Test scores on international exams show that U.S. students are not achieving at the levels of their counterparts in countries such as Finland, Switzerland, Japan, South Korea, Canada, Australia, and others. Among those who have graduated from our high schools, 13% cannot read well enough to conduct basic activities such as reading a newspaper or restaurant menu, according to a 2003 report on adult literacy. Most troubling are the statistics on the low achievement of economically disadvantaged and racial or ethnic minority youngsters. Approximately 84% of African American fourth-graders cannot read grade-level texts well enough to hit the proficiency mark on comprehension tests. With each passing year, their chances of succeeding in high school recede, as do their chances of participating fully in civic life and landing a job that can pull them out of poverty.

Birth to age 8: The crucial years

Every month, new studies in neuroscience and psychology provide insights and warnings about how much of a person’s capacity for learning is shaped from birth to age 8. Young children need to experience rich language interactions with teachers, parents, and other adults who read to them, ask questions of them, and encourage their exploration of myriad subjects. Young children in households with educated parents and well-stocked libraries are more likely to experience those interactions. They are encouraged to participate in conversations and ask questions about what clouds are made of, what they saw at the zoo, what the backhoe was doing at the nearby construction site. Parents with lower education levels rarely have the resources and background knowledge to provide these experiences. For example, a now-classic study, released in 1995, showed that by the time they turn three years old, children from the most disadvantaged families will have heard three million fewer words in their lifetimes than children of professional parents. Without intervention, these children will be behind when they arrive at school. The vicious cycle will continue.

More than 50 years ago, when research was just starting to tell this story, federal policymakers decided to invest in early intervention. The answer then was Head Start, a program started in 1965 for children in families at or below the poverty line. It was designed to provide a preschool-like experience combined with health and nutrition services and a strong emphasis on parent engagement. Head Start programs were designed to be managed by local organizations that received federal dollars; they were decidedly not part of a state’s education system.

Head Start continues today, although only about half of eligible children are served, partly because funding is limited. In many areas, wait lists are common; one cannot just squeeze more children into classrooms because teacher/child ratios must be held low to ensure that children get the attention they need. Therefore, expansion is impossible without the money to hire more teachers. Still, even with small class sizes, the quality of the program has also come under fire. Head Start teachers, like most people in the early childhood profession, work for very low wages. This has probably dissuaded college graduates from considering careers in Head Start. In many cases, classes are led by teachers who have not received a strong education themselves and who may be limited in their ability to encourage children’s questions about the stories they hear or about phenomena they observe in the natural and physical world.

Efforts are under way to improve Head Start and raise the credentials of those who teach there. By 2013, for example, more than half of lead teachers must have a bachelor’s degree. From 2005 to 2008, the number of college graduates teaching in Head Start jumped from 40 to 46%.

Despite the hurdles facing Head Start, the program has been shown to make a difference in immunization rates, dental health, and some areas of children’s social and cognitive development. A nationwide longitudinal study, which started collecting data in 2002, showed that children who started Head Start at age four were faring better than their peers on 5 of 15 indicators of school readiness after a year of the program, and those who started at age three were doing better on 11 of 15 indicators.

But according to the most recent installment of the study, by the end of first grade, the evidence of that positive impact had evaporated. Head Start students were doing no better than non–Head Start students. Researchers are now trying to untangle the data to determine what led to the drop-off. Could the low education levels of staff or other quality measures account for it? Did something happen in the early years of public school to stall children’s progress? This latter theory has gained traction as anecdotal evidence has shown that some public school kindergartens are unable to adequately build on what children have already learned in Head Start. Unfortunately, data that would help to get to the bottom of these questions were never collected.

Other preschool programs have produced benefits that last much longer. In fact, the evidence of the effectiveness of high-quality pre-K programs is among the strongest findings in education research. Peer-reviewed, randomized controlled trials in the High/Scope Perry Preschool Project and the Chicago Child Parent Centers Program found that high-quality pre-K programs produced both short-term learning gains for participating students and long-term benefits, including reduced rates of grade retention, special education placement, and school dropout; higher educational attainment and adult earnings; and reduced likelihood of involvement with the criminal justice system. These studies began in the 1960s and 1980s, respectively, and followed children well into adulthood.

Even when children do have access to preschool, research shows that quality is highly varied, with many programs providing mediocre instruction that is not tailored to the natural curiosities and motivations of young children.

More recently, studies of large-scale and high-quality state pre-K programs in Oklahoma and New Jersey have found evidence that these programs also produce significant learning gains for participating children, gains comparable to those found in the Chicago program. Importantly, in each case, the preschool programs are considered part of the education system, opening the door to stronger connections and better alignment between what is taught when children are four and what is taught when they are five, six, and seven. Teachers in these programs also have bachelor’s degrees and receive continuous professional development. In other words, the programs are not provided on the cheap. Research is showing that there is a big difference between the kinds of intellectual, physical, and social explorations that can be guided by a well-qualified teacher compared to what is expected of someone hired to babysit, keep children’s hands clean, and dole out snacks.

Economists have been investigating whether the investments in high-quality preschool programs lead to financial benefits in the long term, when those preschool-age children grow up. One of the most often cited is Steve Barnett, an economist at Rutgers University and codirector of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER). Using his own research and that of colleagues at other institutions, Barnett sees a large return for every dollar invested in preschool, as long as the quality is high. The oft-cited benefit/cost ratio for these high-quality programs is $10 to $1.

James Heckman, a Nobel prize–winning economist at the University of Chicago, has also argued for more investment in the early years. His work has shown that programs will be most cost-effective if they are aimed at infants, toddlers, and children in preschool and the early grades. By the middle years of a child’s schooling, programs tend to produce less of a payoff, with remedial and job training being the least cost-effective.

Policy lags behind research

Given this knowledge, it no longer makes sense to postpone the start of public education until children turn five ...

(To read the full article, see the Issues in Science and Technology Magazine published by the National Academies.)

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