ED's Perspective: Thinking P-3

By Gail Connelly
Communicator
October 2013, Volume 37, Issue 2

Early childhood education may be the single most important part of a successful learner’s P-12 experience. Because of that, early learning is an essential focus for elementary school leaders.

Nationwide, more than one out of every three third-grade students is still unable to read at grade level. Later, students drop out of high school at roughly the same rates as those who were struggling to read in elementary school. These are important reminders to elementary (and middle) school principals about how early the patterns of future success or failure are formed in the students they work with every single day.

NAESP understands the significance of early childhood education and the need to support a seamless continuum of learning for children coming from high-quality early childhood learning settings to the early grades, or from “age three to grade three.” Building an aligned P-3 system is a national and state priority. Investment in early childhood education systems and practices are essential to ensure that all children have a chance to learn on equal footing— especially those from low-income or disadvantaged backgrounds, who are at risk of beginning their primary education years behind their peers.

Over the past several decades, a large body of research has demonstrated that high-quality early education promotes long-term student achievement and reduces the need for costlier interventions later in students’ education. We know that students who attend high-quality pre-K classrooms are less likely to require special education services and more likely to graduate from high school. Rigorous, evidence-based early elementary classroom instruction builds on students’ gains from early childhood programs and provides foundational academic and social-emotional knowledge and skills that are critical for later student achievement. Thus, investments in early childhood education can enable the nation to better compete in a global economy by increasing the number of children who are prepared for success in school, career, and life.

For these reasons, there is near-universal agreement on the importance of early learning, and, thankfully, the issue is getting some of the attention it deserves. Principals should be encouraged by the areas of President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2014 budget plan that outline an ambitious agenda in early childhood and provide principals with greater access to professional development, including that focused on early learning. The Obama administration’s proposal, Preschool for All, includes an unprecedented federal expansion of early learning opportunities for all four-year-olds from families whose incomes are at or below 200 percent of the poverty line. The nation’s governors are also working to build principals’ capacity to ensure high-quality education from pre-kindergarten through grade three.

We hope President Obama and Congress—and leaders across the country—will continue to take these investments seriously. In the meantime, NAESP is redoubling our efforts to ensure high-quality pre-K—particularly for those students who would benefit from it the most—and to work with policymakers and practitioners alike to create a continuum of early learning that spans from age three to grade three. Specifically, NAESP will be focusing on:

  • Increasing understanding of the importance of the “age three to grade three” continuum among practitioners, policymakers, and parents;
  • Redefining what elementary principals should know and be able to do to support effective P-3 learning environments; n Examining the appropriate role of technology and blended learning for early learners;
  • Increasing professional development opportunities for principals on promoting high-quality P-3 instruction;
  • Ensuring that principal preparation programs include early childhood education in both field and coursework; and
  • Expanding the scope of school leader licensure and certification to include pre-K

Recently, elementary school principals have taken on greater roles in administering P-3 classrooms and promoting a high-quality P-3 learning environment. In 2011, 39 states supported pre-K for more than 1.3 million three and four year old children, nearly double the number that did in 2003. Public schools serve two-thirds of these students. Many public schools house pre-K classrooms supported with federal education funds, Head Start grants, Title I monies, or local funds. Finally, a small but growing number of elementary schools now partner with early learning programs in their communities to promote P-3 curricula, coordinate professional development opportunities, and improve children’s transitions to kindergarten.

We know that the rate of return for investment in quality early childhood education is seven to 10 percent annually through better outcomes for all children, which leads to a reduced burden on schools in remediation, a reduction in crime rates, and enhanced college attendance and workforce productivity.

Those are outcomes NAESP is committed to investing in.

Gail Connelly is Executive Director of NAESP

*This column was originally published in the Sept/Oct 2013 issue of Principal magazine.

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