ED’s Perspective: Closing the Achievement Gap Through Pre-K-3 Alignment

by Gail Connelly, NAESP Executive Director

by Gail Connelly, NAESP Executive Director

October 2011, Volume 35, Issue 2

Time was when preschool and even kindergarten were viewed as primarily having “socialization” benefits, where young children would learn how to go to school by collaborating through play, sitting still for short periods of time, separating from parents and home life, and just getting ready to learn. All those skills are still important, but increasingly, early childhood education is recognized as vitally important in closing the achievement gap for children. A new day in pre-K-3 alignment is dawning, thanks in large part to the growing awareness of the impact early childhood education has on lifelong learning.

NAESP and thousands of elementary school principals have been engaged in this work for 20 years, when research first began to prove what educators have always known in their hearts: A child’s academic success is often determined long before he or she steps into a kindergarten classroom, and not always in a good way. Too many children begin already behind—sometimes far behind. And they often stay so far behind that they give up and eventually drop out. If we, as a nation, are serious about lowering the shocking statistics about high school dropouts, we must provide the steady academic and developmental support children need when they are 3 and 4, not when they’re 13 and 14 and already in deep trouble.

For these reasons and many others, elementary school principals are leading pre-K-3 programs in their schools and communities—and showing dramatic improvements in young students’ academic achievement and social and emotional development.

This investment is paying enormous dividends. Simply put, it works. It works for children, it works for schools, and more important, it works for our nation. Principals all over the country are seeing positive results in the integration of early childhood education with the primary grades.

Among all educators, it’s principals who are uniquely positioned to marshal the resources required to create a seamless continuum of learning—pre-K to grade 12—for every child. A skilled teacher can create a great classroom, but only an elementary principal can create and sustain an excellent school that aligns with a pre-K program. And that can make all the difference for children and schools.

Just listen to Jon Millerhagen, principal of Washburn Elementary School, Bloomington, Minn., who discussed the merits of pre-K-3 alignment at his school in a recent three-minute video presentation to educators in Washington, D.C. To quote Jon’s moving words, principals “carry the torch forward” so every child has an equal chance to achieve and every elementary school firmly embeds early childhood education in its culture and instructional practices. Our challenge now is to shine a spotlight on this work and support it with sound policy at the national, state, and local levels.

Over the past decade, NAESP has worked to strengthen schools with two goals firmly in mind: First, student achievement and school improvement must begin at the beginning—early childhood education. Second, we must leverage the power of the principal to energize that school improvement.

Our work on behalf of principals has only started. As our work in pre-K-3 alignment takes shape, we look forward to ensuring that every principal has the knowledge, skills, and access to best practices they need to “carry the torch” that lights the way for our nation’s children.

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