Postscript: Playing Catch-Up

By Gail Connelly
Principal, May/June 2011

I’m a pushover for a toddler who is holding a book in one hand and a stuffed toy in the other, trailing a cuddle blanket, and looking for a lap and a story. I bet you are too.

Such moments matter. When a caring adult and a curious child bond over a book, a game, a song, or play, the child’s intellectual, mental, and emotional development ticks upward. Unfortunately for too many babies, toddlers, and preschoolers, these moments are few and far between—if they occur at all.

NAESP has long been an advocate of strengthening early childhood education, the focus of this issue of Principal. The Association has focused much of its efforts on helping principals bolster the transition between preschool and the primary grades. An unsettling reality is that this transition—this seam—can unravel for our neediest children, leaving them teetering between academic success and academic struggle. When these children don’t have the support they need, whether from home, a preschool center, or a pre-K program that is integrated with an elementary school, they are at great risk of falling behind, needing special services, and requiring extensive and expensive intervention throughout school—if they stay in school.

Early childhood education is increasingly at the center of the discussion about improving graduation rates at so-called “dropout factories” where more than 50 percent of students quit high school. This shocking statistic represents untold, lifelong misery for thousands of individuals and a terrible loss of human potential for the nation. If we are serious about reducing this appalling dropout rate, NAESP believes we must provide the steady support children need when they’re 3 and 4—not when they’re 13 and 14 and in deep academic trouble.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan agrees. “If we want to get out of the remediation business, we have to get our babies off to a good start,” he said in early March. (He made similar remarks when he was interviewed for the November/December 2010 issue of Principal.) He also flagged early childhood education as a priority in the department’s efforts to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), still known informally as No Child Left Behind.

This is good news for elementary and middle-level principals and for NAESP. Strengthening early childhood education is one of our legislative proposals for ESEA. Specifically, the Association calls on Congress to increase federal support for professional development programs that provide principals with the knowledge and skills they need to effectively align early childhood education and the primary grades. Principals know by experience and instinct that there’s an irrefutable correlation between a child’s access to rich early learning experiences and his or her subsequent academic—and lifelong—success.

And as we push this legislative agenda on your behalf, we’re also moving forward on a related front in terms of policy and practice. In 2010, the NAESP Foundation convened the Task Force on Early Learning comprised of leading researchers, policymakers, community organizers, and practitioners to examine strategies for building an aligned system for early learning. The task force, funded by the ING Foundation, will release its final recommendations in the coming weeks, but until then, I’m pleased to share a few of its preliminary findings:

  • Better integrate and align federal policy, regulation, and funding to enable states and communities to build a coherent system of early learning from pre-K through grade 3.
  • Expand funding for pre-K through grade 3 to ensure that all children—particularly those most
  • at risk—have access to high-quality, full-day learning experiences.
  • Develop and support an effective, well-compensated work force with professional development, preparation, and continuing education.
  • Develop and administer age-appropriate assessments that include both formative and summative evaluations to help guide teaching and learning and to inform program effectiveness.

Watch for news from NAESP as these recommendations take final shape.

Until then, our overarching goal remains simple and direct: Put guidelines and resources in place so funding catches up with need, so practice catches up with research, and so our neediest children catch up with their better prepared peers. Our country simply can’t make a better investment than in this vitally important game of catch-up.

Gail Connelly is executive director of NAESP.

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