Find Success in Early Childhood Education

By Sara Mead

As school districts work to improve student learning and narrow achievement gaps, it’s abundantly clear that starting in kindergarten is too late. Many students, particularly low-income and minority children, arrive in kindergarten and first-grade classrooms already far behind their peers. And while this problem is particularly serious for disadvantaged youngsters, plenty of middle-class children -- especially boys -- also come to school with poor language, literacy, and social-emotional skills.

That’s a big challenge for districts seeking to improve student achievement, but there’s also good news: High-quality prekindergarten (pre-k) programs that start building children’s academic and social skills can help narrow gaps and build a foundation for success in early elementary school.

Thirty-nine states now invest in programs that provide a publicly funded education to 3- and 4-year-old children. Spending on these programs has risen by more than 50 percent -- from $2.4 billion in 2001-02 to $3.7 billion in 2006-07 -- in just six years. This growth far exceeds growth in K-12 spending, and has continued even as states face increasingly tight budgetary environments.

Today, state pre-k programs serve more than 1 million children, including nearly one in four 4-year-olds in the nation. School districts operate programs that directly serve 55 percent of these students, and play a key role in mediating or overseeing community-based programs run by Head Start or private child care providers.

As these programs continue to grow, it is increasingly important that school board members, superintendents, and other building-level and district leaders view providing quality pre-k as a core part of their educational mission.

Some are rising to this challenge and making high-quality pre-k programs central to their plans to improve student achievement. Others, however, know little about pre-k, or view it as tangential to their mission. As states move toward making these programs a standard part of the public education system, just as kindergarten is today, school leaders must understand the role that early education and high-quality pre-k can play in supporting larger improvement agendas. 

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