For teachers, parents, and most youngsters, it's back to school time.
But for 400,000 children, it's an even more important occasion—starting school for the first time. Most of them are ready for school, and, years later, most of them and their parents will look back fondly on their first few weeks.
Sadly, about a third of the children who are starting school aren't ready. Many of these youngsters will still be behind by the time they reach third grade. Many may never be able to catch up with what their schools—and our society—expect them to learn and be able to do.
This is a problem—and there is a solution. Taking the long view from early childhood to young adulthood, there is increasing interest in creating a more "seamless" system of learning that begins early and assures that students can successfully finish school and move on to higher education or job training and, eventually, into the workforce. In the New Economy, where Americans must compete with workers from around the world and keep adapting to changing technologies, "seamless learning" — and, indeed lifelong learning — is essential for everyone.
Looking at the early years of education — from age 3 through third grade — our preschools and elementary schools need to address four fundamental realities.
Reality #1: The early years before children start kindergarten are crucial for student achievement. Neuroscience demonstrates that the brain's development is nearly 90 percent complete by the time a child is 5 years old and that the years from birth to age 3 represent the most rapid brain development. Economists tell us that investments made in the early years will bring large returns in the form of fewer drop outs and grade retentions, increased graduation rates and ultimately increased adult productivity. Educational research shows us that children who have opportunities to participate in quality early care and education programs are well prepared for school and do better when they get there.
Reality #2: The transition from early learning into kindergarten is important and can impact later school success. What's needed: Communication and cooperation among schools, communities and families. When children feel safe and prepared for kindergarten and families understand and value what happens in school, then issues like persistent absence and lack of parental involvement are not problems.
When children come to school regularly and parents support learning at home, children succeed. When kindergarten and early education teachers can exchange information or visit each other's classrooms they are better able to coordinate children's experiences across the two systems — and children do better.
Reality #3: The positive effects of high quality early care and education may dissipate for some children unless they are followed by consistent and high quality teaching in kindergarten through third grade. These early elementary grades are critical for later school success because the foundation skills that children will need to have in place in order to meet school expectations going forward — must be established by grade 3. Without this foundation children will not be equipped to handle the higher level academic challenges they will encounter.
Reality #4: When children's learning experiences before and after they start school are coordinated — or aligned — then the first component of a "seamless" learning system is in place. In other words, children will succeed when what they experience, how they are taught, and what they are expected to know is high quality and linked across the early years and the early grades.
Creating these links is not easy. It will require two groups of people who usually aren't used to working together—early childhood educators and K-12 educators—to find ways to connect their two systems.