More funding is needed to achieve greater curriculum alignment between preschool and the early school years, so that what students learn in kindergarten through 3rd grade builds on what they learned in preschool, a new study says.
Strong leadership by district officials knowledgeable about quality preschool education is another key to making alignment work, said the study by Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), a nonpartisan research group based at Stanford University, UC Davis and the University of Southern California.
Preschool has increasingly come to be viewed as an essential component of an effective education, particularly for lower-income children; that has spurred widespread discussion about the need to align preschool curricula with that of kindergarten and beyond. But consensus on how to define and establish alignment hasn’t been reached.
“That came through loud and clear; funding for pre-K is the poor stepsister,” said Deborah Stipek, a Stanford University education professor and one of the report’s authors.
An array of California educators whom researchers interviewed for the study – titled “PreK-3 Alignment in California’s Education System: Obstacles and Opportunities” – described alignment as “a continuum” and “having shared goals and expectations across grades.” The teachers and school officials interviewed said that requires:
- Communication among teachers and across grades;
- Professional development and training that brings teachers at different grade levels together;
- Strong leadership committed to preK-3 alignment;
- Funding and teacher credentialing parity between preschool and elementary school.
“That came through loud and clear; funding for pre-K is the poor stepsister,” said Deborah Stipek, a Stanford University education professor and one of the report’s authors. Because less advanced credentials are required of preschool teachers, they are paid less, which leads to greater turnover and, often, lower quality, Stipek and the report said. Those factors make it harder to create and maintain a system of alignment between preschool and elementary school, she said.
Preschool teachers also have less available time for professional development, despite greater demands and expectations being placed on them, because, unlike K-12 teachers, they rarely get paid time off for that purpose, and it is harder for them to afford it on their own time. In general, the report says, preschool teachers enjoy less professional respect and have less training. That disconnect means preschool teachers are often left out of efforts to establish continuity in learning between pre-K and elementary school.
Alignment – or the lack of it – can have major impacts, Stipek said.
Done right, she said, it can counter what is known as fade out, the phenomenon observed by some researchers – and disputed by others – in which lower-income preschoolers’ early academic advantages start to diminish until by 3rd grade they have no advantage over children who didn’t attend preschool.
What’s happening in those cases, said Stipek, is this: “If you’ve benefited from pre-K and, let’s say, learned a lot of math, and then you go to kindergarten and repeat everything you’ve learned, you’re not learning anything. So it’s not really fade out, it’s catch up” on the part of other students. “If preschool students are repeating what they already know (when they get to kindergarten), they’re not advancing.”
Proper alignment between preschool and K-3 grades could remedy that, she said.
Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget for early education – he has proposed combining state preschool and transitional kindergarten funding into a single block grant, which early education advocates oppose – includes changes that would strengthen alignment, says the study. The study does not take a position on the budget proposal, which calls specifically for “regional early learning plans” to improve alignment of pre-kindergarten and K-12 programs.
“It won’t happen by itself and it won’t happen as a consequence of someone in Sacramento telling someone to get along better – it really does require someone at the local level saying, ‘You’ve got to work together,’” said David Plank, PACE executive director.
“What we really need are assessment tools and curriculum that is aligned through preschool and those early grades,” Stipek said. “We just have to recognize that pre-K is the new kindergarten and so the expectations are higher and we haven’t upgraded our training and support systems … to reflect those increased demands.”
Also, the report says, alignment should take into account preschool’s focus on social and emotional growth, and ensure a continued emphasis in those areas in early elementary grades.
The study highlights the Fresno and Long Beach school districts as having “noteworthy practices” in early childhood education and alignment. Both districts have effectively included preschool teachers and child care staff in professional development sessions with elementary school teachers, the report says.
One hindrance to alignment, said David Plank, PACE’s executive director, is “the internal fragmentation of the pre-K space, how many discrete actors and funding streams are simultaneously in action for young children in California.”
That can make it hard to unite around a common alignment agenda, Plank said, an obstacle that requires strong local leadership to overcome.
“The fact that (preschool and K-12) are very different systems and effectively very independent systems means that bringing them into closer alignment is a challenge that policy can’t overcome,” he said.
“It won’t happen by itself and it won’t happen as a consequence of someone in Sacramento telling someone to get along better – it really does require someone at the local level saying, ‘You’ve got to work together,’” Plank said.