The Exquisite Beauty of Early Learning Success

The Exquisite Beauty of Early Learning Success

You already know what it looks like. A child is healthy, safe, well-nourished, and calm. Because she is in a safe place, and because she has a strong sense of connection with others, she is not distracted by worry or anxiety. She has well-developed language skills, but for now she is quiet, absorbed by the task in front of her. Completely engaged in learning and doing, finding success and dealing with small difficulties with ease, there is joy and strength in her eyes.

Across our nation there is a growing debate. How much should we spend to support early childhood programs? How should we spend it? Why should we spend our money on other people’s kids? The debate is often poorly informed, but at least we have begun to recognize the importance of early childhood learning for each child, each family, and for society.

Early childhood is the crucial time during which we build the foundation skills, behaviors, and beliefs which establish our path as a learner for life. Sadly, for many young children our systems are not working effectively. By the beginning of fourth grade, the point at which we can accurately predict long-term learning outcomes, only 33% of American children are at proficient reading levels. Only 17% of children who are eligible for free or reduced lunch are at proficient reading levels. The vast majority of the non-proficient readers are unlikely to ever become good readers, love to learn, go on to advanced education, or become learners for life (NAEP, 2010).

The long-term effects of such numbers of American children becoming non-proficient learners in the information age are a calamity. Low skill learners become low skill workers with low wages. Early learning success is correlated with high school graduation, going on for advanced education, better decisions about risky behaviors, decreased criminality, stable relationships and success on the job. The costs of letting two-thirds of our children become non-proficient learners will add an unspeakable burden to the lives of our children and grandchildren.

Preschool advocates suggest that we should add funds to increase the number of children able to attend state and federally funded preschool programs. Supporters point to significant learning gains described in well-designed studies of the Perry Preschool Project, Abecedarian Project, and Chicago Child-Parent Centers programs. Each of these programs produced positive academic and social outcomes, improved rates of high school graduation and decreased costs due to incarceration and substance abuse. The benefits of pre-k are especially potent among children from low-income and minority families. Children living in poverty start Kindergarten 12 to 14 months behind their peers in pre-reading and language skills, and minority students are more likely to be living in poverty. High quality preschool helps to significantly decrease these gaps.

Universal preschool skeptics point to the relatively high costs of these high-quality programs. In 2007 dollars, the per-pupil costs of the Perry Preschool Program were $11,000 per year. And they point to the “fade out” factor. Since 2003, studies of the federal Head Start program have shown academic benefits decline after students leave preschool and begin to attend local elementary schools. The 2010 Head Start Study showed cognitive, health, and social-emotional gains for participants while in the program, but that most of these gains were absent compared to the control group by the end of first grade. Clearly some Head Start programs are far better managed and more effective than others, but at a cost of approximately $8,000 per child annually, the efficacy of this program overall is a concern.

Often lost in the discussion about how to improve early learning success outcomes are the crucial K-3 years. For decades, U.S. schools have been engaged in a failed experiment that attempts to cram more content into a typical teaching day than is humanly possible. Schools have asked children to learn overwhelming content at younger and younger ages without carefully building the foundational skills needed for learning or behavioral success. This system has created anxiety-filled classrooms in which children are less likely to fall deeply in love with learning.

Unlike all of the highest performing systems in the world, we have pressured teachers to “cover” non-viable content expectations. Time for music, art, movement, play and laughter has been squeezed out of the instructional plan. At a time when love of learning has never been more important, we are pressuring kids in a way that builds more anxiety about learning than joy.

Recognizing the significance of these early learning years, a small number of schools have begun to identify essential skills and behaviors, narrow the instructional framework to allow time for projects, activities and deeper levels of learning, and systematically measure progress toward the essential outcomes. This approach is not a throw-back to the old and simpler days, but rather an expectation that teachers will know each student and adjust instruction to meet the student’s specific needs and instructional level.

Along with high-quality preschool and well-designed K-3 programs, the third leg of the foundation for early learning success is the quality of learning and life in the home. Children who have a strong sense of security and connection, and have learned to calm themselves, persist, focus, and delay gratification are better prepared to learn. Children who have rich language experiences, agility and balance, visual-motor skills, and who play well with others are better prepared to learn. Children with regular family routines, who get adequate sleep and good nutrition, are better prepared to learn.

But more children are coming to school not fully prepared to learn than ever before. Some argue that it is not the responsibility of the schools to take on one more incredibly challenging job, that of reaching out to parents and building a connection that would allow high-quality parent learning about language, motor skill, academic, and social emotional development. But as the last social institution standing in many communities, one must ask, “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?”

We face questions that will shape our nation in the years to come.

Will we commit to building high-quality preschool environments for our children? Will we support access to these high-quality learning environments for disadvantaged children?

Will we recognize that K-3 is still part of the early childhood learning experience, keep class size reasonable, abandon the race through non-viable curriculum, and change our adult patterns so that our children carefully build every single essential skill and behavior they need to succeed in school and life?

Will we recognize that the extended family and community supports to young families that once existed are mostly gone, and look for new models to support parents as they begin the most important single responsibility of their lives?

Early learning is exquisitely beautiful in its many forms. A first grade student leans in toward her teacher, fully engaged and listening intently as her teacher works with a small group of children on an essential math skill. In a high quality preschool classroom, a young boy is playing in the block center. His teacher has just called all the children to the rug, for story time. He doesn’t really want to leave his blocks, but he knows the expected routine, cleans his area, smiles at his teacher, and hops toward the story time rug. At home it is bedtime. Dad is the reader tonight. His daughter snuggles against him as he reads. “One more, pleeease” she asks when he finishes.

Our nation’s ability to provide the experience of early learning success to all our children will largely determine the quality of our social and economic future. Let’s get it right.

Bob Sornson, Ph.D. was a classroom teacher and school administrator for over 30 years, and is the founder of the Early Learning Foundation. His implementation of programs and strategies for early learning success, the Early Learning Success Initiative, serves as a model for districts around the country. He is committed to the belief that practically every child can have a successful early learning experience.

Bob is the author of many articles and books, including Stand in My Shoes: Kids Learning about