As a veteran kindergarten teacher, I believe the time has come to invest in high-quality universal pre-K education.
The short- and long-term benefits of high-quality early childhood education are well documented. Money spent to fund early childhood education is also a good investment. Nobel Prize winning economist James Heckman estimates long term savings of $7 for every $1 spent on early childhood education and Frederick Douglass stated, ‘It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.’
However, these positive outcomes will only be realized through high-quality pre-K and maintained if the children also receive a high-quality kindergarten experience. While a high -quality pre-K should prepare children for kindergarten success, it should not be a mini-kindergarten, nor should it be used as a jump-start on kindergarten curriculum. What does a high-quality pre-K look like?
A high-quality pre-K program is developmentally appropriate. That means it should be designed to meet the social/emotional, cognitive, and physical needs of four-year-old children. It should be based on the best and most recent research about how young children learn.
We know that young children learn through play. So in a high-quality program, much of the day is set aside for children to imagine, pretend, interact, try on new roles, or act out stories. Time to play meets the needs of the whole child. A child who is playing may be developing muscle coordination by running or climbing or digging. This muscle coordination is essential to later being able to learn how to hold a pencil and form letters or numerals. She may be learning how to solve a problem or negotiate over the sharing of a popular toy as she tries on different roles in a dramatic play center.
These problem-solving skills have may later academic applications. He might be honing his powers of observation as he investigates the pine cone that he found outside. This is directly applicable to developing science process skills. While building a block structure she is learning about balance and quantity and developing strong oral language skills as she collaborates with a partner.
Strong oral language skills are vital prerequisites to learning to read and write and understanding quantity is a huge piece of developing number sense. High-quality teachers in such a program know how to facilitate play to help children develop a wide variety of skills and concepts.
Formal instruction time is limited. Instead of large periods of whole-class instruction, children are allowed to choose from a variety of open-ended centers, such as dramatic play, blocks, library, art, sand, or science. Teachers then move about the room to work with children individually or in small groups to build upon their interests and extend their learning. The focus must be kept on the individual child and his or her personal development. The rate of normal development varies widely among young children. We need to avoid over-identifying children as “at-risk” who may simply be developing more slowly in a given area.
The most important factor in a high-quality pre-k program is the teacher. Pre-K teachers need the same level of education as other teachers. The birth-kindergarten degree was designed to provide this specialized teacher preparation. High-quality pre-K is much more than just babysitting, and teachers need to have a deep understanding of child development as well as curriculum. These teachers need to be paid commensurate with their education and experience. Their impact on a young child’s life is enormous.
Universal pre-K benefits everyone and promotes North Carolina as an innovative, forward-thinking state, attractive to families and businesses. It benefits children throughout their school years and into adulthood. NC Pre-K has been referred to as “The Jewel of North Carolina’s Education System.” Children who have been enrolled in NC Pre-K have better verbal skills, more developed social-emotional skills, longer attention spans, improved test scores, and other factors that lead to success in school. They are less likely to require remediation or be in need of special educations services during their K-12 years.
Unfortunately, many of the children who could most benefit from a rich pre-K experience are not able to attend because of limited funding and a lack of pre-K slots statewide. High quality Pre-K programs can help close the achievement gap and research shows that, while they benefit every child, they are especially beneficial for minority and low-income children. The NC Pre-K program has been shown to reduce the achievement gap by 31 percent in math and 37 percent in reading.
We know how to provide high quality pre-K in North Carolina. The benefits are irrefutable. The challenge before us now is to make it accessible to all four year-olds in our state.