But let's say that a school district recognizes and supports the need for investing in a strong early childhood program, what qualities should they include? In "Creating the Best Pre-Kindergartens," Lawrence Schweinhart of Education Week identifies five primary (no pun intended) characteristics:
- Include children living in low-income families or otherwise at risk of school failure. Long-term effects have seldom been looked for and have yet to be found for children not in these circumstances, although there are arguments for serving them as well. For example, a recent study by William T. Gormley Jr. of Oklahoma’s state prekindergartens, which are open to all children, found short-term effects on participants’ school achievement that were large enough to promise long-term effects. Prekindergartens open to all children also enjoy a wider political base than a targeted program, and still include the children who are most in need.
- Have enough qualified teachers and provide them with ongoing support. Qualified teachers are critical to the success of any educational program, a principle now embedded in the federal No Child Left Behind Act. In early-childhood settings, being qualified is taken to mean having a teaching certificate based on a bachelor’s degree in education, child development, or a related field. Because research is constantly informing us about how young children learn and can best be taught, it is also important that early-childhood teachers receive curriculum-based supervision and continuing professional development. Systematic in-service training, in which teachers learn research-based, practical classroom strategies, also helps ensure that young children are having the educational experiences that contribute most to their development. So that pupils receive sufficient individual attention, highly effective prekindergarten classes have two qualified adults—a teacher and an assistant teacher—for every 16 to 20 4-year-olds. Although having qualified teachers, a low child-to-teacher ratio, and ongoing professional development may cost more, cutting back on these components would threaten program effectiveness as well as the return on investment.
- Use a validated, interactive child-development curriculum. Such a curriculum enables children as well as teachers to have a hand in designing their own learning activities. It focuses not just on reading and mathematics, but on all aspects of children’s development—cognitive, language, social, emotional, motivational, artistic, and physical. And it has evidence of its effectiveness. Implementing such a curriculum requires serious interactive training, study, and practice, particularly for teachers who have little experience with this type of education.
- Have teachers spend substantial amounts of time with parents, educating them about their children’s development and how they can extend classroom learning experiences into their homes. All the programs in the long-term studies worked with parents. In fact, in the High/Scope Perry Preschool program, teachers spent half their work time engaged in such activities. As child care beyond part-day prekindergarten has become more widespread, parent-outreach efforts also need to include other caregivers, in centers and homes, who spend time daily with enrolled children.
- Confirm results through continuous assessment of program quality and children’s development of school readiness. Good curriculum and good assessment go hand in hand. Prekindergartens striving to be highly effective need to replicate the policies and practices of a program found to be highly effective, including the five ingredients listed here. The proof that this is being done lies in program-implementation assessment, a system for measuring how well a program carries out administrative and teaching standards. A program assessor uses standard protocols to observe classrooms and the school, and to interview teachers and others about the various aspects of program quality. The results can then be used for program improvement. Systematic observation and testing measure prekindergarten children’s development of school readiness. With an interactive child-development curriculum, systematic observation fits better than testing, because it records children’s usual behavior rather than requiring them to respond on cue in a particular time and place. Program administrators and teachers who know how children are doing on such assessments will be able to use this information to monitor the children’s progress and attune their teaching to it.
What I really want us to take away from all of this is that if we really care about making social change---breaking the cycle of poverty and establishing equity---we need to do this from the very beginning. At the start of 2008, 1 in every 100 Americans was in prison: a record high. While we can't give up on any member of our society, I can't help but wonder what might have happened if we'd given each of these people a better beginning when they were wee ones.