Back to Next Generation

Without Pre-K, Young Kids Left Behind in Next Generation Economy

Preschool forms the backbone for Kindergarten readiness, especially in the face of rising standards and international competition.

It’s back to school time for kids across the country, and with it comes a new crop of young children showing up for their first day of school. But Kindergarten sure isn’t what it used to be.

Thanks to a new wave of standards-based education – the Common-Core-ification, if you will – Kindergarten is beginning to look and feel more like 1st grade on steroids. And while shapes, colors, and playtime are not gone completely, they exist alongside math problems and sentence structure and have come at a speed that is even shocking the experts.

Arlee Hall has seen this process play out first-hand with over a decade’s worth of experience teaching young children, the last three years with his Kindergarten class at Donald E. Suburu elementary in Bakersfield, California. “When the new year starts, you never know what’s going to be coming through that door,” he says, “and all the nostalgia of Kindergarten flies out the window when you try and prepare your kids to be 21st century learners.” 

Despite trepidation about new expectations for young children, the unavoidable truth is that preschool-aged children today will face challenges that did not exist even ten years ago. Indeed our economic and social dynamism depends on the quality of the early education that can prepare students for a lifetime of learning.

Children without access to quality early education will be the students that fall behind farther and faster.  What’s left in their wake will be communities that pay the price in terms of lower rates of high school graduation, declining college readiness, and an overall loss in workforce productivity.

Yet, sadly, the disinvestment in early learning across the country is huge: about $500 million this year alone, according to a new report from First Focus.

While the United States has lagged behind, our international competitors are blazing ahead with enormous investments in early education. China has set a national goal to give 70 percent of its children three years of preschool by 2020 (and, shockingly, by that same milestone, China will have more college graduates than the entire U.S. workforce).

To top it off, time and again we’re slapped with statistics that show that even our best and brightest students fall behind in math, reading, and science compared to their international peers around the globe.

Yet it’s not only deficiencies in academics that keep our youngest children from forming the basic foundations for education that will help them excel in school and in life.

“Kids with some early education come hard-wired with the basics of what school is all about,” Hall suggests, “It’s not just about facts, it’s, ‘Can Johnny spend time away from his mom for the first time? Does Suzie know how to make her shapes and hold a pencil’? That’s the real first foundation.”

Studies convincingly suggest that along with the knowledge base that accompanies a child in to the classroom, the socio-emotional skills can actually go the furthest in explaining which children have a chance at succeeding.

“Kindergarteners will have more rigorous demands on them than ever before,” says Cristy Libatique, an English language development teacher for Lakeside School District in California, “and I can almost pinpoint the kids who’ve missed out on the fundamental steps of early development.”

Children who have been given the exposure that comes with a high-quality early education program see those dividends follow them grade after grade.

And the results of the most recent research are persuasive. For example:

  • Kids enrolled in in Educare (an innovative early education model with schools across the country) score higher than average on standard vocabulary tests and come to school ready to learn;
  • A longitudinal study of children who entered Kindergarten in 2010 scored better on math and reading assessments if they had a year of preschool before entering school;
  • Oklahoma’s preschool program helped children advance their vocabulary skills by 28 percent, which equated to four full months of additional vocabulary;  
  • Research on children in the intensive Abbott Preschool program in New Jersey found increases in math and reading scores and a decrease in need for special education well in to the 5th grade.

If we get this right – combining a coalition of businesses and parents that are stressing the benefits of early education at every stage of life– the country will stand ready to reap the benefits of a future workforce built to compete.

When they learn, they earn, and the best science has also shown us that this early time in child development is a key period in leveraging our competitiveness in the world, and prosperity at home. 

In fact, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has been crisscrossing the country raising awareness of early education and the benefits that children and society reap through the process, but one speaker in Minnesota – the state’s Commissioner of Education, Brenda Casselius – put it best: “There’s nothing better to a teacher than a child who is ready to learn.”

“It’s like gold.” 

For more tips and information on how the best news, science, and research can help parents, businesses, and communities develop the best environment for kids, sign up for alerts from Too Small to Fail, an initiative of Next Generation and the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation.

Follow Rey on Twitter @ReyNextGen

Join the Conversation