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A Sound Call For PreK-3rd Grade Reform

June 25, 2009 By Vicki Roy, guest commentary

Part of our Education Essay Series

Minnesotans are proud of our students' academic success.  We often point to our high rankings on the ACT exams and our stellar results in 2007 international math and science exams.

But those accomplishments don't tell the whole story. We have one of the greatest achievement gaps in the country. Our students of color, our low-income students, and our English language learners do not score well on standardized tests and are at greater risk of dropping out of high school and not moving on to post secondary education.  With 75 percent of the state's workforce growth between 2000 and 2030 expected to consist of minorities, it is incumbent upon us to change these statistics and close the achievement gap.

School boards around the state have seen the results of many studies that show the promise of PreK-3rd grade programs to erase the gap and put all students on the path to academic success. They are encouraged to reform their districts' practices, but instead struggle with reduced financial resources from the state and the government's increased reliance on high stakes testing.  Boards must find ways to move forward even as the naysayers continue trying to impose the fix du jour and further cut spending for early education.

High-quality PreK programs, followed by all-day kindergarten and then primary grades with rigorous standards and aligned curriculum, have improved student achievement across all racial and ethnic groups, improved standardized test scores, increased high school graduation rates, increased earnings, and reduced chances of being on welfare.1 Strong PreK-3rd grade programs have also been shown to serve as an economic development incentive to companies looking to relocate.2

According to the Minnesota nonprofit group Ready 4 K, 50 percent of Minnesota's kindergarteners are not fully prepared for kindergarten. They enter schools with a significant achievement gap that is exacerbated as they move along in a disjointed system. Art Rolnick, Senior Vice President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minnesota, has studied high quality programs like the Perry Preschool Project and found there is a 16 percent return on investment in a strong PreK program through educational savings, welfare savings, reduced involvement in the criminal justice system, and increased tax receipts on increased wages earned.3

But strong PreK programs are not enough. They must be followed by all-day kindergarten programs that extend and expand upon the rigorous curriculum students are exposed to in preschool. A longitudinal study done in the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District showed dramatic educational gains in all-day kindergarteners, essentially eliminating the achievement gap. As a group, the universal all-day students entered and exited both first and second grades ahead of the national average, and they continued to record above average performance into third grade. Curriculum for these grades was presented faster and at more advanced levels because the students came into the grade with above-average skills. All-day classes scored significantly higher than half-day students as a whole group and in every sub group examined (students who qualify for free and reduced price lunch, English language learners, and minority students). And universal all-day student scores were significantly higher than student scores in fee-based all-day classes, meaning parents had to pay extra for all-day schooling, (based on the 2004-05 kindergarten class) at the beginning of second grade.4

The Burnsville study shows the importance of ratcheting up the rigor of the curriculum for each year after the all-day kindergarten experience so that the gains students make from PreK and all-day kindergarten don't fade by the third grade. This requires more than just high quality programs at each grade level. The first five grades must provide similar instruction, curriculum alignment, smooth transitions between grades, smaller class sizes, social skills training, and family support and involvement.5  Well planned PreK-3rd grade programs help children master reading and math, according to researchers with the University of Michigan's Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research. Equally important, children develop social self-regulating and motivating traits, attributes considered essential to learning.6

PreK-3rd grade programs give children more time to succeed by taking a longer view of their learning and development. It is essential to get the PreK-3rd grade program right, and it takes time and effort. School boards must take the lead and build support within their organization for the aligned and coordinated curriculum that is necessary across the five grades. They must develop strong principal leadership and employ highly qualified and motivated teachers. They must see to it that sound assessment and accountability systems are built in. Most of all, there must be family and community support for the long term. Politicians and citizens must understand this is an investment that will take time to show the desired outcomes. They cannot pull funding from grades 4-12 because we must continue to provide the best education possible for those students while we invest additional resources to put this new program into place. If we are willing to do that, we will erase the achievement gap and provide a world class education to every student in Minnesota.

1 "AMSD Position on Early Childhood Education"
2 "Developmental Education: The Value of High Quality Preschool Investments as Economic Tools"
4 "Full-Day Kindergarten: Findings from a longitudinal study in Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District"
5 "Early Education, Later Success," Susan Black, American School Board Journal, September 2008, pp.81-83 and "Smart Investments in Minnesota's Students" presented by Angie Eilers, Growth and Justice, at the Parents United Parent Leadership Summit
6 "Early Education, Later Success," Susan Black, American School Board Journal, September, 2008, pp 81-83


Vicki Roy is a former School Board Member for the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District

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