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Education is a fundamental human right, and it is a powerful tool in helping to move adults and children socially, economically, and academically upward. But not all children are provided with equitable educational opportunities. According to a 2012 study released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, third-graders who lack proficiency in reading are four times more likely to become high school dropouts. This is to say, if students are not prepared to read proficiently in the early elementary grades, they will not be able to comprehend core subject matter later in their schooling. To reduce formidable gaps throughout their early years, children must have access to high-quality teaching and learning environments across the birth through third grade continuum.

In a recent article, The primary years agenda: Strategies to guide district action, researcher David Jacobson makes suggestions for schools and districts to build high quality early education systems. Based on effective examples within school districts around the country, he argues for implementing three strategies, in order to form comprehensive and integrated approaches specifically targeting the birth through 3rd continuum:

  • improving preK-3rd education in elementary schools;
  • raising the quality of early education and care through collaboration with early elementary grades; and
  • providing health and social services through community partnerships.

Jacobson points to problems of quality and aligned instruction in elementary schools. (This is something New America’s Early Education Initiative has written about as well.) Curricula are unaligned, there is a lack of consistent instructional approaches across the early grades, and low-performing teachers are sometimes placed in the early elementary grades, where grades are untested and accountability measures aren’t as stringent.

Instead, Jacobson notes, schools should define as a key principle, that all teachers and adults who interact with students are committed to the success of each and every child and have the skills to help ensure that success.  In his article, Jacobson highlights how Massachusetts addressed the issue of shared expectations.  Through state support, small grants were provided, supporting over 40 districts with alignment of curriculum, instruction, and assessment in preK-3rd grade. One way they did this was to create vertical prek-3rd teams, which enabled districts to assess early learning pathways and develop strategies targeting high priority needs. These teams allowed educators a new opportunity — the chance to work together within and across grade levels. Jacobson also offers follow up strategies: once needs are assessed, schools, districts, and states should enact improvements by supporting teachers through professional development, coaching, and professional learning communities.

Raising the quality of early education and care through collaboration with early elementary grades is the next strategic step. Jacobson reports that states have shown support for seamless transitions by ensuring quality services at the pre-K level, implementing quality rating and improvement systems, and improving training and certification for teachers. To further these efforts, Jacobson suggests districts build partnerships with both public and private early care providers within the communities. In Montgomery County, Maryland and Union City, New Jersey — two promising examples that Jacobson discusses — as well as in some other communities, this strategy has been beneficial to both kindergarten and 1st grade readiness. For example, pre-K teachers can share their  family engagement strategies with early grade teachers, which could help ease transitions into school for children and their families. Furthermore, these efforts create a foundation of mutual respect, constructing a positive space for future collaborative efforts. Jacobson makes some suggestions for first steps towards better collaboration: discussing pre-K and kindergarten learning standards, designing transition forms, and making cross-site classroom visits.

Jacobson’s third recommendation is to embrace community partnerships in order to provide comprehensive health and social services for children and their families. Communitywide partnerships can be beneficial to outside factors that affect children’s classroom performance. Jacobson references community schools as one effective partnership model. With this model principals typically collaborate with external partners who can help coordinates a range of services based on the needs of families. These often include health, mental health, after-school, early childhood, and summer programming, and mentoring and tutoring.

Pre-K through 3rd grade reforms continue to gain traction at the federal, state, and local levels. But as with all reforms, success comes down to implementation. Jacobson offers thoughtful recommendations for helping to ensure these reforms are successful and sustainable.