It has been nearly 20 years since a landmark education study found that by age 3, children from low-income families have heard 30 million fewer words than more affluent children, putting them at an educational disadvantage before they even began school. The findings led to increased calls for publicly funded prekindergarten programs and dozens of campaigns urging parents to get chatty with their children.
Now, a growing body of research is challenging the notion that merely exposing poor children to more language is enough to overcome the deficits they face. The quality of the communication between children and their parents and caregivers, the researchers say, is of much greater importance than the number of words a child hears.
A study presented on Thursday at a White House conference on “bridging the word gap” found that among 2-year-olds from low-income families, quality interactions involving words — the use of shared symbols (“Look, a dog!”); rituals (“Want a bottle after your bath?”); and conversational fluency (“Yes, that is a bus!”) — were a far better predictor of language skills at age 3 than any other factor, including the quantity of words a child heard.
The current issue of the Future of Children is on “Helping Parents, Helping Children: Two-Generation Mechanisms.” As the editors say in the introduction, “The two-generation model is based on the assumption that serving parents and children simultaneously with high-quality intervention programs would be more effective (and perhaps more efficient) than serving them individually.”
See in particular the article by P. Lindsay Chase-Lansdale and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn on “Two-Generation Programs in the Twenty-First Century.” This piece describes a second wave (2.0) of Two-Generation programs that have, “sought to rectify the flaws of earlier efforts, largely by building strong connections between components for children and adults, by ensuring that children and adults receive services of equal duration and intensity, and by incorporating advances in both education and workforce development.”
Two-generation programs are ambitious, but these articles prompt the question of whether there is a role for them in comprehensive Birth-Third efforts.
Formative Assessment: Guidance for Early Childhood Policymakers. Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes at NIERR.
This policy report provides a guide and framework to early childhood policymakers considering formative assessment. The report defines formative assessment and outlines its process and application in the context of early childhood. This guide provides a practical roadmap for decision-makers by offering several key questions to consider in the process of selecting, supporting, and using data to inform and improve instruction.
Resources for Early Learning. MA Department of Early Education and Care
This site provides engaging media-rich learning opportunities for educators, parents, and caregivers of children.
Lead Early Educators for Success by the Language Diversity and Literacy Development Research Group at Harvard is a series of briefs written for leaders dedicated to promoting children’s learning and development through high-quality early education. The series focuses on supporting early educators to cultivate high-quality learning environments by revisiting assumptions that guide current policies and practices, outlining common pitfalls, and presenting actionable strategies for pressing issues.
Making Space: The Value of Teacher Collaboration. The Rennie Center and EdVestors.
This report takes a look at how five Boston schools have successfully built teachers’ social capital, using the power of the collective to drive impressive gains in student performance. The findings support the consensus that purposeful teacher collaboration is a crucial element to improved school performance.
Family Engagement is Much More than Volunteering at School by Laura Bornfreund, New America Foundation. “A recent commentary at the New York Times explored the findings from a study on parental involvement. The authors of the study found that the common types of parental involvement, like volunteering more at school or attending school events, don’t improve student achievement. And they’re right. “Random acts of parent involvement” aren’t enough. Other research shows that schools need to do more, especially to engage struggling families. The bottom line: Parent/family involvement must be ‘Beyond the Bake Sale.’”
Nonprofit and For-Profit Partners Help Cincinnati Transform Its Failing Schools.
“Districts thinking of embracing this “whole child” approach to education might want to look at a nationally recognized model: Cincinnati Public Schools. Community schools are based on the idea that the school is the hub of a community – a place where students can get all their needs met, including health and dental care, counseling and after-school programs. The theory behind this approach is that when students’ needs are taken care of – whether it’s a toothache or stress in the family – they can focus on academics.”
RECENT LEARNING HUB POSTS
LEARNING FROM THE WRAPAROUND ZONE INITIATIVE Last Tuesday representatives from six Massachusetts communities came together at the Turnaround with WraparoundShowcase to share their experiences improving the services and supports they provide to children and families. Select schools in Fall River, Holyoke, Lynn, Springfield, Wareham, and Worcester are all part of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s (ESE) Wraparound Zone Initiative, in which improving “wraparound” services is a component of the turnaround strategies of low-performing schools.
BUILDING A COMMON VISION OF QUALITY ACROSS THE BIRTH-THIRD CONTINUUM For the leaders of Lowell’s Birth-Third initiative, it was important from the outset that their project be broad in scope, spanning the Birth-Third continuum by developing meaningful roles for family childcare providers, community-based preschools, and elementary schools.
COMMUNITIES OF PRACTICE IN LOWELL: SUPPORTING FAMILY CHILD CARE AND CENTER-BASED PROVIDERS Lowell’s communities of practice are a direct form of professional development that reaches both family childcare providers and community-based centers using the FCCERS-R and ECERS-R tools. They show that even within the boundary-spanning work that Birth-Third improvement requires there is a critical role for tailored work within sectors on improving quality.
From the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute:
Long-term Health Benefits for FPG’s Abecedarian Kids
With substantial implications for health care and prevention policy, FPG is reporting today that children who received high-quality early care and education in FPG’s Abecedarian Project from birth until age 5 enjoy better physical health in their mid-30s than peers who did not attend the childcare-based program.
The findings appear today in Science and are the result of FPG’s collaboration with Nobel laureate James J. Heckman. Not only did FPG and Heckman’s colleagues determine that people who had received high-quality early care and education in the 1970s through the project are healthier now—significant measures also indicate better health lies ahead for them . . . [more]
In his book about how one of New Jersey’s lowest-achieving school systems became a “poster child for educational reform,” David L. Kirp, a Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkley, describes a “universal approach that builds on existing strengths and a belief in public schools as the place for students to succeed.”
This discussion coincides with an innovative approach recently recommended by the City of Somerville and the Somerville Public Schools to develop a Universal Kindergarten Readiness strategy. Professor Kirp will discuss successful strategies that Somerville can adapt for its own student population.
“Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America’s Schools”
Wednesday, March 12, 2014 from 7:00-8:30pm
East Somerville Community School
50 Cross Street, Somerville, MA 02145
Springfield held a Pre-K through Grade 3 conference on November 4 as part of its Birth through Grade Three Alignment Partnership work. The conference brought together senior district leaders, principals, preschool directors and teachers, and representatives from community organizations. The centerpiece of the day was a presentation by Kristie Kauerz, a national leader in the P-3/Birth -Third movement. Kristie was formerly the director of Harvard’s Pre-K-3rd initiative and is currently a research scientist at the University of Washington in Seattle, where she is starting a national P-3 Center.
Kristie’s presentation and the discussion it provoked provide a compelling summary of the research that underlies the Birth through Grade Three movement, an introduction to an important Birth-Third framework, and useful advice and tips based on the experience of communities around the country. Below I share a few highlights.
Kauerz discussed a number of findings from the research on brain development that show the importance of supporting learning and development in children’s first five years. Kauerz shared pictures that illustrate the extraordinarily rapid development of neural connections in the first six years, some of which then atrophy by year 14. According to Kauerz, “What stays are the connections that are reinforced. If we are reinforcing the good things, they stick around.” She emphasized the integrated nature of cognitive, social, and emotional development, saying you can’t tease them apart or do one without the other. While reading proficiency by grade three is an important goal of P-3 efforts, it is one goal of several inter-connected ones, including not only social, emotional, and physical development, but also early mathematical learning. Kauerz notes that preschool math skills have been shown to be an even better predictor of later learning than early literacy skills.
The upshot of the research on brain development: the ability to change brain development and behavior decreases over the lifespan, but happily never bottoms out. We can all keep learning. It is, however, easier, and cheaper for that matter, to influence brain development and behaviors in the early years. “This is our window of opportunity,” says Kauerz.
Kauerz points out that there has only been “marginal” improvement in NAEP scores in recent decades and that large achievement gaps remain. Gaps between white and black children are present by age 2 and are larger by kindergarten. Yet it is the gap between low socio-economic and more affluent children that has become the biggest achievement gap. Kauerz shared the graph below, showing evidence of the low-income gap by age 2 and consistently increasing at each step from age 2 to age 4 to kindergarten to first grade to fifth grade. As Kauerz pointed out, “there is work to do at each of these points.”
Quality in Classroom from Prekindergarten through Third Grade: Low Instructional Support
The Center for the Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning at the University of Virginia used the CLASS classroom observation tool to assess quality across the prekindergarten through third grade span in classrooms across the United States. Kauerz emphasized that the study found emotional support to be reasonably good across the spectrum, including in K-3 classrooms, contrary to what some think about early elementary classrooms. Classroom organization was scored slightly lower than emotional support. The big problem, however, was in instructional support, which hovers around 2 on a scale of 7. “This is what we need to be worried about,” says Kauerz. Two-thirds of the students in the study experienced inconsistent instructional support as they progressed from first to third to fifth grade, and one-fifth of students experienced consistently low quality instructional support across these grades.
The P-3 Approach: What If?
Kauerz sees the P-3 approach as a means to address the need to improve learning and development in the first 9 years of life, thereby improving learning for all and reducing gaps. She uses a metaphor to explain her vision of what an aligned P-3 system would look like, comparing toy building blocks to pop beads.
Instead of each silo as a separate building block, pop beads suggest separate pieces, each of which needs independent work but that are connected to each other, yielding a connected, flexible continuum when attached.
Kauerz sets forth as the goals of the P-3 approach three outcomes:
Developing strong foundational cognitive skills;
Developing social and emotional competence; and
Establishing patterns of student engagement in school and learning.
Kauerz shares an inspiring “what if” graph that illustrates a vision of the possibilities successful P-3 work can bring about, a progression of reducing rather than expanding gaps. (For another inspiring graph of the possibility of reducing gaps by “intervening again and again,” see this simulation of the impact of multiple interventions.)
Framework for Planning, Implementing, and Evaluating PreK-3rd Grade Approaches
Kauerz and her colleague Julia Coffman have developed a P-3 Framework that describes the components of P-3 work. This framework includes 8 domains of activity, each fleshed out with a goal, strategies and example indicators. This framework incorporates lessons from communities that have successfully implemented P-3 initiatives, such as Montgomery County, MD and Union City, NJ, as well as input from experts and practitioners in 11 states. (Teams from Holyoke, Springfield, and Worcester provided feedback on the framework at a meeting at Harvard in 2012.)
Kauerz emphasizes that people should not follow the framework like a recipe and instead advises that communities “choose 3-5 things to do really well.” Communities that have successfully done this work had a “laser-like focus” on a small set of goals.
The Work of Implementation
In the discussion that followed her presentation, Kauerz shared the following advice regarding implementing P-3 efforts:
Priority. Moving beyond superficial implementation requires that leaders make difficult choices about how they are spending money and the initiatives underway in their districts. These choices may require shifting funds from less impactful initiatives and strategically reviewing the accumulation of initiatives to determine what to continue and what to stop.
Ownership. Kauerz cites instances in which groups have convened to meet and talk about P-3, sometimes on an ongoing basis, but the real work isn’t taking hold. It is critical to build ownership and buy-in among stakeholders, including teachers, if P-3 work is going to have an impact. She cites this example from Chicago in which a partnership started over when it realized it wasn’t making progress.
Progress-monitoring. Communities cannot wait until “the end” of their initiative to see if they are having an impact. Implementing P-3 requires an extended period of time, but it is critical to monitor progress in an ongoing fashion so that leaders can address problems and make adjustments to ensure that work is leading to improved outcomes for children.
State Agency Alignment and Misalignment. An audience member noted instances in which districts get conflicting messages from state agencies, whose policies and guidelines are not always aligned. Kauerz mentioned the need for “barrier-busting meetings” in these cases, highlighting the need for multiple state agencies to work collaboratively with districts to address alignment issues.
False Dichotomies: The Developmentally Appropriate Question. In response to the familiar concern that academic curricula or teaching methods will be “pushed down” from 1 to K to PreK, Kauerz emphasized that P-3 alignment is sometimes hindered by “false dichotomies.” Yes, there are instances of schools in which kindergarten teaching is not developmentally appropriate, and this is an important concern. But our impressions about the quality of teaching and learning in other sectors are not always accurate, as indicated by the high degree of emotional support the University of Virginia study found in K-3 classrooms. Elementary schools use the term differentiated instruction to refer to meeting students where they are, much as early childhood educators use the term “developmentally appropriate.” Whereas early childhood educators talk about the importance of play, K-12 educators are interested in “experiential learning.” As these examples show, vocabulary can become a barrier. Regarding what she regards as false dichotomies, Kauerz asks, “Is your P-3 work an “Us” effort or an “Us vs. Them” effort?”
Two Kristie Kauerz Recommended Books on Successful P-3 Approaches
 A note on terminology: Different terms are used to describe the movement to improve and align education and care from before birth through third grade. Kauerz uses “P-3” to refer to everything before (i.e., “pre-“) school through third grade. Others, including the MA EEC and this blog, use the term Birth through Grade Three (Birth-Third).