Early Childhood Education Is Just the Start

Several years ago I developed a smart start strategy for education reform in which I identify early childhood education as an integral part of any positive education reform efforts. Yes, providing a sound foundation in the early years of life is important, but I've come to realize that it can't stop there. Early childhood education is false hope for those kids who end up in a failing K-8 schools.

According to James Heckman, Nobel laureate of economics, half of the achievement gap between white and black children in 12th grade is present before Kindergarten starts. Important learning happens in the beginning years of a child's life. Studies show that a high-quality early childhood education is linked to significant improvements in children's long-term educational and economic outcomes. Appropriate early childhood programs not only play a part in brain development, but also contribute to physical, emotional and social development.

And while many states have started to teach our kids at a much earlier age, what is sorely lacking, particularly in many of our under-served communities, is a quality educational experience from kindergarten through 8th grade that continues this cycle of learning.

Sadly, in many public elementary and middle school classrooms I visit across the country, the general approach remains the same as it did years ago: a one-size-fits-all core curriculum with subjects presented to each student in the same manner. Instead of being greeted with high expectations, a challenging curriculum, and educators who care about them and keep the momentum going, students are taught solely according to this curriculum and promoted based on their 'perceived' mastery of subjects.

So what can we do to build on the skills and knowledge base developed at the early childhood level?

Well, we can start by meeting students right where they are and fostering a positive culture of learning. We can work to increase access to high quality educational options and ensure that parents have the knowledge and access to the right educational fit for their child. And, we can inundate our kids with a higher level of curriculum content, taught by dedicated and experienced teachers who know the subject matter and how to engage students in active learning.

In Boys Adrift, Leonard Sax shares a few examples of schools using innovative techniques in K-8 education to teach kids and keep them engaged. He talks about the Walderkindergarten movement in Europe. These "forest kindergartens" have no walls and utilize nature to teach kids. Studies show that fourth grade students who attend these schools are more attentive. Or Nebraska, where school leaders have introduced test formats that emphasize experimental learning.

Recent education reform efforts place particular emphasis on early childhood education and high school interventions with little regard to elementary and middle schools -- a critical juncture where we lose some of our brightest kids. Folks, early childhood education is only beneficial if continuous, rigorous and sustained learning is taking place. This is a long -- not short -- term investment. Let's commit to giving our nation's kids not just a head-start but a leg up so they can step boldly into a future filled with endless possibilities.