As part of the push for greater academic achievement, politicians, businesses and even military leaders have called for more investment in early childhood education. This is a good thing. But, of course, the challenge is not just about ensuring access to programs but making sure they are quality programs that benefit the whole child.
A couple notable events happened Tuesday in support of early childhood education. The Maine Senate voted 20-14 to pass a bill, LD 1143, sponsored by Rep. Mary Nelson, D-Falmouth, to require school districts to provide full-day kindergarten starting in 2017. And three retired generals gathered at Downeast Elementary School in Bangor to read books to a pre-kindergarten class of 4- and 5-year-olds and advocate for universal access to preschool.
The research on the benefits of full-day kindergarten, and early childhood education in general, is clear. Students who attend full-day kindergarten, as opposed to half-day programs, are better prepared for future grades, more likely to excel academically, show improved student attendance, are less likely to need remediation, and show faster gains in language and literacy. Full-day kindergarten has the potential to reduce the achievement gap between poorer and wealthier students.
Most Maine school districts have already acknowledged the benefits. Nearly 90 percent of districts offer all-day kindergarten, according to the Maine Department of Education. Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, the Senate chair of the Legislature’s Education Committee, called LD 1143 a “gentle nudge to those remaining districts to bring their program in line with the rest of the state.” The bill, approved by the House, faces another vote in the Senate and is likely to pass.
It makes sense to provide parents with the option of full-day kindergarten, especially if work is underway to expand preschool programs. President Barack Obama’s proposed budget includes $75 billion over 10 years to provide access to preschool for all 4-year-olds from low- or moderate-income families. The retired generals Tuesday spoke about the potential benefit to national security.
Retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Earl Adams, retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Ralph Leonard and retired Army Brig. Gen. Robert Carmichael — who are part of the nonpartisan organization Mission: Readiness — said approximately 75 percent of people age 17 to 24 in the United States are unable to join the military because they are too poorly educated, have serious criminal records or are overweight. They recognize that greater investments in early childhood education have the potential to not only improve academic achievement but help create future qualified personnel for the military.
Their concern is well-placed. At the same time, we recognize that more expectations are being placed on children in educational settings. That pressure could hinder learning if children are not ready developmentally to hold a pencil or if they receive little attention at home and don’t know how to behave around others. So much of children’s development happens before they step inside a classroom.
For that reason, Maine’s learning environments should be tailored to individual children. Maine also cannot forget at-risk families that are expecting, or those with newborns and toddlers, who need access to programs that help parents learn the basics and become their children’s first and most important teacher. As the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and the Maine Development Foundation pointed out in a 2012 report, “The foundation for a strong workforce begins at birth.”
What do quality classrooms for young learners look like? They have children who are active, playing with other children, receiving individual and small-group work time with teachers, learning numbers and letters during everyday experiences, having access to a variety of materials, and looking forward to school, according to the National Association of School Psychologists. Programs that push children to learn skills when they aren’t ready are likely to backfire. Expand access to programs for little ones, but do it with care.