The Primary Years Agenda: Strategies to Guide District Action: Momentum Is Growing to Improve Learning and Care during the Early Years, Creating Significant Opportunities for Schools and Districts to Address Gaps

By Jacobson, David | Phi Delta Kappan, November 2014 | Go to article overview

The Primary Years Agenda: Strategies to Guide District Action: Momentum Is Growing to Improve Learning and Care during the Early Years, Creating Significant Opportunities for Schools and Districts to Address Gaps


Jacobson, David, Phi Delta Kappan


School districts on the leading edge of the Birth through 3rd-Grade movement have demonstrated unprecedented success raising the achievement of low-income students by developing coherent strategies focused on the early years of learning and development. These communities aren't merely improving preschool. Rather, they're building high-quality early education systems that align services from birth through age 9.

Two U.S. school districts on the leading edge of the Birth-3rd movement have shown striking results based on this approach.

* Sprawling Montgomery County, Md., just outside Washington, D.C., has improved results for all students while significantly reducing gaps between affluent and low-income students. The district has achieved remarkable rates of kindergarten readiness (90%), 3rd-grade reading proficiency (88%), and high school graduation (90%).

* Union City, N.J., is a heavily low-income and Latino urban district that outperforms the New Jersey state averages in reading and math in one of the highest performing states in the country and graduates 90% of its students.

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Common to both districts are aligned systems of education and care that begin early and continue through the elementary school years, providing strong foundations for continued academic success (Childress, Denis, & Thomas, 2009; Kirp, 2013; Marietta, 2010; Marietta & Marietta, 2013a).

Birth-3rd

Inspired by a mounting and compelling body of research and examples of pioneering communities, the Birth-3rd movement includes the 120-community Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, a range of philanthropic efforts, and vigorous activity by state governments. At the federal level, the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge funding program and President Obama's proposal to expand preschool for all four-year-olds indicate growing recognition of the importance of the foundational first nine or so years of education and care.

Given the current demands on principals and district leaders, there is perhaps a natural temptation to respond to the idea of improving education and care in the early years with a detached hopefulness that students will soon arrive at kindergarten with higher levels of readiness. Yet Montgomery County and Union City did much more than improve preschool. They built systems that included K-3 as well. Building such systems requires that school and district leaders embrace improving early education as a strategic priority and provide leadership in implementing three overarching strategies in their communities.

Why a Birth-3rd strategy?

Gaps between low-income and middle-class children appear early and increase over time. Such gaps in social-emotional and academic readiness for kindergarten lead to gaps in literacy and math proficiency by 3rd grade, which in turn lead to gaps in high school graduation rates and college- and career-readiness (Heckman, 2012; Torgesen, 2004; Hernandez, 2011).

High-quality early childhood services can effectively address these gaps. A preponderance of evidence demonstrates that quality home-visiting, preschool, and early literacy programs yield large gains in children's learning and development (Heckman, 2012; Yoshikawa et al., 2013; Pressley, 2005).

Multiple supports are required. Addressing large gaps requires improving the quality of services for children at each level of development and integrating and aligning these services in order to have the most effect. (See continuum graphic above.)

Leading edge communities demonstrate the power of comprehensive approaches. The Child-Parent Centers in Chicago, the Harlem Children's Zone, Montgomery County, Union City, and the Strive Program in Cincinnati have demonstrated impressive results, fueling increased financial support for birth-3 rd services, policy change, and innovative projects at the federal, state, and community levels (Kirp, 2013; Jacobson, Jacobson, & Blank, 2012; Tough, 2012; Sullivan-Dudzic, Gearns, & Leavell, 2010; Marietta & Marietta, 2013 b). …

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