Age 5 Is Too Late: Public Schools Must Focus on Early Learning

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There should be a coordinated curriculum linking early childhood education and public elementary schools, educator Maryanne J. Kane writes. Reuters

Imagine a car sitting in your driveway—without tires. You love this car and continue to improve upon the exterior with new head lights, tinted glass, shiny chrome, a paint job. You continue to improve upon the interior with a state-of-the-art sound system, complete with GPS navigation and Siri. The engine, of course, is efficient, saves on gas, and is environmentally friendly. People in the neighborhood stop by often. Some neighbors are harshly critical, declaring your work has no value. Some neighbors are in awe of your continual, never ending dedication and attention to this car. But guess what? Other than simply looking good, without tires, your beloved car is going nowhere. You can continue to pour hundreds and hundreds of dollars into improving the look, but without tires, your efforts are unproductive.

Of course, it is obvious, a car without tires goes nowhere. What is not so obvious is the following analogy: the car represents elementary education. The exterior improvements to the car represent the various educational interventions, i.e.: PBIS or RTI. The interior improvements to the car represent the various educational/social programs, i.e.: responsive classroom or morning meeting. The well-oiled, environmentally friendly engine represents the hard working, highly prepared teachers, teaching assistants, and principals. The various types of reactions from the neighbors represent those who are critical of education and those who are not critical of education. To continue with this analogy, the tires represent quality and appropriate early childhood education. Just as a car without tires is going nowhere, elementary education without early childhood education is immobile, stagnate, dead.

Scientific research into brain development and the optimal learning window from zero to age 5 is conclusive. The quality of care and experiences during the early years of life literally sets the stage for all future interactions and ability to learn. I don’t want to say after age 5, it’s all downhill, but the quality of care and experiences before age 5 determines if the child will have an up-hill battle or a smooth road entering school.

In her article, Literacy Begins at Birth, 2003 Pulitzer Prize winner, Cornelia Grumman, aptly states:

An expanding raft of scientific and economic research underscores the need to significantly expand quality early learning in the first five years of life… Early childhood education can no longer be seen as just an entitlement or work support for parents in need but as a critical component of education reform, a necessary long-term investment in the nation's future economic success. 

In a recent Opinion piece I wrote for Newsweek, I was cited (criticized?) for suggesting public school education coordinate with early childhood education. Responses to my article cautioned me that nothing takes the place of good parenting, and putting young children into a public school system is “institutionalizing” little ones. My intent was never to replace parents. Also, I am not supporting 2- and 3-year-olds memorize sight-vocabulary, track printed words from a “big-book,” or raise their hand when needing to use the bathroom. I am examining current research on brain development. I am reviewing hard facts demonstrating children entering a public school system at 5 or 6 years of age have irreversible learning road blocks. I am desperately pleading for a coordinated program of study for children 2 through 5 years of age and the public school systems these children enter.

Granted, states are recognizing the need for quality early childhood education. More importantly, states are realizing the lack of quality early childhood education severely cripples society. In 2012, the state of California with the American Institute for Research published a report: Condition of Children Birth to Age Five and Status of Early Childhood Services in California: Synthesis of Recent Research. Most impressive is the impetus for the report:

Interest in the development of a comprehensive early learning plan in California is grounded in three realities: California’s school children are falling behind on many educational standards; the roots of the achievement gap start long before children enter kindergarten; and quality early learning programs have been found to reduce the achievement gap.                              

Unfortunately, it is not enough simply to know children are falling behind, and that early learning programs will reduce achievements gaps. A coordinated curriculum between both the early childhood education program and the elementary school program is crucial; thus, creating a public school system beginning at the age of 2, or at the latest, age 3. Of course, public education for a toddler is not the same as public education for a 5 or 6 year old. One effective curriculum for early learners is the Montessori Method.

The Montessori Method of education, developed by Dr. Maria Montessori, is a child-centered educational approach based on scientific observations of children from birth to adulthood. Dr. Montessori’s Method has been time tested, with over 100 years of success in diverse cultures throughout the world. In early childhood, Montessori students learn through sensory-motor activities, working with materials that develop their cognitive powers through direct experience: seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, touching, and movement. In the elementary years, the child continues to organize his thinking through work with the Montessori learning materials and an interdisciplinary curriculum as he passes from the concrete to the abstract.  He begins the application of his knowledge to real-world experiences.                                                                                                                  

Guaranteed, there would be significant improvement in every child’s social, developmental and cognitive well-being if every public school started at a younger age and included a time-tested program like the Montessori Method.

There are two major obstacles coordinating the early childhood program with the elementary public school system: scope and funding. By scope, I am referring to initially limiting a government initiative for educational reform to a pilot program for just one state. If one state is too large, then one school district. If one school district is too large, then one elementary school with one local day-care center. How will coordinating the early childhood program with the elementary public school system be funded? I’ll answer this question, with a question. Is there a philanthropic person/foundation/entity willing to invest in America’s youngest children with a 100 percent guaranteed rate of return?

Maryanne J. Kane, Ph.D, received her doctorate in Music Education from Temple University and has 30-plus-years experience teaching in various elementary settings: parochial, private, and public in the Philadelphia and Delaware County areas.