Talk about a silly idea. Or is it?
Colorado Sen. Ronald Teck had one of these silly ideas, according to several constituents, which never materialized. Teck proposed just about two years ago to shift the state's educational system from a primarily K-12 system to a preK-11 system after he heard reports that senior year was in part about students coasting along until graduation and that the most important brain development occurs early, particularly up to age 5.
"The firestorm was really huge," recalls the Republican senator. "Eliminating the 12th grade is a paradigm shift. It's not something you do overnight or in three months. ... The education community totally came unwound. We received some phone messages. Some questioned my intelligence. Some letters to the editor were positive and some were pretty negative ... with one [stating], 'Talk about a stupid idea.' "
For example, senior athletes fought hard against Teck's idea-which never made it as a bill-not wanting to miss that potentially glorious last year on the gridiron.
Even if the preK-11 idea is nothing but a fading memory, Teck says, it "causes us to do some serious thinking. What are we trying to do with the senior year?'
"The whole lineup of how we deliver education in the elementary and secondary education needs to be rethought. Frankly, we are doing the same pattern of schooling today as we did 100 years ago."
But even if Teck had the idea for a preK-11 system and even if some educators have thought of trading in senior year for universal preK, they are not co-dependent. Each can be created without the other.
A preK-11 idea is on the minds of some as the primarily K-12 model is often questioned and distrusted. Even Bill Gates claimed over a year ago that high school, not just senior year, had become obsolete, lacking a true challenge for education- and technology-hungry youths.
While adding universal preK alone is a more common idea that some states are taking on, entirely eliminating the coveted senior year is highly unpopular with administrators and educators. Just a handful of folks claim it is the way to go. "There is definitely a movement out there," says Leon Botstein, president of Bard High School Early College. "I don't think there is a uniform solution, but compulsory schooling can be compressed and made more efficient and ... end at age 16."
Botstein adds that politicians, teachers, principals and parents have a "huge investment" in keeping things as they are no matter how bad ... but get people off the record and ... they point out that high school doesn't work."
But Michael Webb, associate vice president of the Early College High School Initiative, Jobs for the Future, says the idea of preK through 11th grade is downright scary to most educators and policy makers. "People are afraid to tamper and tinker with the icon," he says. "We have to do something a little different. There may be some baby steps ... as opposed to throwing out entire systems."
Publicly funded universal prekindergarten for 3 and 4-year-olds is a controversial, but seemingly growing trend in states across the U.S. Preschool is often considered a private childcare facility, whereas preK is more connected to the nation's K-12 system.
No Magic Age for Learning
Preschool and preK programs started more than 200 years ago. Wisconsin was the first state to offer free education for all children ages 4 to 20 and that was in 1848.
But it was only in the last decade that more educators and policy makers thought preK shouldn't just be a "luxury" that wealthy families can buy for their children or for low-income kids, such as Head Start, but an opportunity for all children, says Libby Doggett, executive director of PreK Now, a public education and advocacy organization that advocates preK for 3- and 4-year-olds.
About 800,000 4-year-olds, or 17 percent of them, are in state-funded preK, according to a 2004 study from National Institute for Early Education Research.
All but 12 states offer some form of state-funded preK. Florida, Georgia and Oklahoma offer preK for every 4-year-old whose parents want it. West Virginia, Illinois and New York have plans to implement preK in coming years. And Maine, Vermont and Wisconsin provide pre-K in any district that wants to access state dollars for it, Doggett says.
But studies conducted over the past few decades regarding preK have revealed both pros and cons for a structured program.
Some studies have shown that students who start a structured education outside the home at age 3 or 4, compared to their counterparts who don't start formal schooling until kindergarten, are better off educationally and even later in life financially and socially. The earliest studies include a 37-year longitudinal study of students in the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation Perry Preschool, a 15-year longitudinal study of students in Chicago Child-Parent Centers, and the Abecedarian Early Childhood Education project in middle class Chapel Hill. They all reveal that students in preschool programs were better off later in life.
In the High/Scope study, for example, adults at age 40 who participated in a preschool program have higher earnings, are more likely to hold a job, have committed fewer crimes, and are more likely to have graduated from high school. Overall, the study documented a return to society of more than $17 for every tax dollar invested in the early care and education program.
But other studies have shown that while these students who start early are better off initially, particularly with language and math, they tend to show more aggression and lack social skills. And Darcy Olsen, president and CEO of Goldwater Institute, a research and publishing organization focused on fiscal, education and constitutional policy issues in Arizona, says more aggression in a preK program "makes sense" given that tykes are competing for attention in a room full of 15 other kids. "Maybe they're picking up behaviors from their peers," she says.
The question remains: Does a structured preK program make sense in public school?
"The thing with learning is that there is no magic age for learning," Olsen adds. "And as the research goes, there is no particular set of grades to get the job done over another set of grades. Adding a grade or two at the front end or taking away a grade or two at the back end is just tinkering with the 13 years you have."
Olsen explains that structured schooling for young children works best for those with neglectful or non-existent parents, whereas children in loving and educated homes, can get as good an education or better from their parents at home as in a preschool environment. "It depends on the child," she explains. "And it depends on the home environment and the school environment."
Supportive parents can teach colors, shapes and language to their youngsters and provide a fine education in the early years. And some parents reportedly keep their children home even after age 5 in part for fear their children are not ready for school emotionally or mentally. Some states don't mandate children start school until age 6, 7 or even 8.
Alan Simpson, spokesman for the National Association for the Education of Young Children, which has accredited more than 10,000 public preschool programs, agrees that preschool is crucial for youngsters but says it can be given in any setting -at home with family members or through a structured program.
But quality-not just access-is truly the deciding factor in ensuring students are ready to learn by the time they reach kindergarten, according to Simpson. Quality includes ensuring teachers are certified. "You want a program to nurture the child's development, and that means an even greater investment-with good teachers, good resources and good facilities," he says.
When more parents and community members start to demand more preschool, the problems will include providing enough space as well as funds. "And that is the issue for district administrators," Simpson says. "They will be faced with tough questions, including how they will pay for that."
Predicting Universal PreK
In the end, money is a big factor in whether or not any child of any age gets a quality education, some experts say. A 2002 study by researchers at the University of Michigan showed that by the time students reached kindergarten, cognitive scores of children in the highest socioeconomic group were 60 percent higher than those of the lowest group.
"We feel very strongly that our country should be funding state and local programs ... in the hopes of getting them to kindergarten in better shape," says Richard M. Clifford, co-director of the National Center for Early Development and Learning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Clifford and others in early childhood predict that universal access to preK for children at age 4 will be available to any family in the U.S. within the next decade.
"We see in the next five to 10 years that preK will be as prevalent as kindergarten," says Doggett. Governors are "showing amazing leadership" in the arena, with 19 out of 20 governors who requested more funds from legislators for preK receiving it recently, she says. "It's all about leadership, and district administrators can play a real role [in preK programs] to improve the K-12 system," Doggett adds.
Lawrence (Mass.) Public Schools Superintendent Wilfredo Laboy agrees that universal preK should be offered, as his district does. "I think policy makers and elected officials in Washington should be leading that charge," says Laboy, also president
of the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents.
The problem in the U.S. is that American children come to school "uneven," meaning children from low-income families have had fewer interactions with books and language development. They are less likely to have learned colors and numbers than their more wealthy counterparts, who have the benefit of parents that can afford $820/month in private preschool or who can learn at home with more attentive, educated parents, Laboy says.
"The intent to have a preK through 11th grade or 12th grade system is fine," he says. "It's just that we don't have the policies to support it. So districts are left on their own to figure out what to do."
In Illinois, the first state in the U.S. to offer universal preK for children as young as 3, preK is paying off, according to Kay Henderson, early childhood education division administrator for the Illinois State Board of Education. "At the local level, there are incredible differences in kids who come out of the preK program in terms of school readiness [or those ready to learn in kindergarten]. And kindergarten teachers can tell, just in their experience with the child that they have attended preK."
Illinois' preK history goes back 20 years, but state funds for preK ballooned from $12 million to $318 million this year. "School superintendents are advocates for these funds," Henderson says.
The priority is serving at-risk students, such as those from low incomes or whose parents have not completed high school. The state also requires quality: early childhood certified teachers, 20 students per one teacher and one qualified teaching assistant, and parent and community involvement.
Henderson's office submits reports to the General Assembly with years of data, reflecting the students' rise through the system, including any referrals to specialized services like special education or Title I services and state standardized test results. "Given the fact they are screened and at-risk, what we're finding is that 75 to 85 percent of students, depending on the content area, are performing at or above average" with other students at the same grade level, Henderson adds.
Injecting College Into Senior Year
As the jury is still out on the need for universal preK, if you listen to Charles Reed, chancellor of the California State University system, senior year could be axed in some cases. "The 12th grade, as it's currently organized and operated in the American public school system, is probably the single biggest wasteland that I know about," Reed says. "You can probably lop it off and by the end of 11th grade, [some] kids are prepared to enter college and do the work. The problem is that a lot of kids aren't ready."
What happens to many students in senior year is that they finish the school day by noon and work at a local restaurant, for example, instead of taking rigorous courses like a fourth year of math, a writing course and a science course to build their skills in preparation for college, he says.
About half the students in the California university system, Reed says, must take remedial math and English classes, which they should have taken in high school.
And Laboy agrees, saying the nation has not investing wisely on secondary school education. "What we have done [with high school] is taken two and a half years of work and expanded it to four years," he says. "We have a shopping mall model for high school courses. It's a little bit of everything for everybody."
The instructional day must be restructured, teaching must stress students' mastery of the content, schools must be smaller, and learning must be project based. "Knowing content an inch deep and not having the subset of skills that are necessary to compete for the college of their choice or not being able to compete in a global economy is doing students a horrible disservice," Laboy says.
Botstein agrees, adding that courses include a "terrible level of electives" as well as science or math that are often not taught by professionally trained physicists or mathematicians who could truly challenge students.
Few educators want to see senior year eliminated. And some state leaders and educators believe a lackluster senior year is just indicative of a mediocre system. So over the past five years, more states have not so much made high school, particularly senior year, more challenging, but rather have inserted alternatives, such as higher education courses, into the high school calendar.
A few examples include dual enrollment options, which allow high school students to take college-level courses and earn college credit, as well as the Early College High School Initiative, sponsored and led by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Nearly 100 schools in 25 states are part of this initiative which targets low-income and/or rural students or students of color, Webb says. By 2008, more than 170 pioneering small high schools will allow students to get college credit so they can enter college at a junior level. The schools eliminate wasted time during senior year, provide adult guidance and support through the college courses, and help to better serve the intellectual needs of young people, Webb says.
One example is Bard High School Early College, an alternative public secondary school in New York City that Botstein founded and that allows 500-600 highly motivated and academically strong students to begin college studies two years early.
"I'm more into a radical preK through 10th grade program," says Botstein, author of Jefferson's Children: Education and the Promise of American Culture. Grades 7-10 should be lumped together, when students are considered young people, he says. If high school begins in seventh grade and extends through 10th grade, with "really focused learning," followed by community college and/or college, it can potentially reinvigorate the current system's sometimes large dropout rates and lack of rigor, he says.
Another early college program, the Harbor Teacher Preparatory Academy, is indicative of this success. It had 60 percent of its first graduating class last spring complete 60 college credits and receive Associate of Arts degrees from Los Angeles Harbor College. Usually it takes students five years to complete 60 credits, but they did it in four years, according to Principal Mattie Adams.
The academy, which opened in September 2002, is a public school mostly funded by the Los Angeles Unified School District. It also receives technology support from the Middle College National Consortium, which gets funding from the Gates Foundation.
While Adams believes K-12 is moving in the right direction and should stay, she thinks more resources should be available to high school students to take college courses. "It's really amazing to see students transform from the time they enter through that door and by the time they graduate," Adams says. "I'm in awe of the growth, socially and academically."
Angela Pascopella is senior features editor.