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You know how, after you've heard a new word or idea for the first time, you start to see or hear it everywhere? That's the sort of the experience I've had lately with "PK–3." Though it sounds vaguely like the name of a new line of vehicles (possibly a hybrid?), PK–3 actually refers to the school years from pre-kindergarten through grade three. More specifically it is the idea that these years constitute an important stage in children's education and are fundamentally different from the later elementary and secondary grades, although they lay the critical foundation for those later grades.
I first heard of PK–3 about a year ago when the New America Foundation, a D.C.-based think tank, had received a grant to work on something called PK–3 alignment. And then a few months ago I learned about a PK–3 initiative at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University or
Author Gene Maeroff, a former New York Times education writer, argues attention should be paid to the PK–3 years because those are the years when children learn the basics of literacy, math, self-discipline, and group interaction that provide the necessary foundation for learning new knowledge and skills for the rest of their education—really, the rest of their lives. By late elementary school "the emphasis shifts from learning to read to reading to learn," says Maeroff, and children who have not already mastered basic literacy by this point face daunting challenges. Similar challenges await those who fail to master rudimentary math and self-regulation by the end of third grade.
Maeroff argues that our public schools do a disservice to younger students by grouping them with older children. Maeroff envisions PK–3 schools that focus solely on the educational and developmental needs of young children, enabling PK–3 teachers to work together to build a continuum of educational experiences, with each new skill, lesson, or grade seamlessly following what came before. This seamless PK–3 continuum would allow children to progress through the curriculum at their own developmental pace—some needing more time, others less—in fluid multi-age groupings, rather than chronological lockstep.
It's a compelling vision, and Maeroff makes it all the more attractive by illustrating virtually every point he makes with examples of schools across the country that are actually doing the things he talks about.
But while "Building Blocks" makes a compelling argument about what good PK–3 schools should do and look like, it's a lot weaker on how to get there. Both alignment and multi-age groupings, for example, are difficult things to make happen. They require adults to cooperate, share information, and surrender control of long-held individual fiefdoms. They require schools to be designed around individual students rather than teachers and their classrooms. Maeroff acknowledges that teaching a multi-age class requires more time, preparation, and skill than a more traditional class. But he does not explain how schools might persuade teachers to take on these more challenging assignments, aside from saying that teachers who are in multi-age classrooms like their "familylike climate…social and academic continuity…acceptance of diversity" and believe they improve student achievement. But are these sentiments a basis for scalable policies? The book's last chapter focuses on the need for policies that support universal pre-kindergarten, full-day kindergarten, smaller classes in the early grades, and wrap-around services, such as after-school care and social workers. "PK–3 requires not so much additional funding…as a determination to spend money differently," says Maeroff, by reconfiguring enrollments in existing school buildings to create PK–3 campuses focused on early childhood.
But it seems implausible to imagine that simply shuffling grade configurations will create the profound changes in cultural and professional practices that would be required to make more American elementary schools look like those described in "Building Blocks." New grade configurations may have been a catalyst for profound changes in some of the schools Maeroff visited, but only because the relatively superficial reshuffling was accompanied by deeper shifts in culture, leadership, and incentives. Unfortunately, Maeroff never digs into the dynamics (and, dare I say, politics) of how those shifts occurred, so policymakers are left with little clarity about how to leverage changes to enhance PK–3.
Maeroff offers an appealing vision for what our system of early childhood and elementary education can look like and what it can do for children. "Building Blocks" should inspire parents and educators, as well as provide a valuable overview of key issues in early childhood and elementary education for journalists and laypeople. But, because it lacks any in-depth discussion of what exactly is needed to turn vision into reality, all it can offer policymakers is an aspiration.