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Beyond K12: College, careers and kindergarten

Even during the first year of education, students should be looking toward life after graduation
  • CUSTOMIZED MORTAR BOARD—A kindergarten student, left, at Canyon View Elementary School in the Canyons School District creates and dons his very own paper academic cap, in preparation for graduation and college in 13 years, at the Kindergarten College-Ready Day last year. He had help from a Brighton High School student, right, who serves as a role model, preparing to end high school and enter post-secondary education.
  • PIGGY BANKS FOR ALL—It's never too early to start saving for a college education. At Lansing School District in Michigan, superintendent Yvonne Caamal Canul, left, and Mayor Virgil Bernero hand out piggy banks to kindergarteners at Willow Elementary.

On the first Friday of every school year, the new kindergartners of Utah’s Canyons School District look ahead to the future—far ahead.

To mark Kindergarten College-Ready Day, the children make construction-paper mortar boards and march in mock graduation ceremonies, applauded by high school and college athletes and cheerleaders.

Teachers come to school wearing T-shirts and hats from their alma maters. And the district gives each 5-year-old a blue wristband proclaiming, “I will be college-ready,” stamped with a high school graduation year. For this particular class, it's 2029.

“We want to send the message from the very first week that the kindergartners need to work hard every single day so when they’re seniors they can walk across the graduation stage ready for the demands of college and careers,” says Jeff Haney, director of communications for the economically diverse, 34,000-student district in suburban Salt Lake City. “It’s never too early to start talking about being ready for college.”

Driven by the standards-and-testing movement—and by the urgency of closing achievement gaps that open up in early childhood—some districts now focus even their youngest students on the ultimate goals of their education: college and career. But experts caution that such efforts shouldn’t preclude play, choice of activities, exposure to a variety of subjects, and other developmentally appropriate instructional methods that will best prepare young children for the future.

“They have to have that strong understanding of themselves before they can make connections to the community, before they can make connections to how they fit into the scheme of things,” says Monica DellaMea, executive director of the Office of Early Learning in the West Virginia Department of Education, whose programs are among six in the nation to meet all the quality benchmarks of the National Institute for Early Education Research.

“We’re not requiring kindergartners to pick a career.”

How to inspire aspirations

In Illinois’ Kankakee School District, a mostly low-income school system, more than 80 percent of high school students say they want to attend college—but only half actually do, says Superintendent Genevra Walters. It’s gaps like these, and the lost potential they represent, that have spurred some schools to start discussing college and career with their youngest learners.

In Kankakee, Walters reshaped her K6 general-education track—previously seen as a less desirable alternative for children who were not admitted to gifted and magnet programs—into the College & Career Academy program.

It focused field trips, guest speakers and projects on a different career cluster. Kindergartners study human services careers, covering everything from law enforcement to education. Older students examine such fields as agriculture, health sciences and engineering.

In early childhood, “kids start talking about careers—‘I want to be a police officer, I want to be a teacher,’” Walters says. “If we could be more explicit in our support of our students’ thinking about what they’re going to do as adults, then by the time they get to the point where they actually have to make a decision, they know all the possible options. If you don’t talk about the long-term goals until they’re in junior high, they could be behind academically.”

Two years ago, Michigan’s low-income Lansing School District launched a program, Lansing SAVE, that by the 2017-18 school year will start every kindergartner off with $5 in a college savings account at Michigan State University’s credit union.

Superintendent Yvonne Caamal Canul and the city’s mayor, Virgil Bernero, visit schools to hand out piggy banks and to encourage families living paycheck to paycheck to find ways to save for college.

“It’s a drop in the bucket in the whole scheme of things, but it stimulates this idea that college is something that’s attainable for our kids,” says Caamal Canul.

It’s worth having such conversations even with children too young to understand clearly what college entails, says Haney, of the Canyons School District. “When you start talking about college with a 5-year-old, then it becomes part of their sphere, it becomes part of what they think about,” he says. “And as they learn and grow, it’s always part of the discussion and it’s always part of their world.”

Ramping up kindergarten

Early childhood experts don’t object to efforts to focus young children on the future or to connect their schooling to real-world experiences, especially when those children come from families or communities without a tradition of college attendance.

But in the 15 years of No Child Left Behind policies, college and career readiness has often been defined largely in terms of standardized test scores. Research suggests this emphasis has sometimes spawned problematic instruction practices in the earliest grades, as the academic demands of kindergarten have ramped up.

In a 2016 paper titled “Is Kindergarten the New First Grade?” University of Virginia researchers found that kindergarten teachers in 2010 reported using more textbooks and worksheets and putting more emphasis on test preparation than did their counterparts in 1998.

Meanwhile, the 2010 teachers were spending less time on subjects like music, art and science, and less time on activities like dress-up and sand-table play—all of which early childhood experts consider crucial to building young children’s vocabularies and developing their creativity and initiative.

The researchers also noted that rigorous academic content can be presented in developmentally appropriate ways. But too often, some say, NCLB-driven instruction changes have hurt children. A 2009 report by the Alliance for Childhood, “Crisis in the Kindergarten,” argued that an increase in test preparation and scripted lessons had left students bored and stressed, without promoting lasting academic gains.

Concerned about the achievement gap dividing poor and minority students from their more advantaged peers, schools too often resorted to “drill-and-kill” methods, in an effort to help young children catch up quickly, says Shannon Riley-Ayers, associate research professor at Rutgers University’s National Institute for Early Education Research.

“Academic rigor sometimes can be misinterpreted as ‘more is better'—so more homework, more time on small tasks,” she says. Rigor “was misinterpreted as drill-and-kill—very didactic instruction—and taking away the choice and the play.”

Spending time more productively

The pendulum may be swinging back nationally, however. Riley-Ayers is beginning a three-year research project that involves training hundreds of New Jersey’s K3 teachers to deliver academically rigorous instruction using well-planned, child-initiated, play-based practices.

Over the past five years, the Lansing schools have worked with researchers from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill to carefully document how much time classroom teachers—initially in elementary grades, but eventually systemwide —spend on every task and lesson from large-group activities to lining up for lunchtime.

The result has been a measurable reorientation toward more productive practices, such as small-group instruction, says Caamal Canul, the superintendent.

“We weren’t going to ever change achievement until we looked at our instructional practices and analyzed the experience of the child in the classroom,” says Caamal Canul, who is now preparing to document the program’s impact on student achievement. “Teachers became much more conscious and purposeful about the planning part of instruction and then the implementation of instruction in really meaningful ways.”

Ultimately, educators say, promoting college and careers among the youngest students requires broadening the definition of readiness to encompass not just a narrow set of academic skills but an array of less easily measurable capabilities: self-control, creativity, persistence and problem-solving.

For college students and young children alike, “those skills are really critical,” says Rutgers’ Riley-Ayers. “It doesn’t make sense to wait until they’re older to start talking about these things and providing opportunities for them to engage in work that will develop those skills.”

Modern economy demands early preparation

Why encourage children as young as kindergartners to think about college and career readiness?

Because the modern economy demands more from students and workers, says Kevin E. Baird, chairman of the nonprofit Center for College and Career Readiness.

“College is harder today. The workforce is harder today,” Baird says. “Those needs have increased as the economy has gotten more complex.”

Such convictions drive the standards-and-testing movement that has shaped American public education for decades, from the 1990s into the No Child Left Behind era and through the push for the Common Core. Schools seeking to align their curricula to the new standards started with the goal— high school graduates who are college and career ready—and worked backward.

“As the standards become more rigorous, you then have to start to look at your curriculum in pre-K through 12 to make sure that everybody is prepared for the next vertical step,” says Patricia Cosentino, superintendent of Shepaug Regional School District 12 in Connecticut. The widespread publicity given to standardized test results “has put that pressure to get our kids to be ready,” Cosentino adds. “And ‘ready’ has more academic meat than it used to.”

Educators and policymakers are also increasingly aware that achievement gaps dividing children along lines of class, race and ethnicity open up early and, all too often, persist into adulthood. Closing those gaps requires starting just as early, to prepare students academically and to give them a sense of future possibilities.

“We know that if those kids aren’t on grade level with reading by the end of third grade, the likelihood that they will ever be on grade level diminishes greatly each year,” says Monica DellaMea, executive director of the early learning office in the West Virginia Department of Education, which administers a free preschool program enrolling 76 percent of the state’s 4-year-olds.

“They’re more likely to be in prison, they’re more likely to need assistance. All that research is there.”