Kindergarten teachers are taking notes and making observations starting on the first day of kindergarten.
Using a new survey tool, Delaware teachers are identifying educational gaps in the preparation of the youngest students so children can be referred for remedial help in the first few weeks of school.
Michelle Wilson, a kindergarten teacher in Capital School District in Dover, said the early learning survey has helped her connect students with resources faster than ever before.
As chairwoman of the state's kindergarten advisory committee, Wilson was part of a pilot program of 100 teachers who tested the early learning survey last year. Wilson said 300 more teachers will be trained to use it this year.
The survey, part of a state initiative to improve early education, calls for teachers to observe 34 items – from counting to grammar to physical development – so teachers can identify weaknesses and strengths in what the students know.
Education officials are looking at the whole child and how health, social and emotional development, and family and community support affect kindergarten readiness. Developed by state education officials and teachers, the survey allows educators to get a picture of how each child learns and where improvement can be made, said Harriet Dicter, executive director of the Delaware Office of Early Learning.
“Over time, as we do the survey, it will give us good information about areas of strength and areas of improvement for all children entering kindergarten in the state,” Dicter said. “Then we will be able to say where the state is doing well, and where there are areas that need more support. That will lead to new strategies to work with the families and the community to improve early skills.”
Dicter said besides educational goals, it is critical for children to get along with others, work with others and be able to play with others. State education officials want to keep those parts of learning intact when it comes to improving education for the youngest students, she said.
Dicter said no studies have yet been done on using an early learning survey similar to Delaware's, which reached 1,000 children during the first year and will improve outreach to families in the coming year.
"Having information about children and how they are doing, and using that to inform teaching, can help improve education for children," Dicter said.
For the next school year, teachers will expand the reach of the survey to families. Dicter said teachers want to work with parents to learn more about how each child learns and performs at home.
"We need to make it a two-way street,” Dicter said. “We are going to work on ways to interact with families to get information from them into the mix.”
The future of learning
During visits to several elementary schools over the last few weeks, Gov. Jack Markell said it is important for the state to fund early education to improve learning, starting with the youngest students. Markell said funding for the survey and the other improvements planned for early education came through a $22 million allocation from the state, paired with a $50 million federal grant.
Markell said the funding will not only improve early education, it will also help good preschool and daycare centers invest in poor families who would not be able to pay to attend. It also funds needed improvements to curriculum at some centers.
In addition to the early-learning survey, state officials plan to improve opportunities for students, including more foreign language classes and Spanish immersion programs for kindergarteners.
“We are implementing programs now, and we will be able to provide technical assistance where needed for schools,” Markell said. “I am very excited about the progress we are making. While visiting an elementary school in Frankford, I learned children there spend half the day learning in Spanish and the other half learning in English.”
For Wilson, the survey is a success. “For counting, we look at the chart and see where a kindergartener would normally fall. Then we let the child count and see where he counts to, and then we indicate on the chart where the actual child falls,” Wilson said. The chart is color-coded to help the teacher determine if additional help, such as a math or reading specialist, is needed.
“We want to get the information so then teachers can adjust the curriculum immediately,” Wilson said. After 30 days of observing, the teachers have a better idea of the skills in their new classes.
Four of Wilson's students received specialized classes and reading support months earlier than they would have without the survey, she said.
Over the past four years that Wilson has taught kindergarten, she has noticed vocabulary is an area of weakness for many students. She said parents don't realize the extent of knowledge a kindergartener must have.
“Today our kindergarten curriculum is what many parents experienced in second grade,” Wilson said. “That's not what kindergarten is anymore. We are doing algebra and paragraphs and short-answer responses. I don't think parents realize the in-depth skills kindergarteners are expected to know now.”
Wilson said parents could overcome many gaps the summer before a student enters kindergarten – but to learn what children need to know, parents should pre-register their children for kindergarten. By meeting with a teacher or counselor, parents and children can understand what is expected when school starts.
“By the end of 2015, the survey will be a state mandate for all kindergarten teachers to improve education success,” Wilson said.
Box: How the brain works
Early experiences shape the brain’s architecture and set the stage for a child’s lifelong success. Positive early experiences increase the likelihood of lifelong positive outcomes; negative experiences often lead to negative outcomes.
Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child found:
• 90 percent of brain development occurs by age 5; 700 neural connections are created every second of a child’s early life.
• Adult-child interactions literally “wire” a baby’s brain and determine that child’s ultimate cognitive, social and emotional capacities.
• By age 3, the typical vocabulary of children with high needs is roughly half the size of the 1,100-word vocabulary of children whose parents earn middle to high incomes. Children’s vocabulary at age 3 is strongly correlated with their literacy skills in third grade (Hart & Risley, Meaningful Differences study, 1995).
“There are only 2,000 days between the newborn baby and when that child will show up in kindergarten. It is urgent that we use the best scientific information to make sure we support all our children so they can succeed in school. Our children can’t wait,” said Dr. Andrew Meltzoff, co-director, University of Washington Institute for Learning and Brain Science.