Guest commentary: It’s past time to extend ‘exquisite beauty’ of early learning to all of our children

By Bob Sornson/Early Learning Foundation

Across our nation there is a growing debate. How much should we spend to support early childhood programs? How should we spend it? Why should we spend our money on other people’s kids? The debate is often poorly informed, but at least we have begun to recognize the importance of early childhood learning.

Sadly, for many young children, our systems are not working effectively. By the beginning of fourth grade, the point at which we can accurately predict long-term learning outcomes, only 33 percent of American children are at proficient reading levels.  Only 17 percent of children who are eligible for free or reduced lunch are at proficient reading levels. The vast majority of the non-proficient readers are unlikely to ever become good readers, love to learn, go on to advanced education, or become learners for life.

The long-term effects of such numbers are a calamity. Low-skill learners become low-skill workers with low wages. Early learning success is correlated with high school graduation, going on for advanced education, better decisions about risky behaviors, decreased criminality, stable relationships and success on the job.

Preschool advocates suggest that we should add funds to increase the number of children able to attend state and federally funded preschool programs. Supporters point to significant learning gains described in well-designed studies of the Perry Preschool Project, Abecedarian Project and Chicago Child-Parent Centers programs. Each of these programs produced positive academic and social outcomes, improved rates of high school graduation and decreased costs due to incarceration and substance abuse.  The benefits of pre-K are especially potent among children from low-income and minority families.   Children living in poverty start kindergarten 12 to 14 months behind their peers in pre-reading and language skills, and minority students are more likely to be living in poverty.  High quality preschool helps to significantly decrease these gaps.

Universal preschool skeptics point to the relatively high costs of these high-quality programs. In 2007 dollars, the per-pupil costs of the Perry Preschool Program were $11,000 per year.

And they point to the “fade out” factor. Since 2003, studies of the federal Head Start program have shown academic benefits decline after students leave preschool and begin to attend local elementary schools. The 2010 Head Start Study showed cognitive, health, and social-emotional gains for participants while in the program, but that most of these gains were absent compared to the control group by the end of first grade.

Often lost in the discussion about how to improve early learning success outcomes are the crucial K-3 years. For decades, U.S. schools have been engaged in a failed experiment that attempts to cram more content into a typical teaching day than is humanly possible. Schools have asked children to learn overwhelming content at younger and younger ages without carefully building the foundational skills needed for learning or behavioral success.  At a time when love of learning has never been more important, we are pressuring kids in a way that builds more anxiety about learning than joy.

Recognizing the significance of these early learning years, a small number of schools have begun to identify essential skills and behaviors, narrow the instructional framework to allow time for projects, activities and deeper levels of learning, and systematically measuring progress toward the essential outcomes. This approach is not a throw-back to the old and simpler days, but rather an expectation that teachers will know each student and adjust instruction to meet the student’s specific needs and instructional level.

Along with high-quality preschool and well-designed K-3 programs, the third leg of the foundation for early learning success is the quality of learning and life in the home. Children who have rich language experiences, agility and balance, visual-motor skills and who play well with others are better prepared to learn.  Children with regular family routines, who get adequate sleep and good nutrition, are better prepared to learn.

But more children are coming to school not fully prepared to learn than ever before.   Some argue that it is not the responsibility of the schools to take on one more incredibly challenging job, that of reaching out to parents and building a connection that would allow high-quality parent learning about language, motor skill, academic, and social emotional development.  But as the last social institution standing in many communities, one must ask, “If not us, then who?  If not now, then when?”

Early learning is exquisitely beautiful in its many forms. A first-grade student leans in toward her teacher, fully engaged and listening intently as her teacher works with a small group of children on an essential math skill. In a high-quality preschool classroom, a young boy is playing in the block center. His teacher has just called all the children to the rug, for story time. He doesn’t really want to leave his blocks, but he knows the expected routine, cleans his area, smiles at his teacher and hops toward the story time rug. At home it is bedtime. Dad is the reader tonight.  His daughter snuggles against him as he reads.  “One more, pleeease” she asks when he finishes.

Our nation’s ability to provide the experience of early learning success to all our children will largely determine the quality of our social and economic future. Let’s get it right.

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Sun, 06/09/2013 - 6:17pm
Why is it that all we hear in this and other commentaries from Bridge’s guests are generalities that lack any practical or anything quantifiable ideas? Mr. Sornson talks of ‘quality’ and ‘beauty’, he leaves them undefined so the audience has to conjure their ideals. This is an effective way of avoiding questions, challenges, and credibility. I wonder if this is so such commentators are afraid of the audience and their questions or it is disdain for them. Mr. Sornson mentions the reason kids fail, social and economic conditions, but he fails to mention the successes (academic and social) that have come out of those same conditions. It is as if he has his answer and he doesn’t want it tainted by those who have succeeded without his solution. It seems there would be much to learn from those who grew up in poverty, to an illiterate parent, without the innumerable government support available today and achieved everything Mr. Sornson says they can’t without his program. Like so many others who are taughting this solution they never mention the role of the child in learning. It is as if the presentation will be successful in spite of the child. I wonder how many kids have failed to achieve Mr. Sornson’s vision not because of the causes he raises but simply because they had no interest or were discouraged to learn. That would fit into the new ‘solution’ of pre-K and K-3 special programs.
Sun, 06/09/2013 - 7:52pm
Duane, Mr. Sornson is an amazing advocate for children and learning. He is more than happy to respond to any questions or concerns you have and will willingly engage in debate with anyone about the success and failures of our current system of education. I went through an intense training program with him in 2008 and 2009 which helped me facilitate changes and help for children struggling with learning success. He answered questions and offered suggestions for behavior, diet, vision, auditory learning, leadership, math, reading and writing interventions and helped us create a network of teachers, principals and parents across the state to dialogue with and help solve the larger problems. I encourage you to visit his website. I think you will find his research sound and find a real advocate for all children. Gail
Mon, 06/10/2013 - 5:46pm
Gail, Thank for the information, I was not aware of a website. I would like to visit, but don't see in the article. Could you share it. Mr. Sornson makes a very emotion evoking appeal, about 'quality' and 'beauty, espcially the “One more, pleeease” she asks when he finishes." He seemed to avoid anything tangible or relatable. It is quite probable that I have misinterpreted Mr. Sornson views. However, I only have this commentary to go by and I don't see anything that suggest any recognition of people who have succeeded without being involved in programs that Mr. Sornson is a proponent of or interest in the reasons for those successes. I don't see his suggesting any type of accountability for those programs (at least to me that seems to be one of the reasons the current system is failing), tangible things for people to try to relate to, or something about the children's roles in their learning. Even what you mention from your experiences don't reference any of these things. You mention leadership and vision which again are left to the reader to conjure up what they mean. I will offer to you that before a vision is created there has to be a purpose and describe in specifics so people can use to determine if their efforts will help to achieve it. Learning sounds like a good purpose, but does it mean simply the presentation of skills such as reading and numbers, does it mean a certain level of proficiency in those skills, does it me the ability of apply those skills ate the next level, in everyday live? From what Mr. Sornson has written here, I apologize for saying this, but he is simply a voice like all the others who simply have 'good intentions' so they can spend other people's money.
Wed, 06/12/2013 - 10:59am
My district began working with Dr. Sornson many years ago. We have tracked our first group in the Early Learning Success Initiative until they took our state test in third grade. Our scores have greatly improved from below 50% proficient and advanced to 84% in reading and 90% in math. Dr. Sornson has the needs of children first on his heart and is definitely willing to talk strategies. He is wants to bring about change in our approach to education. So many times a school system spends money on fixing the problems that are happening and they forget to be proactive. We are definitely proactive in helping our students. Our number of Special service referrals are down, too! Some contact information for Dr. Sornson: and check out Teaching is fun! The data I gather helps me truly know the needs of every child in my room and I am better prepared to discuss the successes and challenges of a child's progress with their parent, the administrator, or the intervention case manager. Let me emphasize that teaching it fun and the students have fun learning!
Wed, 06/12/2013 - 5:14pm
Karen, Thank you for the link. I used the link and went as deep as 'Cracking the Behavior Code' looking for something that talks about the childs role in learning, about the students expectations, about the means, and in the case of behavior about how the child can set their own behavioirs, provide their own feedback. I was hoping some discussion of learning from the childs presepective, their role, and why some succeed and others fail. There is no question in role that teachers have in presenting the information and skills, the parent in supplementing the teachers work. However, it seems that no matter what they do if the child doesn't want to learn the best efforts of the teachers, parents, and others will fail. Where should I be looking to get information about the students role and what they need to have to succeed? Thank you again for the link. As for the Email address, I am not knowledgeable enough in childhood education to ask an informed question.
Fri, 06/21/2013 - 12:12am
Dr. Sornson comes from a special education background and could easily answer your question. The children in my class learn by using hands on manipulatives and games to learn. The reluctant student learn without struggling when given games, centers, and activities at the instructional level. Most reluctant students have a weakness and needs to feel successful by working on their own level and not above that level. Dr. Sornson has identify about 30 essential skills for each grade level. You may want to question him about the essential skills. Remember they are essential and once the students can master those don't forget the other common core standards. However, you will see the essential skills fit right into the common core standards and are truly a must for children to understand before becoming a successful student. Learning must be fun and at each child's instructional level.