What Matters in Early Childhood Education

teacher-590109_1280It is no secret that early childhood is important, under staffed, and under enrolled.  Where do you start in recommending improvements in standards and staffing?  How is quality measured?  Which are the most critical priorities to improve care?  The Florida Association for the Education of Young Children did a survey.  We also compiled some legislative initiatives.

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PreK to Third Grade: To Play or Not to Play?

baby-84626_1280Should we test babies?  How else do you get the message across about the importance of preschool for brain development?  Even if you do test toddlers, there is disagreement over what to do about delayed development.  Some researchers argue persuasively that instructive play is the most effective strategy.  Others focus on the need to develop language skills in prescriptive ways.  Regardless of philosophy, where this learning occurs matters.

The Center for American Progress report  Examining Quality Across the Pre-school to Third Grade Continuum finds that gaps in learning are apparent at nine months and significant gaps are noticeable at 24 months.  By kindergarten , forty-eight percent of poor children meet school readiness levels while 75% of moderate to high income children are ready.  Children from low income families do attend preschools, but a study of these schools revealed quality gaps.

Five types of programs were evaluated using a 7 point scale from the Early Childhood Ratings-Revised.   The study found that access to high quality early childhood education is limited and varies by type and by racial and socio-economic background.  On average, all programs were above the minimal quality level (rating of 3).  None of the programs, however, achieved an average rating of five to qualify as ‘good quality’.

Even within the same type of program, there is a range of quality.  For example, the quality of Head Start programs for blacks on average, tends to be of much lower than for Head Start centers which enroll primarily white or Hispanic children.

  • public school centers (4.64)
  • private school (4.33)
  • child care centers (4.20)
  • Head Start programs (4.85)
  • Preschool and nursery programs (4.58).

The classroom experiences of children from preschool to grade 3 differ.  Children from low income families and children of color are less likely to receive instruction in crucial literacy and numeracy skills.  In order to close achievement gaps in the early grades, preschoolers need support to develop not only basic skills but also appropriate higher order thinking and problem solving skills.  In early elementary grades–kindergarten through second grade teachers appear to spend less time developing the higher order thinking skills that are critical for school success.

“By the end of kindergarten, children are expected to gain knowledge in letters, print recognition and phoneme awareness, recognize words, begin to read, spell, and write; and demonstrate increased vocabulary and knowledge of the world.” 

The report concludes that “Academic skills alone may not help students develop the skills they need …Standards such as sharing, self control and building relationships with peers and adults have generally been left out for elementary, middle and high school students”. 

The solutions are obvious but not easy.  Children from deprived backgrounds need access to high quality early education.  This will require greater investments at federal, state, and local levels.  Standards should be aligned and include consistent metrics and data systems to track access to quality between preschool and third grade.  Teacher preparation programs and professional development programs must incorporate information about children’s development in all domains to support higher order skill building.

The debate in the media challenges the critical thinking and problem solving standards introduced through the Common Core.  Supporters, however, decry the limitations of didactic teaching and learning strategies.  The operative words are ‘what children should know and be able to do’.  Not all children may reach any given standard, but the objectives for instruction and access to quality must be clear.  Instructional strategies will and should vary.  Teacher preparation and development programs must focus on teachers’ content knowledge, developing effective problem solving and and higher order skills teaching strategies along with the methods to  develop the social and emotional skills children need to be successful.

The problems are obvious.  The learning goals are clear.  What is missing are consensus and commitment.  Change must be possible without imposing arbitrary standards and punitive measures.  A commitment to changes in funding priorities at federal, state, and local levels must be made.   If parents believed that a coherent strategy, well implemented was possible, their suspicions about the intrusive collection of data on children and the profiteering motives related to private sector involvement in curriculum and assessment might diminish.

 

Florida Gets an ‘F’ Again

FAILED1Which states get it right?  Not Florida.  It was one of eight states that received an overall grade of ‘F’ when its grades were averaged across the categories studied.   The Network for Public Education rated states based on six criteria.

For each category, I combined the percentages of A, B and C grades received across states.  I was surprised at the results.  Relatively few states (11) use test scores to punish students and teachers, but Florida is one of those that do.  You can see the combined percentages (think of them as passing scores) at the end of each of the criteria.

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Equity: For each and every child

board-1065698_1280 (1)Equity means providing resources, not just equally, but adequately for all children to succeed.   There is no ‘one size fits all’ curriculum.  Yet, there is a tension between providing opportunity for all students, regardless of their backgrounds, and the efficient allocation of limited resources.  School choice was supposed to give better options, but too often, the choices are no different and ineffective.

The Citizens for Strong Schools lawsuit in Florida is about equity, but this is also a national issue.  I found a blue ribbon panel report that addresses equity and provides direction for educational policy.

In time, Florida may be required to focus on these six directions.  They give us a vision of what could be.

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How to Fix Failing Schools and How Not To

directory-466935_1280The League asked the Florida State Board of Education:  “What Next?”    What should be happening to fix problems, not just point fingers?

The New York Times published some solutions that are working in Union City, New Jersey.  Note that it is not Newark, New Jersey where big money and celebrities tried to impose charter school solutions. Less hoopla and more methodical, careful community planning make a difference in Union City.  See how.

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Kindergarten Achievement Gap

teacher-590109_1280Family income and student achievement rise together.  You know that.  The Economic Policy Institute published its top graphs of 2015 showing it once again, but one chart focuses just on preschool.

If you compare kindergarten readiness for the lowest income groups to the highest, there is a full standard deviation difference.  I wondered how many children were in the lowest groups, and how much money it would take to improve preschool education.

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LWV New Mexico Focuses on Strategies for Academic Success

by Meredith Machen, LWV New Mexico

nm2Meredith Machen, President of the New Mexico League, has just won The New Mexican 10 Who Made a Difference award for 2015.  She sends us their LWVNM positions and strategies to support public education.

This could not be more timely.  Here in Florida, we are working on a similar statement.  It is easier to criticize the many shortcomings of current education policy than it is to formulate workable strategies, but New Mexico has set a high standard.  They address many current problems in constructive ways.

The LWV-Florida is compiling strategies from other state leagues as well.  Send us yours.

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Congress Conference Committee Resolving Differences on Education Bill

dmbtestYou can watch the conference committee in action yesterday and today.  The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) looks  to be headed for passage.  The bill is now called: S. 1177  Every Child Achieves Act.  Basically, the bill will strip the punitive aspects of Race to the  Top such as teacher evaluations based on test scores and take overs of struggling schools.  Annual testing, however, remains.

While Common Core may not be mandated, most states already have developed tests to measure the standards or are using the two national tests.

The brief discussion of testing acknowledged concern about over the impact of testing and will encourage states to enact limits.  The committee members, however, stated that federal testing requirements were not the problem.  The problem was the use of test scores for accountability.  The authority for how test scores will be used is returned to the states.  This does not mean that currently mandated accountability systems for grading teachers, schools, and districts are gone.  They just are not federally mandated.

Remember that the Florida legislature stated that its tests were not the problem, the problem was over testing in the districts.  Districts state that the amount of testing is due to the requirements to use scores for teacher evaluations.  Florida’s 2016 legislative session could be interesting.  Annual testing will not disappear.  How scores are used could change.

I watched today.   Some amendments were approved by both the House and Senate committee members that are of particular interest were approved:

Rep. Thompson:  Study Title I funding formulas

Sen. Enzi: Study early childhood program overlap

Rep. Bonamici: Include arts and interdisciplinary course content in Title IV STEM programs

Sen. Bennett:  Place caps on the amount of testing time required

There were a few other amendments related to teacher training for the appropriate use of student data and extending dual enrollment for ELL students.

 

 

 

Arne Duncan Visits S. Pinellas Failure Factories

FAILED1 South Pinellas schools are a civil rights problem said Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education.  The Tampa Bay Times series ‘Failure Factories’ on the five schools seemingly abandoned by the district received national attention.  Secretary Duncan, his heir apparent, John King, U.S. Representative Kathy Castor met with parents and district officials yesterday.

Duncan said that the children were not failures, but the adults had failed the children.  They praised the efforts of the current superintendent to improve the schools, but much is yet to be done.  Duncan acknowledged that there were ‘tremendous unmet needs’ for family services and early childhood education.  A parent called for after school services and more experienced, quality teachers.

What happens next remains to be seen.  The Florida Department of Education is investigating whether or not their has been misuse of federal Title I funds designated for children from poor families.

Even though some progress has been made under the direction of the current superintendent,  the schools cannot solve the impact of their neglect by themselves.  The solution to the problems at the schools will require intensive community involvement.  Yet, only two school board members attended the event.  The Chair of the board said she was not invited. One former parent simply called the event a ‘press conference’.  Let’s hope it was more than that.

You can watch the video and read the Tampa Bay article here.