A child-advocacy group called the Alliance for Childhood recently released a white paper with a head-turning title: "Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School." A press release accompanying the report carries the dramatic headline: "Kindergarten Playtime Disappears, Raising Alarm on Children's Learning and Health."
The report is right to raise the profile of playtime. We agree that it is time to talk seriously about how to ensure that early childhood teachers allow children some much-needed time for active, child-centered play. Through workshops and professional development programs, teachers should be trained in methods that give children space and time to launch themselves into pretend-play scenarios around, say, a make-believe hospital or space shuttle. Kindergarteners need time to figure out for themselves why a block tower won't stand up or whether their kite will fly.
A recent article about the 4th grade reading slump, in Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, features a blueprint for change built on a provocative premise. The authors argue that instead of banning, disdaining or simply ignoring digital media in the classroom, educators should be emboldened -- and supported -- to use as much of it as they can.
The article, "TV Guidance," was written by James Paul Gee, a literacy professor at Arizona State University and Michael Levine, executive director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop and a senior associate at Yale University's Zigler Center. They write:
"Current literacy practices and policies have cost tens of billions of dollars over the past decade with almost no integration of the new digital tools and teaching practices that have the potential to build the skills and knowledge demanded by universities and employers in the twenty-first century."
The 111th Congress will have numerous opportunities to enact policies that improve access, quality, efficiency, and alignment in early education, including the economic stimulus package currently being debated in Congress and the scheduled reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), also known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). A new issue brief from New America's Early Education Initiative proposes 10 new policy ideas to improve access, quality, and alignment in early education from preschool through the early elementary school years:
Over the weekend, a group of Senators looking to forge compromise on the stimulus bill put together an amended version that would would significantly cut funding for education programs, relative to both the House-passed stimulus bill and the committee-passed version of the Senate stimulus bill. Here's a run-down of funding for key early education programs in the House, Senate committee, and proposed Senate compromise versions of the bill:
If accepted, the amended Senate version would cut education spending in the stimulus package by more than $60 billion, including significant reductions in the amount of funding provided for early education programs. Specifically, it cuts funding for Head Start and Early Head Start by over $1 billion, and it completely eliminates funding for school construction and renovation--which states and local school districts desperately need in order to expand access to high-quality early education programs.
As states and the federal government seek to expand access to high-quality pre-k programs, developing a stronger understanding of the value and nature of quality pre-k curriculum is essential to the success of these efforts.Of all the elements of high-quality pre-kindergarten programs, quality curriculum may be the most difficult for policymakers, practitioners, and parents to come to terms with. It’s intuitively obvious that quality pre-k programs should have small class sizes and qualified teachers, for example. And, while there’s some debate about what exactly we should require of qualified pre-k teachers, the most common metrics, such as whether or not teachers have a bachelor’s degree or the appropriate teacher certification to work with young children, are based on objective credentials that are relatively easy to measure. What we mean by a quality curriculum, however, is a more challenging question.
A new report from the Foundation for Child Development debunks three common school reform myths that undermine efforts to improve schooling in the early elementary school years:
Myth 1: Elementary Schools Are Just Fine; Problems Begin Later. A widespread perception that elementary schools are doing fine, thanks, or that school reformers have already "fixed" elementary schools, has led many advocates and policymakers to focus on middle- and high-school reforms, to the exclusion of elementary shcools. To be sure, our middle and high schools are in need of reforms. But reforms that focus on the middle and high school years alone are being built on a very shaky foundation. Evidence from the National Assessment of Educational Progress and other research shows that a major reason our middle and high schools struggle is that too many children arrive in middle and high school without the skills or knowledge they need to tackle the middle and high school curriculum, due to the poor quality of education in many elementary schools. Thus, any effort to improve the results of our middle and high schools must be accompanied by reforms that improve our elementary schools to ensure all students enter middle school with a solid academic foundation.
Every year, the publisher of Education Week releases a detailed report on trends and progress in K-12 education, giving grades to each state. The report, "Quality Counts," provides reams of data in areas as varied as kindergarten enrollment levels and spending ratios per pupil. This year it also includes an excellent series of articles and analysis on students with limited English skills and how schools are absorbing them.
The first headlines about the report have focused on which states are bringing home the A's and B's, and which ones are nearly flunking out. Maryland tops the list with an overall score of 84.7, while Washington D.C. brings up the rear, with a weak 68.3.
But to really get a handle on what these scores mean, you have to dig in and look at what they measure. Not surprisingly, we wanted to zoom in on categories related to early childhood and the early elementary grades. What might this data be able to tell us, we wondered, about how particular states stack up in various early education categories?
Miami-Dade County, the nation's fourth largest school district, offers a compelling example of how school district leaders can and must incorporate high-quality early education into their broader school reform and improvement. Spearheaded by Superintendent Alberto Carvalho and supported by a host of local and national partner organizations, Ready Schools Miami connects high-quality pre-k programs with improved kindergarten and early elementary school programs to create an aligned, high-quality pre-k through third grade continuum designed to ensure children exit third grade with a solid foundation in the academic and other skills they need to succeed in the later elementary, middle and high school years. Ready Schools Miami is also linked with quality childcare and other initiatives aimed at improving early learning and development for children even before the early elementary years.
The holidays have given me some time to finally read through the Five-Year Action Plan for the District of Columbia Public Schools that Chancellor Michelle Rhee released in late October. (Yes, I know, I'm clearly a girl who knows how to have a fun holiday season.) (Yes, I know, I should have gotten to it sooner.)
There's a lot of good stuff in there, but one glaring omission that really troubled me: A total lack of attention to early education. The word "preschool" appears exactly once in the document, as part of a series of early education programs given a passing mention in a section dealing with parental engagement. Pre-kindergarten or early childhood education? Not a mention. Kindergarten? Nope. On the upside, early literacy does get mentioned twice, and Rhee is proposing a solid, research-based approach to early literacy, including increased use of tiered interventions for struggling readers.
I tackle the question in today's Washington Times:
Advocates for early childhood education are understandably excited about their prospects under President-elect Barack Obama's administration. During the campaign, Mr. Obama pledged to increase federal early education spending by $10 billion annually.
Currently, the two largest federal early childhood programs, Head Start and the Child Care and Development Block Grant, spend about $12 billion annually combined. A $10 billion increase would almost double that investment.
Just as remarkably, Mr. Obama deliberately singled out early education as an important investment he would prioritize even in tight economic times. Add in a potentially $1 trillion economic stimulus package that's raising the prospects for even previously inconceivable public investments, and advocates are downright giddy.
It seems terribly Grinch-like to throw cold water on these hopes. But in fact this is a dangerous moment for both Mr. Obama and the early education movement.