Early Ed Watch

Bring on the Pain: Chuck Norris on the Home Visitation Plan

Just when you thought that the debate over health care reform couldn't possibly devolve any further, Chuck Norris comes karate-chopping onto the scene.

The "martial arts champ, action star, TV hero, and media phenomenon" has just blogged about "Dirty Secret No. 1 in Obamacare" and the honor goes to the home visitation proposal that provides support to new mothers and their babies. It is, he says, "about the government's coming into homes and usurping parental rights over child care and development."

Funny, we thought it was about giving children every chance to grow up strong and healthy. Last we checked, helping mothers help their children was a pretty universal family value.

Among his remarks: "Children belong to their parents, not the government. And the parents ought to have the right -- and government support -- to parent them without the fed's mandates, education or intervention in our homes."

A Prominent Researcher Asks Some Good, Hard Questions About Playtime

Anthony D. Pellegrini, an educational psychologist at the University of Minnesota, has been studying the whys, whens and hows of children's playtime for decades. He is an authority on recess, helping to remind all of us of why it's crucial for academic and social growth. And he just published a new book, The Role of Play in Human Development, that explores the role of play in our evolution as a species.

So when Pellegrini pens an article titled "Research and Policy on Children's Play," it's time to perk up and pay attention. The piece was just published this month in Child Development Perspectives, a semi-annual journal of the Society for Research in Child Development.

The piece makes two important points. It starts by reminding us that the word "play" needs to be defined more precisely before educators, parents and child development specialists can have a fruitful conversation about what is missing in children's school routines. And it ends by pressing for more research on exactly what kinds of benefits children derive from play at various stages of their young lives.

Book Notes: What Montgomery County Does Right

As regular readers of this blog know, Montgomery County Public Schools has done a good job capturing our attention with its PreK-3rd alignment effort and high-quality early childhood programs. Now a new book, Leading for Equity, argues that Superintendent Jerry Weast's approach to management, which emphasized equity and excellence for all, was the key to success in MCPS.

This substantive but somewhat colorless book was written by three people who specialize in education leadership: Stacey M. Childress and David A. Thomas, who currently teach at Harvard Business School, and Denis P. Doyle, the chief academic officer of SchoolNet, which produces instructional management software.

Jay Mathews at the Washington Post recently skewered the authors for relying too much on education jargon in their analysis of MCPS' success, which they summarized as six lessons. Early Ed Watch helpfully translates for the common man: 1) adopt common, rigorous standards, and differentiate instruction rather than lowering expectations by placing struggling students in lower tracks, 2) focus on critical stages of the K-12 path, especially early childhood and the last years of high school, 3) hold everyone accountable and include everyone in the decision-making process, 4) persuade people of all students' ability to excel by requiring the use of programs that increase student achievement, 5) hire and retain people who believe that minority and low-income students can achieve at a high level and 6) always pursue equity and hold it as a top priority.

James Heckman: Early Intervention Can Make Up for Disadvantages at Home

Nobel-prize winning economist James Heckman has been popping up all over the news this week, first in a Boston Globe article downplaying the significance of IQ, and again yesterday in an interview with NPR. "It's this inequality in early conditions which perpetuates inequality into the next generation and the generation after that," said Heckman on NPR's "Tell Me More."

Heckman believes America is gradually fragmenting into "two societies," one affluent and one impoverished, and the gap in access to high-quality early learning is hastening that development. But early intervention can make the difference. He was quoted in the Boston Globe saying that successful preschool programs give students a boost in non-cognitive skills, like "self-control and grit," that will ultimately lead to success later in life.

Musings on Harry Potter, Sparked by New Findings on Depression in Preschoolers

The first Harry Potter book has become part our family's bedtime reading this summer, and my 7-year-old daughter is even more entranced than I was when the young wizard came into my life at age 29. But in returning to the book now, as a parent, something is gnawing at me about the dear boy: Given what he had to suffer through in his early childhood, how did he manage to come out so well-adjusted?

For deprived adults who haven't read the book, let me explain. Harry spent the first 10 years of his life in a cupboard under the stairs. His parents died suddenly when he was a baby, so he was left to grow up in a house with his aunt, uncle and roly-poly bully of a cousin, Dudley. His aunt and uncle barely paid him any mind, but when they did, their growling responses were always negative. He was, in essence, verbally abused and ignored, not to mention half starved. It was a tough way to grow up. And yet he turned out to not only be a hero, but also a thoughtful, kind and productive person. You wouldn't call Harry happy-go-lucky, but you wouldn't describe him as depressed either.

Yes, I'm being a little facetious. I'm aware that Harry is a charming bit of fiction, at least to us muggles.

But the fact that author J.K. Rowling could endow him with such astounding resilience strikes me as an example of how adults tend to become oblivious to the importance of children's social environments at very young ages.

Senate Committee Advances Appropriations Bill Funding Early Childhood Programs

As Congress determines how to spend federal dollars in the next fiscal year, a significant federal investment in advancing preschoolers’ literacy skills – Early Reading First – appears to be in jeopardy.

On Thursday the Senate Appropriations Committee marked up its version of the fiscal year 2010 Labor-HHS-Education appropriations bill, which includes funding for major federal early childhood programs. Last week, we reported on the House Appropriations Committee’s version of the same legislation.

When it comes to early childhood programs, the two bills have a lot in common. Both would hold funding for the Child Care and Development Block Grant to its fiscal year 2009 level of $2.1 billion, and both would provide a modest $122 million increase in funding for Head Start, raising total Head Start funding to $7.2 million.

Jacqueline Jones -- Former New Jersey Early Childhood Head -- to Advise Duncan on Early Learning

Earlier this week Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced his appointment of several key Department of Education officials, including the selection of Jacqueline Jones as senior adviser to the secretary for early learning. Jones previously served in the New Jersey Department of Education as assistant commissioner for the Division of Early Care and Education.

Fate of Home Visitation Program Is Tied To Health Reform Bill

In May, when President Obama released his budget proposal for fiscal year 2010, he requested funds -- $124 million for the first year -- to create a federal program to send nurses to the homes of low-income women who are pregnant or caring for babies. The idea was to scale up fledgling programs that, according to randomized and controlled studies, improve women's and children's health and well-being and can reduce healthcare costs in the long run.

Home visitation doesn't appear in the Labor-HHS-Education appropriations bill moving through Congress this month; it was proposed to reside on the "mandatory" side of the funding column and therefore not be subject to the year-to-year appropriations process. But it does have a spot -- for the moment at least -- in the massive health-care reform bills being shaped in fits and starts this summer.

On the Move: New Research Explores How Mobility Impacts Achievement Among Younger Students

Last month, researchers gathered at the National Academies of Science to share new research on how often students change schools, why they do it and how becoming "the new kid" can impact their academic achievement, especially in the elementary school years.

In one paper presented at the conference, a team of researchers from the University of Michigan used data from the ECLS-K, a national dataset, to demonstrate that children who change schools between kindergarten and third grade (for reasons other than that the school didn't offer the next grade) perform worse than their peers in reading and math in this period. Negative effects were particularly apparent among special education students and students who moved multiple times in those early elementary school years.

While the impact of mobility on a child's academic achievement should not be overstated (the Michigan study found most impacts to be slightly negative), changing schools is an increasingly common experience among young children.

Ohio Slashes Early Childhood Budget and Eliminates Full-Day Pre-K

The economic crisis exacted one of its biggest casualities on state pre-k programs last week when Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland signed into law a biennial state budget that zeroes out the state's full-day pre-k program and chopped funding for its half-day program by one-third.

The budget also slashed reimbursements for child care providers that serve low-income children, cut back on the number of poor families that can qualify for child care and reduced funding for the state's birth-to-three program by 25 percent.

The Early Learning Initiative, which funds full-day preschool for some 13,000 children, was one of 61 items that Gov. Strickland struck from the budget last week using the power of his line-item veto. The initiative was designed to bring community-based providers into the state's fledgling early education system by providing them with funds to train teachers. In fiscal year 2009 the program received $128 million, and in an observational study published last month, its teachers showed improvement in literacy instruction and classroom management since its launch four years ago.