The state of New Jersey is funding a third effort to replicate Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone, this time in Paterson. Already, the state had put money behind two partnerships between the HCZ and groups in Newark and Camden.
Last fall, the Newark and Camden groups visited the HCZ, which is intended to provide a cradle to college support system for poor kids through social and health services and two charter schools that serve as the anchor institutions. The Paterson project sounds like it will be the same arrangement.
It’s a nice idea, but a Wall Street Journal blog post about the new partnership also points out the pitfalls:
“…Efforts to duplicate the success in Harlem have not come easy.
“We have an absolutely brutal track record of trying to replicate these things,” said Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Hess said Canada’s personal ties allowed him to take advantage of existing social programs, tie them together and raise money.”
Newark has recently benefited from a windfall donated by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, so maybe other private donors will be attracted to the city. Camden and Paterson have not been so lucky, however, so we’ll be watching to see how successful their efforts are without large private donations.
The fact that the state is stepping in to fund these projects is interesting though, considering the Obama administration’s similar effort in the form of his Promise Neighborhood initiative. Congress cut significantly the money for the federal effort, but perhaps other states will follow New Jersey’s lead and find some cash for similar projects even as they try to bail themselves out of the financial crisis.
So a lot of people have had a lot to say on Amy Chua’s “Chinese Mother” manifesto published in the Wall Street Journal this month, but I have been most intrigued by the response in today’s David Brooks column. He argues that sleepovers, which Chua forbid her two daughters to attend, are actually much more “cognitively demanding” on children than mastering a difficult piano piece.
Brooks writes: “Chua would do better to see the classroom as a cognitive break from the truly arduous tests of childhood. Where do they learn how to manage people? Where do they learn to construct and manipulate metaphors? Where do they learn to perceive details of a scene the way a hunter reads a landscape? Where do they learn how to detect their own shortcomings? Where do they learn how to put themselves in others’ minds and anticipate others’ reactions?
“These and a million other skills are imparted by the informal maturity process and are not developed if formal learning monopolizes a child’s time.”
This is a similar argument that early childhood advocates make in favor of preschool and prekindergarten experiences that are rich in play. Play is actually essential to cognitive functioning and other elements of later academic achievement, such as persistence and self-control, according to researchers in this field. Many educators are in fact working to bring this concept into older grades, so that kids don’t go from preschool and kindergarten classrooms organized around child-led center activities straight into desks in straight rows in first, second and third grades and the more rigid, teacher-led education that set up implies.
Chua argues that the Chinese way (see this response by Melinda Liu, a Newsweek reporter based in China, for a take on whether this is really the Chinese way anymore after all) protects children “by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they’re capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits and inner confidence that no one can ever take away.” The counter argument is that “protection” is not actually what they really need to succeed.
Holding children back to repeat a grade in the early primary years costs the state of North Carolina more than $167 million a year. A blog post at North Carolina’s Smart Start highlighting this statistic suggests that a new focus on aligning the curriculum between those early grades could help alleviate those costs by avoiding retention.
Which raises the question of whether retaining students in those early grades is a good or bad thing. The main research on the subject of grade retention (out of Chicago) has found that students who repeat a grade when they’re younger are not harmed. In fact, it’s a strategy that charter schools employ often — many charters hold back large chunks of their kindergarten and first grade students. In the older grades, retention can be a problem, but in the younger grades, it’s not uncommon for parents to push for their children to be held back if it seems they’re not ready for school.
Just how hard should kindergarteners be pushed to learn? For years, the debate has raged about whether kindergarten has become “the new first grade.”
EarlyStories has seen countless studies and articles on the topic, and listened to many arguments about why the new accountability and standards in vogue in education mean that the youngest learners have to quickly acquire academic skills.
But what is lost? In one Queens, New York elementary school, students — and their parents — missed the sand, water, kitchens, tables and dress-up areas that were once part of their classrooms. They’ve been replaced by whiteboards, drill sheets and worksheets on their desks, according to a story in the New York Times.
And so the children took matters into their own hands, and signed a letter asking for more unstructured time, extra recess and a better recess. They got some of what they asked for.
EarlyStories has been debating this topic on radio shows with some great experts, including a piece on the value of movement to the learning and developmental process and another that looked at why children are often burned out by third grade.
So do we bring back the play areas or hit the books hard to keep the U.S. competitive with neighboring countries?
A new report in Education Week‘s annual Quality Counts project looks at the changing landscape for prekindergarten policy across the states and suggests that there is a trend to incorporate PreK into K-12 budgets. The article also recaps an earlier report by PreK-Now, which found that, despite the dire economic situation most states are facing, prekindergarten programs aren’t faring too badly.
There are exceptions: California cut $256 million from its child care program and Arizona chopped its early childhood grant a couple of years ago, although legislators there failed in an attempt to appropriate money for K-12 education from a funding stream meant for PreK.
But elsewhere, prekindergarten is gradually becoming seen as a part of the K-12 system. As Maureen Kelleher writes: “A nascent trend is to include PreK in state K-12 education finance formulas, thus guaranteeing a steadier funding source than annual appropriations—something that proves especially valuable during recessionary times.”
As budgets for PreK get mixed in with K-12, we may see steadier footing for those who are advocating for more alignment between the grades when it comes to standards, curriculum etc.
Still, there are pitfalls in this new trend. Sara Mead has argued that simply extending down the K-12 system is not necessarily a good thing. Recently, she wrote: “The challenge, then, is to think about how to build new systems for educating our youngest children that combine the best feature of the current early childhood system–including parent choice and diverse provision–with the best of the K-12 space–including universal access and reasonable funding levels–all while avoiding replicating the most dysfunctional features of the K-12 system in the [Early Childhood Education] space.”
Then there are the critics who think that turning PreK into a universal mandate is a terrible idea all around.
Beth Hawkins at MinnPost writes about a new rating system for early childhood programs called Parent Aware:
“Ratings, which are issued in the form of zero to five stars, are based on data evaluating programs’ safety records, staff education and opportunities for ongoing training, mechanism for measuring and tracking pre-K learning, the availability of good teaching materials and methods and — drum roll please — family partnerships. (You’re thinking that last one is a given? Clearly you have not tried to find good child care in recent years, or been held captive to mediocre care.)
“It’s about time. Anyone who has tried to find top-notch care for an infant, toddler or preschooler in Minnesota over the last decade surely knows the frustration that is attempting to find space in an affordable program offering care that keeps kids safe and well nourished, but also prepares them to enter kindergarten ready to learn.”
Advocates around the country have campaigned for rating systems to improve quality — it would be interesting to see what the result of such a system is a few years down the line. Will lower-quality preschools be put out of business as parents vote with their feet, or will kids with less savvy parents still fill those classrooms?
NPR has a story today about a new study that trained low-income moms to talk to their babies in order to close the vocabulary gap that begins very early in children. (This is the much-cited gap found in the Hart and Risley study in the 1990s.)
In the study, researchers taught parents to use more words while interacting with their children, and they found that two experiment groups did have more vocabulary-rich interactions with their children than the control group.
Good news, but the story quotes Russ Whitehurst, of Brookings, saying that this sort of intervention is only a beginning:
“If that’s not followed with good stimulation in school with continued positive parent interactions, if that experience is not built on, it’s not likely to have an enduring effect,” Whitehurst says.
A recent BAM Radio podcast discussion on the appropriateness of state standards for kindergartners got somewhat heated at points between Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, and Edward Miller, at the Alliance for Childhood. The point of contention: Are standards necessary to create a guide for teachers on what kids should know by the end of kindergarten, or do they threaten to squash all the joy and educationally important play that traditionally goes on at this age level?
Weingarten was on the side of standards. “What we’re trying to do is create some equity here,” she said, noting that wealthier kids tend to get the constant exposure to numbers and letters at home that poorer children often do not. “Helping kids learn how to count in kinderaten is not a bad thing.”
Miller was adamant that the standards have the potential to drain kindergarten of all the fun — fun being a key way that children learn at that age. “The teaching of specific skills like counting to a certain number or being able to read a certain number of words really has no relationship to later success in school,” he said.
We’ve written about this issue before on our blog, but this discussion, which also included Lisa Guernsey of the New America Foundation, dug into a deeper point that will become more pressing as the standards are implemented in the now 44 states that have adopted them: How to help teachers implement them appropriately, so that kindergarten teachers aren’t doing “drill and kill” on the alphabet and the numbers up to 100? We’ll be watching for reports this year on how that is going.
The achievement gap is alive and well in New Jersey. New numbers out yesterday show that more than half of African American and Hispanic third graders failed the state reading tests.
The Bergen Record quotes Jessica Donaldson, who helped write Early Warning! Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters: “Third-grade reading is a milestone, and if kids miss that milestone, it puts them on a trajectory for poor academic and life outcomes.” To be more specific, not reading well by third grade often puts kids on track to drop out of high school.
The state has actually made significant progress in the past years, at least when compared with others. This most recent test is new, and can’t be compared to previous years, but in recent years some districts have made great leaps in minority achievement in the early grades on the state tests, and on NAEP, the state is cutting the difference between black and white fourth grade reading scores faster than most other states.
New Jersey has been working on these improvements for years, with its intensive state-funded preschool program in the poorest districts and a recent effort to align preschool with the primary school years in a handful of districts.
Still, these new numbers are a wake-up call. They recall the flair-up in Massachusetts — the country’s top scoring state on NAEP — over the summer after a report came out highlighting the large number of third graders lagging behind, despite how well the state does in comparison to others. Massachusetts and New Jersey may be the best in the nation when it comes to getting kids reading on time, but the best doesn’t mean great.
An interesting bit of news out of Utah: The state is now requiring that schools test the reading proficiency of students from first to third grade.
From the Park City Record: “To combat the growing number of Utah students who do not read at grade-level, almost 25 percent state-wide, legislators passed Senate Bill 150 last year to make teachers and administrators more accountable for their students. Now that the bill is in effect, each school across the state will be administering a test to measure reading proficiency among students in first- through third-grade.
“Utah schools will take the first two weeks in January to distribute the test and will need to provide a list of students who are not reading at grade-level to the State Office of Education before the end of January. Districts will also need to notify parents whose children are reading below grade-level.”
It’s not unusual, of course, for schools to test their students at these ages and even younger using internal assessments and the schools will be using DIBELS, a test used in thousands of schools around the country to track the literacy levels of young students. State testing for accountability purposes usually doesn’t start until second or third grade in many states, however.
Tracking whether students are on course to be reading fluently by third grade is an important goal (after that, the consensus is, students must read well in order to do the work in all of their subjects, not just English language arts). But it will be interesting to see how the state uses the tests for “accountability,” a term that has become fraught in states that are using state tests to judge teacher performance, among other things.