There was great energy and excitement about a year ago when President Barack Obama appeared poised to make early-childhood education one of his top priorities. A lot has changed, however, and Education Week takes a look at what happened in a collaboration with the Hechinger Report.
“The excitement has cooled a bit,” Education Week wrote. “President Obama’s historic remaking of the country’s health-care system and the related measure overhauling student loans last month ultimately failed to include money for his proposed Early Learning Challenge Fund, which would have provided competitive grants to help states both create and improve the quality of services for at-risk children from birth to age 5.”
The story takes a look at what advocates for early childhood education hope will happen next.
Teacher preparation is high on the list of top qualities for pre-kindergarten teachers, so it was interesting to see a story highlighting one state’s efforts to improve its teaching force.
Turns out Nevada developed licensing requirements for teaching students from birth through kindergarten in 2005. The spotlight on Nevada comes at a time when pre-k advocates are noting that any success in kindergarten can be enhanced by the education that comes beforehand.
“Having educated, prepared teachers is the single most important factor of having pre-K quality,” Marci Young, project director of Pre-K Now, is quoted saying in the Reno Gazette-Journal.
The story followed a Pew Institute report that advocates raising the salaries of pre-k educators and providing both uniform training and measures to retain teachers.
According to Education Week coverage of the report: “Teachers with bachelor’s degrees and specialized training in early education are more effective than those educators who don’t hold such credentials. In other words, it’s not enough to be good with kids or to like working with them; teachers benefit from specific training,” the Education Week story noted.
The report also found that states vary widely when it comes to how much training is required of early childhood teachers — some require only high school.
What makes Nevada stand out? The state requires a bachelor’s degree and early childhood education certificate or endorsement, and has a federally funded grant of $3 million to help train its pre-k teachers.
It would be interesting to spend time in classrooms there and observe the trained teachers. What have they learned, and how are the children doing once they get to kindergarten? Do the children respond differently to a better trained teacher? What does the training consist of and how does it build a better teacher?
What kind of a difference can high-quality pre-school make in the lives of the poorest and most disadvantaged children? This is no small question. EarlyStories poses the concept as a reminder of what journalists must keep in mind at a time when President Barack Obama is pushing an expansion as part of his broader education agenda.
Educator and author Gordon MacInnes lays out lessons on the difference a federal role can make by examining what happened in high-poverty New Jersey school districts that have shown significant improvement by focusing on early literacy. His piece in Education Week describes how borrowing the practices of an intensive early literacy program in pre-school has led to improvements that can be seen all the way through eighth grade.
MacInnes, who devoted four decades to government service and leadership on issues related to education, poverty, and urban living is also realistic about the obstacles of establishing successful pre-school programs. Those obstacles and the political and financial fights are often the focus of media coverage.
“Expanding high-quality preschool opportunities is a much more complicated endeavor than it may at first appear,” MacInnes writes. “Two major obstacles are usually overlooked: The leadership in many urban districts does not accept the connection between a quality preschool opportunity and stronger literacy; and early-childhood education is still a stepchild in most universities, state education departments, and district headquarters.”
MacInnes’ remarks open the door for many questions to be asked of school superintendents, even though journalists who cover K-12 school systems don’t tend to focus on pre-school, unless there is a battle involved. Why nost ask superintendents exactly how they view the importance of pre-school and what connection they see to achievement later on? In districts with established programs, is anyone studying how students do later on or tracking the difference in achievement between those who have been in pre-school vs. those who have not?
Finally, if program claims that it has successfully improved early literacy, what is the evidence beyond test scores? What do successful early literacy programs look like in action? What is the curriculum, what books are used and how are the teachers being trained? What are the expectations for the children?
New Jersey journalists are likely to have taken on many of these questions while covering Abbott v. Burke, the nation’s most prescriptive and sweeping state supreme court ruling on school finance. MacInnes served from 2002 to April 2007 as assistant commissioner for Abbott Implementation for the New Jersey Department of Education, so he’s clearly familiar with what went wrong and right in the quest to improve academic achievement in the state’s poorest cities.His piece this week poses larger questions that are relevant to coverage of this issue nationally, especially as it becomes a priority in the Obama administration.
When George Bush became president in 2001 he championed programs that emphasized the importance of paying systematic and explicit attention to teaching children that words were composed of sounds, letters represented those sounds, and that facility with the relationship between letters, sounds and words enabled children to “decode” new words. Decoding, it was asserted, had been neglected in favor of whole language strategies that de-emphasized the acquisition of discreet skills. Decoding was never meant to be the whole meal. Rather, it was to be just one part of a healthy diet of literacy instruction that included attention to vocabulary development, oral language, reading fluency, comprehension, writing. (It seems so quaint and somehow sad, given all that’s happened since September 2001, that Bush was reading a story to first graders to promote his education agenda when the first plane hit the World Trade Center.)
As President-elect Obama takes office a new conventional wisdom is emerging from progressives: kids have been drilled on letter sounds for eight years in an attempt to boost test scores. Thinking and understanding have been neglected. “Reading First,” the $1 billion a year federal program to support comprehensive reading instruction, has failed because it overemphasized skills. Bubbling in sample tests has replaced learning to read real stories.
Journalists need to be wary about being swept up in what I think may become a rancorous post-hoc critique of reading instruction in the Bush years. As journalists, pundits and policymakers struggle to make sense out of the many Bush administration failures, it will be tempting to add reading instruction to the list. It is important, however, to be skeptical about how much has actually changed instructionally. Is it credible to think that teaching in first grade classrooms across the vast and decentralized non-system of American public education really was transformed–and not for the better–in only seven years? (Louis V. Gerstner, the former CEO of IBM and a longtime laborer in the vineyard of education reform argued in this Wall Street Journal piece this week that the U.S. should do a massive consolidation to reduce the number of school districts to only 70 school districts, so that change can come more quickly.) If scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress are any guide nothing much is different.
These musings were prompted by two articles in this week’s excellent edition of “Education Week.” On the bus this morning I read television journalist
/”> John Merrow’s back page commentary on his impressions of approaches to early literacy in New Orleans elementary schools. (You have to subscribe to read it online but here is a link to a transcript of related program he did.) Merrow highlights first grade classrooms where children not only read the words, they understand them, certainly a good outcome. He asserts that his visits show children do not (italics his) need more decoding drills and says that “that they get too much now” because of the over-emphasis on testing. The implication is that NCLB is at fault here. But I suspect the reality is that early reading teaching in most classrooms today looks a lot like it has for decades.
What we know from research is that teachers should be paying attention to skills, oral language development, vocabulary, fluency, comprehension, writing–the whole gamut–from preschool on. Real reading, discussion, and thoughtful attention to the characteristics of words should be a daily occurrence. As with the example in Merrow’s piece, even beginning readers can take a critical stance toward what they read and question its accuracy and meaning. This is not easy for students or for their teachers.. Merrow is certainly right when he says that teachers’ attitudes about their students’ capacity to engage in these high level literacy activities is important. But it’s also critical that teachers know how to make this happen. Caring and trying different approaches, while positive, is not enough.
That brings me to the other piece in Ed Week, the cover story on a new evaluation of the effects of Reading First. The research could not find evidence that the program improved students’ comprehension. Most of the article dealt with the limits of the research. But I predict that it will be used by some to argue that too much attention has been paid to phonics. Journalists should be wary of getting involved in the back and forth over that question. Instead, they should seek out excellent first grade teachers and get a first-hand look at what kids can do with reading when they’re well taught by well-trained teachers who know the research on literacy acquisition.. That’s what Merrow did.
Linda Jacobson has a story in this week’s Education Week highlighting new research on a problem that rarely gets mentioned: chronic absenteeism in early elementary school. The study by the National Center for Children in Poverty here at Columbia University shows a correlation between missing school starting in kindergarten and poor academic achievement throughout elementary school and into middle school. The study, “Present, Engaged, and Accounted For,” is not yet up at the NCCP Web site. But here’s a page on that site that collects the center’s earlier work on absenteeism.
This study tees up a number of good September stories for journalists. I recall seeing a newspaper story or a research study a few years ago that reported on a phenomenon I’d never thought about before: elementary school children who drift into school days or even weeks late. (I tried to locate it on the Web but couldn’t. If I recall right, it was datelined CHICAGO) Parents stressed by poverty, drugs, alcohol, their own youth, language differences, or frequently changing residences may not see getting kids off to a good start on the first day of school as such a high priority. This would be a perfect time to get out to some elementary schools in urban or poor rural communities and ask to see how the enrollment numbers changed during the first month. Then ask to see the attendance numbers. Follow up some interviews of teachers, the principal, parents and ask the district superintendent what is being done to reduce the problem. The new study provides the perfect hook.
Education Week’s Linda Jacobson offers a well-reported, thoughtful roundup of the issues facing Head Start. [free registration required] Journalists in states where state-funded pre-kindergarten is expanding should set this aside electronically or in hard copy as a reference document and story list. How is the expansion of pre-k creating competition for Head Start? What is the culture clash in Head Start centers that also receive state money? [Hint: preschool teachers have to be persuaded to brush the teeth of four-year-olds.] Is the expansion of state pre-k causing greater racial and economic isolation in Head Starts? Is gentrification in cities undermining Head Start programs? Are Head Start programs failing to serve children speaking Spanish, African languages, Asian languages? No shortage of good stories.