Preschool Education Reform in America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation (or What I Learned from Fox Business News about Preschool)

February 19, 2010

I think I saw the “Borat” guy again on TV last night (Fox Business News). He cracks me up. This time he called himself “Stossel.” His fake reporter routine never gets old. You would think after the movie everyone would recognize him, even with the name change, or that his corkscrew logic and misinterpretations would tip people off. Last night he told the audience: “government schools” are basically jailing American children, students in Kazakhstan outscore those in the U.S., and highly-quality private education can be bought for a $1. How can we get U.S. of A. children out of jail he asked? His answer: close government schools, cut taxes, and have poor children go to charity schools, oh, and throw the unions down the well. Stossel thinks this would have happened except that some guy in Massachusetts tricked people into creating government schools (don’t look at Massachusetts test scores in the international test comparison studies, it messes up the argument). OK, he said, people probably won’t do that, but let’s have competition, that will solve all our educational problems anyway.

Stossel also jumped on the latest Head Start national impact study to report that taxpayers have gotten nothing from the $165 billion spent on that program over 40 years. That is not what the study finds, but he’s not about to acknowledge that children and taxpayers may have gotten something for their money, if less than they hoped. Nor is he going to report that Head Start’s test score gains compare poorly with those of government preschools that employ well-paid, highly educated teachers. That’s not how this fake reporter thing works. Instead, he managed to get the National Head Start Association’s Ron Herndon to blame public school failure for the fact that comparison children catch up to those who went to Head Start by the end of kindergarten. Never mind that the study found public kindergarten accelerated learning rates in literacy and math and gave enough of a boost to all of the children to eliminate Head Start’s modest gains.

The key to the fake reporter shtick is to take something that makes sense—like competition leads to better results—and then step by step distort things until you end up with a ridiculous, if not downright offensive conclusion. Competition is a good idea, and American public schools historically engaged in a great deal of competition. I recommend William Fischel’s recent book Making the Grade: The Economic Evolution of American School Districts (University of Chicago Press) to anyone who wants to learn how we got public schools and why local school districts are valuable. Along the way you can learn why we have a summer vacation, which has nothing to do with our agrarian past. My reading of the book suggests that breaking up large urban districts into smaller neighborhood districts would be a much better way to create competition than vouchers (they won’t work, read the book).

The preschool world could take the lead from New Jersey’s Abbott Preschool Program and encourage school districts to contract with multiple private providers for as many students as parents choose to send to them, so long as the providers meet high standards for teaching and learning. In small districts this might be unnecessary and inefficient, but in large districts there could be considerable improvements in preschool education. Head Start should consider using competition in a similar way. To facilitate competition Head Start should:
• Prune the Head Start Performance Standards down to a very small list to give programs more freedom to innovate;
• Focus more on measuring learning and teaching using external as well as internal observers and with grantees implementing a continuous improvement cycle;
• Give parents information on provider performance on learning and teaching;
• Grantees, at least in densely populated areas, should contract with private providers who compete to serve Head Start parents and children; and
• Fire programs that don’t perform (however, giving parents information on learning and teaching is likely to make that rare).

Honestly, it is not as ridiculous as that guy on Fox, whoever he really is, made it sound. It is not a panacea, but it would help us provide children with the education they deserve.

Steve Barnett
Co-Director, NIEER

Bringing Science to Pre-K: Rutgers Researchers Write the Book

February 12, 2010

“What do you predict we will find inside here?” Kimberly Brenneman asks the preschoolers gathered around her as they consider the coconut she is holding. This isn’t your everyday show and tell. Dr. Brenneman, an assistant research professor at Rutgers’ Department of Psychology, as well as NIEER, is engaging the kids in a line of scientific inquiry that illustrates a teaching approach known as Preschool Pathways to Science. Called PrePS for short, it contributed to the teaching method used in the popular PBS show Sid the Science Kid. It’s also the title of a new book just out from Brookes Publishing that serves as a guide for implementing science in preschool classrooms.

Brenneman and her co-authors are receiving national attention for Preschool Pathways to Science because it enables teachers to facilitate preschool-age children’s ability to expand their tendencies to explore, ask questions, and think in ways that follow the scientific method. Lead author Dr. Rochel Gelman is director of the Rutgers Center for Cognitive Science and a NIEER scientific advisory board member. Professor Gelman is known for her research on young children’s development of causal and quantitative reasoning, and on learning in informal environments. She says science involves the use of a set of processes to gain understanding about the world of objects and events. By themselves they are unlikely to evolve spontaneously in children and so it’s important to provide opportunities for kids to participate in the kinds of inquiries that contribute to the build-up of scientific knowledge and language.

Gelman and Brenneman have served as advisers to Sid the Science Kid since the show’s inception in 2008. As Brenneman illustrates in a YouTube video, PrePS encourages teachers to use words such as “explore” and “predict” as they engage kids. “Preschool-age kids are surprisingly open to scientific inquiry,” Brenneman says. And that inquiry can be timely. Last October an episode of Sid the Science Kid was devoted to the scientific basis for flu vaccinations.

The impetus for Preschool Pathways to Science began when NASA approached Gay Macdonald of UCLA with a request to help develop science-learning opportunities for a pre-K program serving families at an Air Force Base near Los Angeles. Macdonald turned to Gelman who then was on her advisory board and at UCLA to write the proposal. She and UCLA colleague Moisés Román also are co-authors of the book. Subsequent funding was provided by the National Science Foundation. Gelman elaborates on children’s scientific thinking and PrePS in this Q and A interview from Brookes Publishing.

Rx for President Obama’s Early Learning Budget: Tie it Firmly to Education Reform

February 5, 2010

Although I have long championed a big boost in the federal commitment for early care and education, I have a major concern with the FY 2011 early care and education budget increases President Obama proposed this week. The funding increases the president proposes for FY2011 are, if nothing else, big. They include:

• A $1.6 billion increase in the Child Care and Development Block Grant for a new total of $6.65 billion. That’s the biggest increase that program has seen in decades. Some $800 million of that would not require a state match.
• A $989 million increase for Head Start and Early Head Start, for a new total of $8.2 billion.
• Somewhere in the neighborhood of $9 billion over 10 years for a new Early Learning Challenge Fund (ELCF) that would make competitive grants to states to improve the quality of early learning programs to help children enter kindergarten ready to succeed. (This has not yet passed in the Senate, perhaps because it depends on savings in student loan costs that are being fought by business interests.)
• $450 million for a restructured literacy program the details of which are not yet available.

The President’s commitment to early care and education in tough budget year is admirable. Assuming the Early Learning Challenge Fund passes, we could be looking at a $4 billion expansion of resources in the coming year — and that’s before we take into account the President’s doubling of the child care tax credit! So why am I concerned?

I worry that the new spending will be effective only if it is accompanied by serious reforms. Recent studies find that child care subsidies mostly move children from informal to formal care and have little or no effect on maternal employment. Yet, the quality of subsidized care in the United States is so low that child development may not be improved and might even be harmed. Early Head Start and Head Start produce positive results for children, but are nowhere near good enough. Of course, it doesn’t have to be that way; we can give children better programs.

If child care and Head Start are to receive more money, I would urge it be tied to higher standards, incentives for better performance, and accountability. This is the Obama Administration prescription for education reform (as I read it), and one the ELCF is designed to bring into the birth to five realm. If these new dollars are to be used effectively, the ELCF must be part of the package. And, I would encourage Congress to go even further. Tie new child care and Head Start funds to new requirements for competition, higher standards, accountability. That, combined with rigorous evaluation, can ensure our children truly benefit from these significant new investments.

Steve Barnett
Co-Director, NIEER

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