A First Step, But Common Core Standards Must Meet the “Goldilocks Test”

April 27, 2010

It’s no surprise that the K-12 Common Core State Standards posted for comments by the Center for Best Practices at the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers received plenty of them from early childhood professionals. After all, this effort in standards-making, when complete, will directly impact teaching and curriculum, if used as intended, and clearly affect state policy pertaining to kindergarten and the early grades. If what we know about the way young children learn and what they know isn’t sufficiently taken into account, new standards could also have unintended negative consequences for the preschool years.

From my perspective, the standards are a step in the right direction, but definitely a work in progress. Standards for these grades already exist in every state, and this attempt to have common standards across states can help ensure equality of education for all America’s children. Of course, we have to start somewhere, but by covering only math and literacy as these initial standards do, we run the risk of implying that already neglected subjects like science and social studies aren’t all that important. Many in the early childhood field also worry that omitting social-emotional or pro-social education could be misinterpreted to mean that child growth in these areas is not necessary for later success and not the responsibility of public education.

As should be the case, the common core standards are outcome-focused, listing skills children should have achieved at the end of a given grade level, such as kindergarteners being able to count to 100 or know all of the upper and lower case letters. This focus on discrete skills makes it imperative that: (1) these benchmarks are accurate targets; (2) we ensure teachers know how to teach the skills in appropriate ways; and, (3)  that the child is never blamed for lack of mastery.

That’s not to say we don’t need clear standards. We do — but we need to use the “Goldilocks” test to ensure that the indicators aren’t too prescriptive or too general, but just right for the early years. Some have called for scrapping the standards effort altogether, believing no set of common standards can be drafted that won’t threaten play-based learning or lead to inappropriate teaching practices. Fueling this concern is the fact that the framers start with the aim of “college and career readiness” seemingly without consideration of what we know children entering kindergarten can do.   I don’t believe we should scrap the standards, but I do think that more early childhood experts need to be brought to the table to carefully analyze each outcome and ask:

  • Does it overestimate what children can do at this age based on our best knowledge?
  • Does it underestimate what children can do at this age based on our best knowledge, especially in the context of pre-K standards?
  • Is it too general leading to teachers not knowing how to use it?
  • Is it too specific leading to “a mile wide and an inch deep” curriculum?

The fact that 48 states have signed on to the common core standards effort is testimony that we have gone far too long without clear common standards to guide teaching.  A number of early childhood professionals have weighed in with constructive suggestions and the NAEYC and NAECS-SDE have developed a joint statement that contains specific responses. You can find it here: http://www.naeyc.org/files/naeyc/file/policy/NAEYC-NAECS-SDE-Core-Standards-Statement.pdf.

Ellen Frede

Co-director, NIEER


Anatomy of a Subsidized Child Care Fraud

April 22, 2010

Congratulations are due Raquel Rutledge of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel who took home a Pulitzer Prize for her series “Cashing in on Kids” that exposed deception and fraud in the $350 million Wisconsin Shares program. Besides being compelling reading, Rutledge’s series is a cautionary tale for policymakers and administrators of child care programs. That’s because, in addition to outright fraud, Rutledge documents ways in which the program’s system of rules and regulations, along with lax enforcement, enabled some parents and providers to abuse the system in ways that were perfectly legal. One such example is an arrangement by which sisters or other relatives were able to stay home, swap kids, and receive taxpayer dollars.

Most of the tens of millions that Wisconsin overpaid for child care services, however, were due to criminal activity — sometimes committed by those with ties to a prominent crime boss. On the administrative oversight side, Rutledge did her homework, looking at state-level administration but also digging down to the local level where she found that politics ruled the day, those who signed off on bogus child care applications wound up being promoted, and caseworkers were protected from public scrutiny. Another problem: David Edie, an early education policy analyst for the Wisconsin Council of Children and Families told Rutledge that when counties manage child care money and don’t spend it wisely, it “doesn’t really affect county government very much.”

The series led to criminal indictments and legislation aimed at eliminating fraud and keeping criminals out of the child care business. Of course, it will always take diligent enforcement and a watchful press to see that what lawmakers intend really happens. As concerns the latter, we can’t help voicing concern as we see the ranks of reporters covering education shrink alongside the dwindling fortunes of our newspapers. Still, a great many excellent reporters remain who are covering the positives as well as the occasional negative story on the early care and education beat. The entire series and a compelling video from Rutledge on how she went about her investigation are available on the Journal-Sentinel web site.


Retired Air Force General Norman R. Seip: Expanding High-Quality Pre-K is a Matter of National Security

April 9, 2010

Over the years, the ranks of those advocating for expanding public pre-K have grown as economists and business leaders made the case that providing all kids with a high-quality early education is essential to America’s future competitiveness. Now a growing list of the nation’s top military leaders say doing so is also a matter of national security. Having served as a Lieutenant General in the Air Force, including a command of 46,000 airmen assigned to 12th Air Force, General Seip is intimately acquainted with what it takes to organize, train and equip our armed forces so they can defend against threats to our nation. He is also a leader of a relatively new organization, Mission: Readiness, which advocates for improving the quality of and access to preschool education. He answered these questions from Preschool Matters:

Q: Why did you and fellow retired military leaders decide to form Mission: Readiness?

While our military remains strong and prepared, we are concerned about the downward trajectory of readiness among our young people. There is a growing deficit of skills and fitness among our young people that threatens our military readiness, as well as our country’s ability to compete on other levels in the private sector as well. In fact, as we’ve reported in a series of research reports, 75 percent of 17 to 24 year-olds are ineligible for service in the Armed Forces. Those of us who have had the privilege of leading our military feel we have identified a serious problem, and we want to affirmatively address it in a serious way.

We have the experience to understand the problem and analyze solutions, and we believe that we can help forge a policy solution. So we have formed Mission: Readiness to bring our experience to bear on this troubling set of issues. “Readiness” refers both to our military’s capacity as well as the need for us to get the upcoming generations ready for our challenging world. In order to elevate this set of issues among policy-makers and the public, we need organizational capacity and staff to help us, and we are building our organization with the help from staff and important seed money from The Pew Charitable Trusts, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and the Birth to Five Policy Alliance.

Q: How many of the young people who seek to enlist in the military have to be rejected because they aren’t adequately educated?

In terms of rejection rates, lack of education or basic academic skills is a major factor. As I said, approximately one out of four young Americans can’t join because he or she lacks a high school diploma. Even among those who have graduated or received their GED, 30 percent are disqualified because they fail the military entrance exam on math and reading skills.

Q: What can pre-K do to help solve the problem?

We have now done a substantial amount of research and have published reports at the national level and several states about the problems facing the military. (You can see these on our Web site: www.missionreadiness.org). Early education, and pre-kindergarten in particular, should be a central strategy for addressing the readiness issue. Pre-K helps in two ways: first, the evidence that high-quality pre-K can aid school success and increase graduation rates is pretty impressive. Second, the long-term benefits of pre-K, in terms of the social development part of early education, are really important to military commanders because this is where we get the ability of our enlisted personnel to be good team players and have the ability to interact constructively with others and control emotions and behaviors. Additionally, the evidence that pre-K reduces crime over time is a great benefit for us also. Currently about 10 percent of our recruitment rejections are related to young people who have a felony or serious misdemeanor on their record. Read the rest of this entry »


Close Encounters of the Pre-K Kind

April 5, 2010

Related Reading

Good Morning, Children: My First Years in Early Childhood Education

Sophia E. Pappas, 2009

Gryphon House, Inc.

Beltsville, MD

188 pp., ISBN 978-0-87659-078-2

$14.95

So much that’s written about preschool education these days comes from “on high” that we run the risk of forgetting how much it is, at its core, a series of close encounters between teachers and the likes of Kevin the serial anti-sharer, Alan the artistically inclined, and Ali the perpetually dancing cheerleader. In her engaging new book Good Morning, Children: My First Years in Early Childhood Education, Sophia Pappas provides an antidote to that and a window into the world that is her New Jersey Abbott Preschool Program classroom. Along the way, we become acquainted with Kevin, Alan, Ali, and their classmates and more important, what spells success for this teacher and the renowned pre-K program of which she was part.

Motivated by her quest to rectify social inequities, author Sophia Pappas became a member of the Teach For America corps, dedicating three years to teaching preschool in Newark, New Jersey. Before entering the education field, she studied political systems and leaders at Georgetown University and was an intern on Capitol Hill.

Good Morning, Children is a collection of her experiences as a rookie teacher and reflections on her classroom challenges and successes. The book also benefits from perspectives developed during her time as a blogger for Pre-K Now. Throughout her book, Pappas makes a strong case for the importance of supporting high-quality early childhood programs. An underlying theme of accountability on all major players in education – including teachers, directors, and policymakers – prevails. According to Pappas, school districts must have accurate criteria for what effective teachers look like and teachers should play a role in evaluating the curriculum they use.

In Part One, she describes her first-year experiences (and anxieties) of becoming a teacher. She covers a wide breadth of topics through personal narratives, including how she created a safe, inviting and print-rich learning environment, developed a daily schedule respectful of children’s needs, and worked collaboratively with her assistant, and how her preparations, self-reflections, and time with her mentor helped her to assert her leadership.

In Part Two, Pappas unpacks her thoughts and experiences with assessment, planning and instruction. She illustrates the importance of performance-based assessment to fully understand what preschoolers can do and to help inform instruction. Through short vignettes of her interactions with her students, Pappas demonstrates how using age-appropriate teaching strategies and flexibility advanced her students’ growth.

Pappas encourages readers to think about the broader picture. For example, she suggests that teachers think about the skills an average adult, politician or leader would need and begin teaching these skills in preschool. She highlights the importance of using literature to practice conflict-resolution skills. She also gives examples of how to think about the minute details such as what individualized instruction would look like for a particular student. In addition, she provides resources that worked for some of her students, specifically, an individualized action plan and behavior contract.

Good Morning, Children provides insight to all advocates of children’s education with an emphasis on educators. It confirms the importance of starting a solid and appropriate education for 3- and 4-year-olds and seeks to inspire preschool educators to fully grasp the importance of the role they play in providing a rich and comprehensive education through constructive play and differentiated instruction. Sophia Pappas puts heart and soul into sharing her story as an educator. As “a leader on the first line of defense against educational inequity” (p. 15), she gives her students a voice in the ongoing debate over appropriate early childhood education.

Reviewed by Marcie Weber

Early Learning Consultant, NIEER


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