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An education plan that finally drills down to basics

Submitted by on Tuesday, 10 March 2009 3 Comments

It’s too bad that most of the buzz about President Barack Obama’s education policy speech today before the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce has to do with charter schools and merit pay.

Both are tired subjects that are going to become even more fatigued in the coming months because it looks like we’re headed that way whether it’s the right direction or not.

It’s not, and here are the Cliff’s Notes:

  • Some charter schools perform spectacularly, largely because they benefit from “good” demographics. The top-performing grade school in the county where I live is a charter school, but not a single child at that school was the offspring of a high school dropout. The local school is an aberration, by the way. Nationwide, charters simply don’t stack up to public schools.
  • Some teachers fail miserably, but there already are easy ways to weed them out without going to merit pay. A system that not a single school district in the country has managed to make work in the long haul.

So let’s move on to the part of Obama’s plan that truly could make an impact long after the last charter  has rejected most new applicants because any kid lucky enough to have a sibling at the school gets automatic preference.

The part that matters is early education, and Obama wants to make it earlier than preschool even.

He campaigned for an expansion of home-visit programs for low-income first-time parents, helping 570,000 families a year learn how to teach and nurture their children academically. He proposed in his speech Tuesday getting started with 55,000 families. That’s probably a reasonable, though unfortunate, scaleback in this economy.

The program is a classic case of “pay now or pay later.”

We can pay up front to help children not lucky enough to have college-educated parents or mothers and fathers who otherwise have learned how to help their kids achieve in school. Or we can pay down the road in the costs an undereducated workforce and continued cycles of public assistance.

We can pay now to make sure every child starts school ready to learn – and believe me, what my child is expected to learn this year in kindergarten is dizzying – or we can pay later in the form of remediation and tutoring.

Obama didn’t site numbers Tuesday for preschool programs, though he did call for Early Learning Challenge Grants for states that improve their offerings.

That’s also a plank from his campaign platform, where he said the grants would go to states that match the money, set accountability standards, and partner with the private sector and parents.

The “accountability standards” is a little chilling if it means Florida-style testing that stands 5-year-olds in front of strangers and asks them to identify letters and their sounds.

Otherwise, though, he’s on the right track. If he can stay there. It will be a battle.

Obama mentioned in his Tuesday speech that the stimulus bill included $5 billion to expand Early Head Start and Head Start. There’s a little fudge there – the money isn’t all for Head Start. And he didn’t mention that although Head Start funding increased in conference committe, the total for all pre-kindergarten was reduced.

Because the stakes are higher this time, look for a protracted battle with those who like to deride preschool as part of the nanny state and scare parents into thinking it would be mandatory.

Luckily, the facts are squarely in Obama’s favor, though he did fudge again on the economic return on investment — and citing those figures is the best way to bring some conservatives on board.

When it comes to moral return on investment, though, early education is a clear winner. The best-known evaluation, which still follows a group of 123 disadvantaged children who were given a quality program back in the 1960s, demonstrates continuing benefits.

The Perry Preschool study in Michigan shows that adults at age 40 who were in the program had higher earnings, were more likely to hold jobs, had committed fewer crimes and were more likely to have graduated from high school than adults who did not have preschool.

So what would be the down side to early education, once you get past the irrational fear that it’s the government trying to interfere with child-rearing?

Copyright 2009 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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  • Stacey Kannenberg said:

    After reading your post, I thought you might be interested that I have uncovered an alarming trend in my preschool and head start workshops nationwide: the vast majority of preschool and head start teachers that come to my workshops do not know what children are tested on for their first Kindergarten assessment tests!!! In fact I started testing the preschool and head start teachers in my workshops. I wanted them to feel what it feels like to be a 5 year-old; these little kids come to school expecting to be taught but instead we expect them to take a test, cold without studying.

    I challenged these teachers to list the 7 things that kids are tested on for that first Kindergarten assessment test. Guess what: only 12 of 630 teachers from across the country got it correct! They FAILED! They failed at the National Head Start Conference in Atlanta in December, they failed at the Wisconsin Head Start Conference in February and failed last week at the Illinois PreK/Kindergarten Conference. It will be interesting to see how they do in Orlanda next month at the National Head Start Conference?

    If our preschool and head start teachers do not know this information how can we expect parents and kids to know it? AND where are the public service announcements telling parents the 7 things they need to know for Kindergarten testing: the alphabet all mixed up, numbers to 10 all mixed up, basic shapes, colors, coins, counting objects to 10 and how far they can count to 100?

  • Debra said:

    That’s really chilling, Stacey, though it’s something I suspected anecdotally after Big Guy started kindergarten. His preschool had used Zoophonics, so he did fine on most of it except for the “mixed up” part on numbers and letters. Which left him a little mixed up for a few months. The literature his school district provided when we registered him for kindergarten didn’t mention “mixed up” either. First time I heard about it was during kindergarten orientation two days before class started.

    I’m kicking myself now for not investigating more — the preschool he attended was not in our school district but, like you said, the list is pretty universal. For me, it’s a classic case of “you don’t know what you don’t know.” It didn’t even occur to me to ask.

    I guess that goes back to a version of your original question: If a preschool-attending child of a college-educated parent doesn’t know what he needs to know, then who does? Other than folks like you, of course! :)

    Sounds like a big honking “failure to communicate” on a nationwide scale. I agree that public service announcements would be a great start. Maybe booklets for pediatricians to hand out during 4-year checkups? I hate to put anything more on them because the well-child check list seems like it’s as long as the kid is tall sometimes, but it might be the best way to reach as many children as possible.

  • Stacey Kannenberg said:

    Hear, Hear!! I can so relate to your response!!! We speak the same language! And for the record, I was one of those college-educated parents who had no clue how to help my own children get ready for school. I am not a teacher or education, I was a mom inspired by a series of Oprah shows to create that magic book to help parents, kids and teachers get ready for Kindergarten and First Grade! It has become much larger than the books; it’s turned into a movement to change education at the core!