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How federal early childhood education standards are increasing inequality

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Wheary, Jennifer
Publication Date: 
25 May 2012



A guest blog published today by the Washington Post in Valerie Strauss' regular "The Answer Sheet" is both a fascinating and alarming indictment of how policy people  are screwing up education. The article is by a group of career educators and professors specializing in early childhood.

The article outlines in very specific, eloquent, and compelling terms what is wrong with current federal mandates for early childhood programs. The critique is drawn from the work of the Defending the Early Years coalition, a group whose "principal concern is defending children’s right to play, grow, and learn in an era of so-called standards and accountability."

As the Post piece states, DEY's concern is that:

...Federal Race to the Top policy mandates on
early childhood education are undermining education practice that
research tells us is in the best interest of young children’s optimal
development and learning. 

Here is DEY's logic:

1. Current standards are not based on knowledge of child development — both how children learn and what they learn.

The standards require that children learn specific facts and skills —
such as naming the letters — at specified ages. This has led to more
teacher-directed “lessons,” less play-based activity and curriculum, and
more rote teaching and learning as children try to learn what is
required. Yet decades of research and theory tell us that young children
learn best through active learning experiences within a meaningful
context. Children develop at individual rates, learn in unique ways, and
come from a wide variety of cultural and language backgrounds. It is
not possible to teach skills in isolation or to mandate what any young
child will understand at any particular time.

2. Current policies support an over-emphasis on testing and
assessment at the expense of all other aspects of early childhood

Already strapped for time and money, schools turn valuable attention
and resources toward preparing teachers to administer and score tests
and assessments rather than meet the needs of the whole child. As
teachers strive to raise test scores, they increasingly depend on
scripted curricula designed to teach what is on the tests. We know,
however, that children learn best when skilled and responsive teachers
observe them closely and provide curriculum tailored to meet each
child’s needs. Standardized tests of any type do not have a place in
early childhood education, and should not be used for making decisions
about young children or their programs. Individualized assessments of
each child’s abilities, interests and needs provide teachers with the
information they require to individualize teaching and learning. 

3. Cumulatively, current policies are promoting a de-professionalization of teachers.

The growing focus on standards and testing disregards the strong
knowledge base early childhood teachers have. It undermines teachers’
ability to teach using their professional expertise, to provide the
optimal, individualized learning opportunities they know how to offer.
Instead, teachers are often required to follow prescribed curricula
taught in lock step to all children. At the same time, more teachers
without strong backgrounds in early childhood education are being hired,
increasing the dependence of teachers on standardized tests and
scripted curricula.

The full article is worth reading, especially as it talks about ongoing efforts -- including a large scale teacher survey -- to continue to understand the impact of policy mandates on the work of early childhood educators.

But there is also an important implication that needs to be mentioned regarding socioeconomic inequality.

The federal standards that DEY says are screwing up early childhood education are only screwing up the learning opportunities for some children: those attending federally funded early childhood programs like Headstart or public school pre-K. 

If DEY is right, then these 3- and 4-year-olds are not learning how and what they should be learning for their age. Their experience--which translates to their intellectual and emotional growth and ultimately abilities--will be vastly different from their peers who are in private pre-school. How much indvidual learning, circle and story time, art, creative play, imagination and exploration can occur when you have teachers being forced to teach standardized tests? The answer is very little.

Federally funded early childhood education exists to rectify the huge disparities that already exist between families who can afford to pay for private school and those who cannot.  As Jennifer Rokosa at the Center for American Progress has pointed out:

Poverty saddles children with a seemingly insurmountable disadvantage at
perhaps the most critical time in their lives. Early childhood is the
single most prolific period of development for children—90 percent of a child’s brain growth occurs
between birth and the age of three. Children in poverty, however,
frequently do not have access to the same educational and developmental
resources as their counterparts from higher-income families during this
vital time. Researchers estimate, for example, that children from
professional families are exposed to 45 million words by the age of
four, while children from working-class families only hear about 22
million. Children in poverty, however, are exposed to a scant 13
million. Further, more than two-thirds of poverty-stricken households do not possess a single book developmentally
appropriate for a child under five. The inequality is startling, and
this early disadvantage is only compounded by these children’s lack of
access to quality preschool education.

That the very educational programs (and substantial federal investment)
put forth to improve this disparity may actually be strengthening is not
only heartbreaking, it's just plain stupid.

- reprinted from Policy Shop