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Q&A With Samuel Meisels on Early Learning Challenge

Shortly before the new Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge final guidelines were released yesterday, I had the opportunity to speak with Samuel Meisels, president of Erikson Institute, the nation's only graduate school focused exclusively on improving care and education for children from birth to age 8. He spoke about the competition and the role of assessment and standards within it.

Q. What's your take on the controversy about use of assessment with preschoolers that erupted when the Early Learning Challenge draft guidelines were released?

A. The problems in the Early Learning Challenge are more potential than real. We can learn about children's learning in valid and appropriate ways. It requires well-designed instruments and professional development for teachers. It can transform teaching and learning. I'm hopeful this will be one of the real positives that emerge from the challenge grant.

Q. The final guidelines require states to develop "comprehensive assessment systems" that include screening measures, formative assessments, evaluation of the classroom environment and evaluation of teacher-child interaction. The final guidelines assume that such a system is part of a state's Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS) to judge the quality of early-learning programs, a top priority in the competition. What are the strengths and weaknesses of this approach?

A. These are appropriate things to do. They're not going to tell us everything we might want to know about children's learning or the classroom enviroment, but they can tell us a lot. The issue for me is they're mixing up child assessment with assessments of classroom environment and teachers. [Meisels submitted comments on the draft guidelines urging that screening and formative assessments for children be clearly separated from measures to judge program quality, but the final regulations kept them together as part of the comprehensive assessment.]

Q. What are the challenges states will face in implementing screening and formative assessments?

A. Not many states do [screening] universally. Head Start has led the way on this. Formative assessments should be observational [and] criterion-referenced. The problem quickly emerges of how to do this in non-public programs. Where is the money coming from? Where is the monitoring taking place? I don't see any easy solutions.

Q. What about the push to align early-learning standards with the Common Core?

A. Some [Common Core standards] make sense for kindergarten. Some don't make sense for kids who are not from affluent, educated families or are English-language learners. Most states have [early-learning] standards and will have to bring pre-K and kindergarten standards into alignment with Common Core. We will be doing this in Illinois. We'll try to make sure our standards are open enough they don't exclude some children.

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