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Early Education One of Several New Hot Topics at SXSWedu

Early education was brought up far more often this year at SXSWed, the popular annual tech-focused education conference in Austin that ran from Monday to Thursday this week.

earlysxsw1.jpgFrom the 12 dedicated early-education sessions to the mayors' policy panel on the last day and scattered mentions at sessions on topics ranging from the SAT to technology integrations, early education was a prominent topic. 

Acting U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. made an appearance at the early-education summit on Tuesday. He was joined by education leaders from Utah, Texas and Tennessee, among other places, for a series of panels focused on ways to expand public early care and education.

Citing Texas' recent decision to restore its previously slashed early-education funding, the state's new Education Commissioner Mike Morath said public early education was "the no-brainer of no brainers."

"We have to embrace an all-of-the-above approach" that includes public schools, Head Start, and private providers to succeed at making early education more available, Morath said.

He also said access should come first, followed by quality, which is not the path all cities have taken. Notably, Boston and Seattle are taking the opposite tack. It will be interesting to see his how his theory plays out in Texas.

At a session I hosted, panelists talked about the tools, research and practicality of assessing older students in the way that preschool teachers have long assessed their charges: by observation. This type of holistic assessment in a child's natural environment paints a far clearer picture of his or her current development, said Kai-lee Berke, who heads an education supply company that provides tools for evaluating children's growth along a developmental trajectory.

Vincent Costanza, director of the Office of Primary Education for the New Jersey Department of Education, said his state was in the midst of implementing a more continuous system of both teaching and assessing children through 3rd grade. Individualized observations will be vital as education gets personalized, Costanza said.

Mayors from Austin and San Antonio in Texas, Providence, R.I., and West Sacramento, Calif., were asked by Slate writer Laura Moser to summarize what each of their cities were doing on the early-education front.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler described a complex-sounding revenue-raising scheme that was meant to allow the city to improve its preschool access. San Antonio, of course, offers nearly universal preschool under a program started by previous mayor Julian Castro and led now by Mayor Ivy Taylor. Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza explained the Providence Talks programs, meant to encourage parents to spend more time talking, speaking, and reading to their children. And West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon explained his city's plans to fund day-care centers' efforts to improve their facilities in exchange for meeting higher-quality standards.

There was also a session I couldn't get to on creating a fabrication lab for 4-year-olds, which is basically a room where kids can use computers to create designs and then 3D printers and other tools to make their designs into touchable, physical objects. And there was another one on how to get young children to "think big." 

And even though most of the conference focused on K-12 and higher education, the idea that dominated much of the conference was one that has long been front and center in early education: Every child is different. The idea that, with the help of current technology, we should be able to personalize children's education to align with their interests came up again and again.

The picture all this talk painted in my brain was of whole schools built like preschool classrooms, with building areas where kids can construct elaborate bridges to learn about physics, water tables where students can study fluid dynamics and dramatic play areas where future thespians can stage elaborate performances.

If you believe that forward-thinking conferences like SXSWedu are more than just dreaming, but actually provide a window to the future of education, then I think it's fair to expect that the schools of tomorrow are going to look quite a lot like the best child-care centers you can imagine. 

Photo: Infographic outside the SXSWedu Early Education Summit. (Lillian Mongeau) 

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