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Looking for Deeper Learning in Preschools (Part 1)

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This post is by Kathleen Cushman. Her most recent book, with WKCD colleague Barbara Cervone, is Belonging and Becoming: The Power of Social and Emotional Learning in High Schools (Harvard Education Press).

 

Throughout New York City, families this week are indicating their preferences in the Department of Education's lottery system by which every child born in 2013 can receive a place in a free full-day pre-kindergarten program.

My extended family is one of those, and so I, too, have been visiting a number of pre-K classrooms in our very diverse Northern Manhattan neighborhood. And as I watched four-year-olds and their teachers in those various settings, the questions kept turning in my mind.

What constitutes success?

Free preschool for all aims to narrow the vast achievement gap between poor and wealthy children. But what counts as success in our post-NCLB accountability era, where tests come at kids early and often? In the 2010-11 school year, 73 percent of rising U.S. kindergartners took readiness tests, according to the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Whether located in district or charter schools or run by nonprofit community partners, New York City pre-K programs choose a curriculum consisting of interdisciplinary units, grounded in the state's Prekindergarten Foundation for the Common Core and the city's own Pre-K Learning Goals. A raft of coaches and research partners are watching closely to see . . . what? How much the teachers can cover in six hours a day, September to June? How the kids score as they enter kindergarten?

Although the blueprint commits to a child-centered, developmental curriculum, with a "learn through play" pedagogical approach, the pre-K providers I met seemed to feel pressure to produce "achievement" as narrowly defined. "Things have changed," one teacher told me wistfully. "Pre-K is the new kindergarten. Our kids are competing with China now."

What ways of learning matter?

Indeed, much instruction took place in some classes I observed, whose walls were covered with "academic talk" that seemed more for adults than for children. Where were the big questions asking "why?" and "how?"

I knew these teachers were expected to use "authentic assessment systems to continuously observe and document children's learning throughout the year, using that data to inform instruction." But I often saw groups of children sitting crosslegged on the floor, receiving information. When did they get to say what might be turning in their minds?

And without letting their thinking gradually emerge, how could a teacher know whether young kids had achieved by year's end (as per standard PK.CKW.7) a "basic understanding of economic concepts within a community"?

It was a relief to see "stations" in most classrooms, where children got their hands on real materials -- cardboard, paint, scissors, glue -- that could bring their own ideas to life (e.g., a "store" they could run). But often, the rooms available cramped their efforts -- and the playgrounds lacked the space and structures to compensate.

I worried. How do active four-year-olds respond to six hours a day in an environment like this?

What matters over time?

Considerable research shows that focusing on academics in preschool improves early test scores -- but that these upticks tend to "fade out" by third grade. A startling 2015 Vanderbilt University study of Tennessee's statewide pre-K for low-income children recently brought new evidence of that. (The blame was laid on quality control and funding.) Another study by Stanford professor Deborah Stipek found that preschoolers attending academic programs have less motivation and lower expectations of their own success than those at child-centered programs.

Research following children in Head Start programs showed long-term improvements in important later-life outcomes such as schooling attainment, earnings, and crime reduction, according to a 2002 working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research. Children are more likely to thrive as adults, it appears, if their preschool experiences prioritize the social and emotional development that underpins success in everyday life.

To nurture the "whole child" in the preschool years, however, teachers need both high-quality preparation and ongoing, collaborative professional learning. Yet in general, the U.S. devalues preschool teachers, whose median salary is $28,570 (compared to $54,890 for a public elementary school teacher).

Not surprisingly, the annual turnover rate of preschool teachers ranges from 30 to 37 percent. Who will stay long enough to hand on hard-earned wisdom on what children need most?

Who's learning together?

The overall enrollment is diverse, in New York City's universal pre-K program. But in the school-based pre-K classrooms I saw, most students came from the same racial or ethnic group. That accords with a recent Century Foundation report finding that the first year of New York's pre-K was far more racially homogeneous, on average, than kindergarten classrooms.

Decades of research shows that racially integrated classrooms increase educational outcomes for all children. Yet only a few district and charter schools in Northern Manhattan reflect the diversity of a predominantly Latino school district with a growing white middle class. Those schools are highly regarded and much sought after.

To ensure that good pre-K programs have that advantageous mix, could cities try out transportation subsidies across neighborhoods? Or set aside places in programs, to achieve a mix of socioeconomic status and academic risk factors? Or, if the pre-K program takes place in a district or charter elementary school, could the system assure a four-year-old's continuation to K-5 enrollment there?

Must pre-Ks standardize?

A look at the city's intense and ambitious effort certainly provides an impressive picture of how to make universal pre-K happen fast --and articulate neatly with the standards-based priorities of K-12 schooling. New York has set its preschoolers on a course that it believes will lead to deeper learning.

Does it benefit children if pre-Ks standardize their approach? I took away that question from every program I saw. Still, I kept brooding: If I were four years old, how would I want to learn? What would help me "go deep"?

In the next post, I'll share the answer that I found.

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