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Stephen Krashen: Race to the Top for Tots: Don't Measure the Temperature of the Fire - Put it Out!

Guest post by Stephen Krashen

The federal government plans to establish detailed standards and assessments to see if children of poverty are ready for kindergarten and are healthy (The "Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge," termed the "Race to the Top for Tots," by the New Brunswick Patch.) The standards and tests include "all (sic!!) of the Essential Domains of School Readiness" (Selection Criteria, section B (3)). This means setting detailed standards and testing children in mathematics and literacy, and as well "a progression of standards for ensuring children's health and safety, ensuring that health and behavioral screening and follow up are done, and promoting children's physical, social, and emotional development across the levels of its Program Standards" (section B (1)).

The plan seems to make sense: Let's first get an accurate picture of how the 20% of children in poverty in the US are doing in cognitive, emotional and physical development, and then plan to do something about it. But it isn't a good idea at all. In fact, it is a bad idea.

We already know that millions of children from high-poverty families suffer from the effects of poverty: We already know that they are behind in academics, suffer from food deprivation, are exposed to dangerous toxins, and lack health care. All this has been carefully documented by a number of scholars (see, for example, the work of David Berliner and Richard Rothstein, cited below).

We also know which children are in need and we know what to do about it. We know that children need to be protected from the effects of poverty by expanding free breakfast and lunch programs ("no child left unfed"), by providing better health care (e.g increasing the number of school nurses; Berliner cites data showing that there are more school nurses per child in low-poverty schools than in high-poverty schools), by protecting children from environmental toxins, by providing more support for libraries and librarians, and by encouraging and making it easier for parents to read to their children (see below).

We don't need more precise data.
The US Department of Education's plans for extreme and detailed testing make no sense: The house is on fire. Fire departments do not spend time determining the exact temperature in each room. Instead, they rush to put out the fire as soon as possible.

Instead of spending money to deal with the problems of poverty, we are giving it to testing companies who are eager to spend billions of our tax dollars creating expensive new tests and measures that will only tell us what we already know.

The US Department of Education is planning the most extensive and expensive testing program ever seen on this planet, and is aggressively expanding its testing plans: Under NCLB, students were tested once a year on reading and math in grades three through eight and once in high school. The plans now are to add interim testing, pre-testing in the fall if administrators are interested in measuring improvement over the academic year ("value-added"), tests in other subjects, and now we have plans to test five year-olds, not just on academics but on emotional and physical health. We can protect children from much of the impact of poverty for a fraction of the cost of new tests.

Here is one example of what can be done. Reach Out and Read has been improving the literacy development of high-poverty children for the last few decades using a simple and inexpensive procedure. When high-poverty parents bring their young children to the pediatrician for well-child visits, hospital staff gives them some basic information and demonstrates reading aloud to their children. The pediatrician also mentions this, and the family is given a children's book. Studies show that Reach Out and Read children are read to more than comparison children, and score considerably higher on vocabulary tests, especially receptive vocabulary. This confirms, of course, what Jim Trelease has been telling us: the importance of books and reading to children.

The problems faced by children of poverty are obvious and we know how to solve them. Let's not waste money measuring the problems to unnecessary levels of precision. Let's get busy solving them.

The federal government's plans are described here.

Other sources:
Berliner, D. 2009. Poverty and Potential: Out-of-School Factors and School Success.

Boulder and Tempe: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit. Krashen, S. Reach Out and Read (Aloud): An inexpensive, simple approach to closing the equity gap in literacy. Language Magazine (in press)

Rothstein, R. 2010. How to fix our schools. Economic Policy Institute, Issue Brief #286.

Trelease, J. 2006. The Read-Aloud Handbook. New York: Penguin. Sixth edition.

Dr. Stephen Krashen is a professor emeritus at the University of Southern California. He has written numerous books on his research into literacy and language acquisition. In recent years he has emerged as a persistent voice pointing towards the basic steps we should take to build literacy and strong academic skills for our students.

What do you think about the Race to the Top for Tots?

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