Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Universal pre-K

A friend sent me this comment in response to one of my emails a couple of weeks ago in which I commented on Spitzer's school reform speech:

I was concerned by the statement that ‘Universal Pre-K is a great idea if done correctly”.  Not sure what you’re referring to, but thought I’d make a leap here and raise my concern:

As someone who used to teach Kindergarten in the Bronx, and someone who currently works in a high-performing charter school, I see your point, but also see a flaw in it.  While it would be ideal to have universal pre-k started without it being dragged down to the standards of many poor performing public schools, this is not feasible in the short-term.  Universal pre-k should not risk being delayed by disagreements between reformers and the status-quoers, it needs to happen IMMEDIATELY. 

Even in the horrible school I taught at in the Bronx, our kids would have been better off having the same lousy teachers teaching them in pre-K than they were staying at home all day watching endless hours of TV, in some cases watching domestic violence, etc.  They also stayed home and with few exceptions did not learn their alphabet, colors, numbers, how to tie their shoes, their phone number, address, etc.  All of these are basic Kindergarten standards that teachers waste time on remediating in Kindergarten because the kids didn’t get it at home before then.

I know that we should be forcing the system to teach even more in K and in pre-K.  And I know in an ideal world we would set up the new universal pre-K at that higher standard as it was implemented (and I think we should do everything possible to push that without obstructing the program) but I do not think we should waste a second getting universal pre-K in place even if the same lousy teachers have to manage it and teach it.  Even poorly done it is an important service.

Just my 2 cents.  Please accept my apologies in advance if I am misinterpreting your ‘if’! 

My "if" was rooted in studies that show that students who get Head Start and other types of government-funded early intervention, while initially showing gains, don't end up any better off in later years (I don't claim to be an expert on the research here -- I recall some studies that show greater impact as well).  The reason for the lack of impact is, I suspect, two-fold: A) The programs are not well run and/or well funded and the caliber of teachers is poor; and B) Even if there is positive impact initially, these gains are lost when the students then attend failing schools for the next 13 years.
Thus, this falls into the category of many other sensible interventions such as more money, smaller class sizes, longer school days, strengthening the tenure process, streamlining removal of ineffective teachers, etc.: each intervention, BY ITSELF, won't move the needle on student achievement, but each is a critical part of a COMPREHENSIVE reform plan.  So, count me as a supporter of universal pre-k, especially (not "if) it's well done and part of a broader reform plan.

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