Are you smart enough for kindergarten?

Are You Smart Enough to Get Into Private Kindergarten? asks DNAinfo.com. Some of New York City’s most elite private schools will require four-year-olds to take a new, harder admissions test.

ERB‘s Admission Assessment for Beginning Learners  (AABL) costs $65, rather than $568 for the old test, because the new test doesn’t require a trained examiner. Kids take it on an iPad. But “experts believe many parents will shell out even more on classes and books to prepare their toddlers.”

“The AABL is supposed to identify a child’s ability and achievement,” said Emily Glickman, president of Abacus Guide Educational Consulting. Achievement for preschoolers? That’s “totally new,” she says.

Here are five sample questions from the test. All seem to be measuring intelligence rather than knowledge. I got 100 percent — but one answer (see below) was a 50-50 guess. I still don’t know why my answer was correct. If I’d seen this when I was four . . .

Which completes the pattern?

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Education, Politics, and Cultural Identity

No links to start discussion today. No quotes with snarky replies. Just a few thoughts that I’ve been working on for a little over a year now. I thought that it’s about time to toss a preliminary version into the public space and see what happens.

First, a few assumptions (which could easily be wrong):

1. It’s not incoherent for a country to aspire to multicultural pluralism.
2. A multiculturally pluralist country nevertheless will have some sort of shared culture.
3. At the most fundamental level, the primary purpose of the education given to children in any society, at any time, is to reproduce a culture and to give children the ability to fit into that culture. (This is straight from Dewey.) The sorts of things that are often said to be purposes of education — economic success, survival, the growth of powers, etc. — are the purposes of the various aspects of the particular culture in question.

The tension is obvious: if education is about cultural reproduction, then which cultures in a multiculturally pluralist country get to reproduce?

On the one hand, the answer seems obvious. “They all do. They have a right to reproduce themselves, and to exist. That’s what multiculturalism is.”

But we also have to educate for the “shared” culture, the over-culture that makes our multicultural country a nation in the first place. And we need to do that without interfering with the reproduction of the various subcultures.

When we, as a country, find ourselves contemplating something like the Common Core — which proposes to establish a “national” curriculum (and that is exactly what it proposes, despite the protestations of some of its proponents) — we’re faced with the question of what, exactly, our shared culture is that needs to be reproduced. And not only are we then in the business of picking and choosing what parts of the culture get included and which do not, we’re also inevitably going to have to deal with the notion of cultural change and how we should alter our culture by altering the values and practices that are transmitted to the next generation.

This is, of course, one of the reasons (if not the reason) that education is so politicized in this country: education has been institutionalized to a tremendous degree in the United States, and that means it’s something of a “winner take all” in terms of cultural (re)production. All of the fighting that goes on — whether it’s about textbooks or Howard Zinn or Heather Has Two Mommies or prayer in schools or “Evolution is just a theory” — it’s all about the struggle to seize control of the mechanism of cultural reproduction and establish the culture that is desired.

One strategy to avoiding this sort of life-and-death struggle, of course, is to “thin” out the notion of our shared culture. (Note — I touched very briefly on this issue in the third chapter of my dissertation.) Instead of having our public schools serve as a center of substantive values creation and the inevitable culture wars that follow, we might think to “dial back” the public school’s curriculum to include only those things upon which universal (or near-universal) agreement can be established.

Nearly everyone — even the Amish, the Gangsta Rappers, and the Hippies — seems to think that learning to add and subtract and read is a good thing. But while that might fly with mathematics, with reading it’s almost impossible to teach the skill without having something to read. And that means exposing children to ideas, which necessarily means presenting them to kids as “endorsed” by society.

So it’s easier said than done.

I suspect that the great push to make schools into job-factories, that is, institutions whose sole purpose is to prepare students for some sort of “career”, is a reaction to the cultural battles that (I think) reached their apex in the late 80′s and early 90′s. If the schools just limit themselves to producing economic widgets, and leave the culture to the local institutions, then everyone’s happy, right? We all share the thin “culture” of economic efficiency, don’t we?

Well no. First off, it’s not clear that everyone got the message that there was supposed to be a truce in the culture wars. There are many political factions (primarily but not exclusively progressive) who desperately, desperately want to teach substantive values in schools, and who aren’t happy until they win. (And they never win, because no matter what sorts of institutional change they manage, it’s never enough.) That’s one problem.

A second problem is that this sort of thin-culture “education” (if we can call it that) really requires that there be some local, supplemental institution providing a substantive, value-laden culture. Otherwise it’s just a skills-training center, and not a proper education for children at all. If a student is not given a culture into which they can fit, not given a culture in which they can take up a meaningful role… well, we’re ignoring the fundamental purpose of education. (And this might help explain why so many students are shooting up their schools these days, but that’s probably a cheap rhetorical point unworthy of me.)

Additionally, for the greater part of the last century, schools have served as a (albeit contentious) source of cultural values. Our national culture has gotten quite used to the seeing schools as sources of civic value, and we’re ill-equipped, I think, to have the rug pulled out from under us with so little warning.

This post grows over-long, so to sum up: there is a fundamental tension between the fact that we want (to the extent “we” want) to live in a multicultural society on the one hand, and the notion that we can have some sort of centralized education curriculum on the other. There may be a way to deal with this tension, but I think it first requires that we acknowledge that it exists, and that we explicitly attempt to deal with it.

Head Start study: Quality doesn’t matter

Head Start’s benefits fade quickly and disappear by third grade. Advocates say that’s because the quality of Head Start programs varies significantly.

“How much does program quality really impact children’s learning and development in Head Start classrooms? asks Kristen Loschert on EdCentral.

Not much, concludes a recent study by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Using data from the Head Start Impact Study (HSIS) and follow-up reports, researchers analyzed how differences in program quality influence children’s cognitive and social-emotional development. They found “little evidence that quality matters to impacts of Head Start,” according to the report.

“I was disappointed,” admits co-researcher Stephen Bell. “We’re not really very far ahead in making Head Start better or understanding which variants of Head Start are worth emphasizing now.”

Exposing children to academic activities was considered a mark of a high-quality program. However,  “3-year-olds who received less exposure to academic activities . . . demonstrated better behavior outcomes” through kindergarten.

If even “quality” Head Start programs don’t produce lasting benefits, then why are we spending billions of dollars? Maybe something else — parenting support for single moms? — would make a difference.

Preschool for kids, training for moms

Low-income mothers in Tulsa are encouraged to send their children to Head Start — and train for better jobs, reports NPR’s Eric Westervelt.

WESTERVELT: Two dozen students, all women, settle into long white tables and stiff metal chairs in a classroom at Tulsa Community College’s downtown campus. . . . It’s a required monthly seminar for the program Career Advance. Topics include resume building and basic finances. This week: Workplace Etiquette 101. Be on time, eye contact, firm handshake, basic hygiene.

Career Advance, run by the nonprofit Community Action Project of Tulsa or CAP, links low-income parents with education, career training in health care fields.

Consuela Houessou came to Tulsa from Benin about a decade ago. She works weekends as a nurse’s assistant, but hopes to become a registered nurse. She compares her grades with her children. “I get A’s today, what did you get?”

Helping parents helps children, says Steven Dow, CAP Tulsa’s executive director.

WESTERVELT: It’s heading for 8:30 a.m. at a bustling headstart center in East Tulsa and 32-year-old Tiffany Contreras is late to drop off her 4-year-old daughter. The on-time kids play with blocks, puzzles and books on the carpet while a teacher prepares a cereal breakfast.

8:45, still no Tiffany Contreras. Her daily juggle is on – four kids, a commute, classes, homework and meetings. Her husband, the father of her two youngest, works the night shift coating gas pipes and airplane parts at an industrial paint shop. 8:50, she finally arrives. Adding to Tiffany’s hectic mix this week, a dinner gone wrong nearly torched her kitchen.

TIFFANY CONTRERAS: A pan of grease caught on fire. It ruined my stove a couple of my cabinets. Thankfully, no one was hurt. The story of my life. Always something.

Many women in Career Advance go from one crisis to another, says staffer Megan Oehlke. “It’s my car died. I had a house fire. We had an unexpected stabbing in our family last week. My mom is hospitalized. She does all my child care. It’s all of those things together that they’re trying to figure out how to finagle, and still be successful in school.”

Accountability comes to Head Start

Head Start, Meet Accountability, writes Sophie Quinton in The Atlantic. After years of debate about Head Start’s value — are there any lasting benefits? — federal lawmakers want proof the program prepares children for kindergarten. For the first time, providers will have to meet quality and effectiveness measures to retain funding.

Many Head Start and state-run prekindergarten programs aren’t high quality, writes Quinton.

National studies of public pre-K programs have found that children spend most of their time playing, eating, and waiting around, and that instructional quality is generally low. A federal impact study, released in 2012, found that while Head Start children experience initial gains in health, language, and reading skills, those gains usually disappear by third grade. House Republicans use that study to argue that Head Start is a failure and not worth the $8.6 billion taxpayers will spend on the program this year.

Head Start providers that perform poorly on federal audits will have to compete for funding against other preschool providers.

“Providers must abide by some 2,400 federal standards that dictate everything from how toilets are cleaned to the size of facilities,” writes Quinton. But few programs have lost funding, no matter how poorly they perform.

In the future Head Start providers will have to set goals for preparing children for kindergarten and show they’re taking steps to achieve them.

. . . Programs(must) meet minimum thresholds on the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, a privately developed tool that assesses how teachers and staff interact with children. CLASS doesn’t measure learning outcomes, per se, but high scores are correlated with better learning.

. . . Monitors use the CLASS tool to rate emotional support, classroom organization, and instructional support. Teachers get high scores for instruction if they seize on teachable moments all day long: asking children questions, responding with more than one-word answers, and introducing new vocabulary words even in casual conversation.

Evaluating preschool quality isn’t easy, reports Education Week. A commonly used preschool evaluation tool doesn’t correlate with better outcomes, according to a study published in the spring 2014 edition of  Education Finance and Quality. The Early Childhood Environmental Rating Scale-Revised, which is used by many states to evaluate quality has little connection to the academic, language, and social functioning of children evaluated at age 5, researchers found.

Children aren’t sponges

Small children aren’t “sponges” soaking up information, writes Dan Willingham on Real Clear Education. “Kids don’t learn important information that’s right in front of them, unless an adult is actively teaching them,” a recent study (Butler & Markman, 2014) shows.

Children aged 4-5 were shown a novel object and were told that it was a “spoodle.” Would they figure out the spoodle is magnetic?

In the pedagogical condition, the experimenter said “Look, watch this” and used the spoodle to pick up paperclips. In the intentional condition, the experimenter used the spoodle to pick up paperclips, but did not request the child’s attention or make eye contact. In the accidental condition, the experimenter feigned accidentally dropping the spoodle on the clips. In all of the conditions, the experimenter held the spoodle with the paper clips clinging to it and said “wow!”

Next, the child was presented 16 objects and was asked to determine which were spoodles. Half were identical to the original spoodle, and half were another color. In addition, half of each color were magnetic and half were not.

Children knew the spoodle had to be magnetic only if the adult had drawn attention to the spoodle’s magnetism. Observing the magnetic properties in the “intentional” or “accidental” experiments wasn’t enough. Those kids picked the spoodle by color.

Even in an environment rich in experiences, “little sponges” need to be taught, Willingham concludes. “Small differences in parenting may have important consequences for children’s learning.”

What high-quality preschool looks like

Tulsa spends $7,500 per child to provide “high-quality” preschool, reports NPR.

All teachers must have a bachelor’s degree and be certified in early childhood education.

$33,500 per year to teach ‘napping’

Manhattan school for babies will charge $33,500 per year to teach “napping” and “play,” reports the Daily Mail. Explore+Discover is designed for babies and toddlers three to 23 months old.

The school day starts at 8am and finishes at 6pm. The schedule include morning explorations, music, story time, outdoor play, napping, the development of self-feeding skills and Spanish.

All of the teachers have master’s degrees in early childhood education. There will be three for every class of eight to 12 infants.

I assume it’s for two-career parents who’d otherwise hire a nanny, but 10 hours a day in “school” for babies?

When pre-k is too late

New York City is adding prekindergarten seats to public schools, but pre-k may come too late to change the trajectory of disadvantaged children,writes Ginia Bellafante in a New York Times blog.

Last year, when I was visiting a public school in Sunset Park in Brooklyn for teenagers with boundless difficulties, my host, a poet who teaches at various city schools, mentioned a student who had become pregnant. Hoping to start a library for the child soon to arrive, the poet told the young woman embarking on motherhood that she would like to give her some books — books of the kind her own grandchildren growing up in a very different Brooklyn had by the dozens. The offer was met skeptically. “I already have one,” the girl said.

A young, single mother “who thinks one book is enough” isn’t likely to expand her child’s vocabulary or knowledge of the world through talking, reading or exposition, writes Bellafante. “We should concentrate our energies on helping the most vulnerable parents and children beginning at, or before, birth,” she concludes.

The left is squeamish about telling poor people how to behave, Bellafante concedes. “No one wants to live in a world in which social workers are marching through apartments mandating the use of colorful, laminated place mats emblazoned with pictures of tiny kangaroos and the periodic table.”

But perhaps paternalism can be sold as “compassion,” she concludes.

The Harlem Children’s Zone includes a Baby College, a parenting workshop for expectant parents and those raising a child up to three years old. There’s an intensive preschool program to prepare three- and four-year-olds for kindergarten. It’s not clear the “pipeline” concept is effective enough to justify the costs.

What does ‘quality’ preschool look like?

The State of Preschool, which airs tonight on the PBS NewsHour, asks what “quality” preschool looks like and costs.