Early math can’t be just ‘exposure’

Math doesn’t have to be boring, opines the New York Times.  The editorial recommends “very early exposure to numbers,” better teacher prep, better integration of engineering and “real-world” connections, opines the New York Times.

The Times shows a striking naiveté, responds cognitive scientist Dan Willingham.  To start with, exposing kids to numbers in preschool won’t help.

Math is not learned like a language. Children can learn vocabulary and more complex syntax by mere exposure. They can’t learn math that way.

Early learning is important, he writes. American kids tend to be  “okay (not great) on math facts and okay (not great) on algorithms. On conceptual understanding, they are terrible.”

This conceptual understanding ought to start in preschool with ideas like cardinality and equality. “Very early exposure to numbers” is not going to do it. That doesn’t mean taking what we had been doing in first grade and asking kids in pre-K to do it. That means putting activities into pre-K (e.g., games and puzzles that emphasize the use of space) that will provide a foundation for conceptual understanding so that first-graders will be in a better position to understand what they are doing. (Though first grade math will also have to change for that happen.)

In calling for “better teacher preparation,” the Times focuses on high school.  Getting more physics majors to teach high school physics isn’t the main problem, Willingham writes.

Most American teachers—like most American adults, including me–don’t have a deep conceptual understanding of math. They are a product of the system we are trying to change. You cannot teach what you don’t know.

We need “to train teachers in the conceptual side of math” so they can help children understand how math works, Willingham writes.

Why am I blogging when I’m supposed to be in Iceland? Because I left my purse on a shuttle bus from the rental car center to the terminal at Logan Airport. Many people tried to help,but it took more than five hours to track down the purse at the MassPort bus dispatcher’s office. My passport, cash, credit cards,cell phone, etc. were all there. Conclusion: Bostonians are nice people. I am stupid.

We’re trying again this evening.

Why ‘Preschool for All’ won’t work

The Strong Start for America’s Children Act – President Obama’s Preschool for All idea — has been introduced in Congress. “Decades of research tell us that … early learning is the best investment we can make to prepare our children for a lifetime of success,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.

Research doesn’t say that, writes Brookings’ Russ Whitehurst, who’s spent most of his career “designing and evaluating programs intended to enhance the cognitive development of young children.”

Advocates for universal preschool cite two “boutique” programs from 40-50 years ago and “recent research with serious methodological flaws,” writes Whitehurst. They ignore the large, randomized National Head Start Impact Study, which found no differences in elementary school outcomes for Head Start kids. They also ignore “research showing negative impacts” on children in federally funded child care “as well as evidence that the universal pre-k programs in Georgia and Oklahoma, which are closest to what the Obama administration has proposed, have had, at best, only small impacts.”

A newly released Vanderbilt study analyzes Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K (TN-VPK) for four-year-olds from low-income families. Researchers compared children who won a lottery for pre-K slots with those whose parents applied but lost the lottery, making it a “gold standard” study, Whitehurst writes. Furthermore, TN-VPK set high quality standards similar to Obama’s Preschool for All proposal.

Yet all cognitive and social/emotional gains were lost by the end of kindergarten. In first grade, the control group did better than the former pre-K students on seven of eight cognitive skills, though the advantage was significant only for quantitative concepts.


Cognitive Outcomes at the end of first grade

The control group also did better — but not significantly — on four of seven measures of social/emotional skills or dispositions, as rated by first-grade teachers.

TN-VPK participants were less likely to have been retained in kindergarten than non-participants (4% to 6%), researchers noted. But kindergarten retention doesn’t predict later school performance, Whitehurst writes. The TN-VPk students also were more likely to receive special education services (14% to 9%).

These findings, which match the Head Start study, are “devastating,” writes Whitehurst. “Maybe we should figure out how to deliver effective programs before the federal government funds preschool for all.”

Study: Most 3rd graders are below average

By the age of eight, only a third of students have grade-level literacy, math and science skills, according to The First Eight Years: Giving Kids a Foundation for Lifetime Success. The Casey Foundation report used federal data to track 13,000 children from kindergarten through middle school.

The Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten defines scoring at or above the national average on all three subjects as meeting cognitive development benchmarks, reports Education Week.

The data analysis showed that by 3rd grade, 56 percent were on track with physical development, 70 percent with social and emotional growth, and 74 percent in their level of school engagement.

. . .  19 percent of 3rd graders in families with incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty line—in 2001, that was $35,920 for a family of four—were hitting their cognitive development milestones. In comparison, 50 percent of children in families above that income level hit that mark.

The analysis also showed that 14 percent of black children and 19 percent of Hispanic children were on track in cognitive development.

This strikes me as the Lake Wobegon effect in reverse. Instead of all the kids being above average, two thirds are below average. If only half the middle-class and affluent kids are on track cognitively, “on track” must be too high.

The report advocates “quality birth-through-8 education programs targeted at children from low-income families” and linking preschool providers to elementary schools, notes Education Week.

Pre-K won’t close achievement gap

Universal pre-K won’t solve the vocabulary gap (or inequality), writes Kay Hymowitz in Time. There’s no substitute for stable, nurturing families.

Two-year-olds from high-income families know many more words than two-year-olds from low-income families, according to a new study that confirms earlier research. Language Gap Study Bolsters a Push for Pre-K, reported the New York Times on the front page.

The idea that pre-K can compensate for family break down is “the preschool fairy tale,” writes Hymowitz.

It’s true that good preschools raise the math and reading scores of disadvantaged kids. The problem is that the gains are almost always temporary.  Study after study of every kind of program since Head Start first came on line in the 1960’s to recent state wide programs in Georgia and Oklahoma has concluded that, with the lonely exception of third grade boys’ math scores in Tulsa, cognitive gains “fade out” by third grade, probably because subpar schools and an unsupportive environment at home were unable to help pre-K kids take advantage of those gain.

Researchers now argue that preschool has the potential to create lasting benefits in students’ “soft skills” such as  attentiveness and self-control.

Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman, one of early childhood education’s most prominent advocates, has argued that because soft skills are vital to labor market and life success, under some conditions preschools have actually been able to reduce welfare dependency, teen pregnancy, and crime rates, while also improving educational outcomes and earnings. At least one study has estimated that the resulting higher tax revenues, lower imprisonment and welfare costs have created a return of nearly 13 dollars for every preschool dollar spent.

. . . Heckman’s findings are based on several small, model programs from the 1960’s. The most famous and influential of them, the Perry Preschool in Ypsalanti, Michigan, involved only 58 children.  It takes a heavy dose of wishful thinking to assume that states are any more capable of creating a large system of Perry quality preschools than they have been of designing networks of high quality K-12 schools.

Even if that were possible, it would close the achievement gap, she writes. Perry graduates did better than the control group, but much worse than children from middle or working-class families.  And “these mediocre gains were not passed on to the next generation.”

The first two children of Perry grads (there’s no data on later siblings) were just as likely as the children of non Perry-ites to go on welfare, drop out of school, and to get arrested; their earnings were also similarly anemic.

In other words, the graduates of the best preschool designed for low income kids we’ve ever had in the United States  grew up to become low skilled, low income single parents, less costly to society than others without their early educational advantage, but equally likely to raise children who would cycle back into poverty.

“It’s parents, not formal education, that makes the difference for young children’s readiness for school and success once they get there,” Hymowitz concludes.

If Mama ain’t functional, ain’t nobody functional.

Job 1: Educating for self-sufficient citizenship

Education young people to be self-sufficient citizens is Job 1 for public education, writes Mike Petrilli on Ed Week‘s Bridging Differences.

“College and career” readiness isn’t enough,he writes. We need citizenship readiness. (Citizenship First suggests that every high school graduate should be able to pass the U.S. Naturalization Exam. See how you do here.)

The most basic requirement of citizenship is self-sufficiency, Petrilli argues.

If we haven’t prepared our young people to be financially self-sufficient once they finish their educations, we have failed our most fundamental duty. And the “we” is meant to be inclusive: our education system, our social service agencies, our families, our churches, all of us.

There are two ways to help children, writes Derek Thompson in The Atlantic. We can try to “make bad parents less relevant” or “make bad parents less bad.”  He puts preschool and education reform in the first category; home visits and parent training — which smack of “Big Mother” — are in the second.

These programs “help at the margins but they aren’t breaking the cycle of poverty,” writes Petrilli.

Let me float a third option: A renewed effort to encourage young, uneducated, unemployed women to delay childbearing until they are ready–emotionally, financially–to start a family. Let’s promote a simple rule: Don’t have babies until you can afford them. If everybody in America followed this rule, most long-term child poverty would disappear, and parenting would improve dramatically.

. . . Social scientists have long known about the “success sequence”: Finish your education, get a job, get married, start a family. Stick to that sequence and you avoid poverty, and so do your kids.

Petrilli asks Deborah Meier, the other half of the Bridging Differences dialogue, if schools can encourage students to follow the “success sequence.” Offer effective pregnancy prevention programs?

Should we consider paying low-income individuals to put off childrearing? Mayor Bloomberg is already experimenting with cash incentives to encourage all manner of positive behaviors. Maybe offer “25 by 25″: All young men and women who graduate from high school get a post-secondary credential, get a job, and avoid a pregnancy and a prison record get $25,000 in cash at the age of twenty-five. Is that worth trying?

Or is the best way for schools to tackle this issue simply to provide a top-grade education to their charges? To instill in them the “hope in the unseen” that they, too, can aspire to college, to a good career, to an early adulthood full of intellectual and social and emotional challenges and experiences, not to include parenthood (yet)?

I wish schools would teach this statistic: Ninety percent of children born to an unmarried teen-ager who hasn’t finished high school will grow up in poverty. If the mother waits to have her first child till she finishes high school, turns 20 and marries, the risk her children will be poor is 9 percent. They could add the stats on the percentage of unmarried fathers are supporting or visiting their children after the first few years.

There needs to be more focus on showing young men from low-income single-parent families how to qualify for a decent job with or without a college degree. One path to success– a bachelor’s degree or bust — isn’t enough.

Update: When parents have conversations with their children, it makes a huge difference, writes Annie Murphy Paul. Robert Pondiscio responds:  “On my bucket list of ed projects: a PSA campaign to inform low-income parents on the benefits of reading to kids and engaging them in conversation. Cognitive development classes in inner-city hospitals can teach inner city parents the habits that more affluent parents do reflexively. And if the Gates Foundation wants to help, let’s get low-cost books — say 25 cents apiece — into inner city bodegas.”

Preschool teacher rebounds

Erika Brannock, 29, is back with her preschool students in Maryland after losing part of her leg in the Boston Marathon bombing.  


erika brannock

Erika Brannock, right, kisses the hand of Henry Smith, 3, pictured with his mother Jessica Smith, left, before a ceremony for the newly opened Davenport Preschool.

Investors fund pre-k in Utah

People talk about preschool as an investment. In a Utah school district south of Salt Lake City, investors will spend $7 million over eight years to expand an early-childhood program, reports Education Week. If fewer children require special education, the district will ask the state to share the savings, which will be used to pay back the loan with 5 percent interest.

This fall, Goldman Sachs and the investor J.B. Pritzker will pay for the expansion of an early-childhood program in the 67,000-student Granite district through a social-impact bond, also known as a pay-for-success loan. Social-impact bonds are loans that seek to achieve a positive social outcome, and reduce future costs, by investing in prevention and intervention programs in the public sector.

Utah gives schools $2,600 per year for each student who requires special education. “Many students are placed in special education simply because they trailed their peers academically upon entering elementary school,” experts say.

If there are no savings — a Utah State group will decide — then the investors will lose their money.

How to measure preschool quality

Advocates for preschool always say they want “high-quality” preschool. Preschool quality can be measured, but not the way states are trying to do it, writes Daniel Willingham. Most have adopted Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRISs) that measure inputs, such as class size and teachers’ education, rather than looking at what children are learning.

QRIS scores don’t predict student learning, concludes a new study published in Science.

It takes a trained observer in the classroom to evaluate quality, writes Willingham. That costs a lot more than counting inputs. The Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS), which evaluates interactions between teacher and child, is a good — but not cheap — measure of quality, he writes. (It’s labeled “interactions” in this graph.)


Picture

Sara Mead has more on the problems with QRIS and the need to observe what’s actually going on in preschool classrooms.

Washington D.C. charter preschools and pre-K programs will be evaluated on reading and math scores, writes Sam Chaltain.

Just to clarify: we’re talking about three-, four-, and five-year-olds. Being Tested. In Reading and Math. With High Stakes attached for the schools that care for them.

Universal preschool is nearly a reality in D.C., where 88 percent of 3- and 4-year-old children are enrolled in preschool programs and at an expense of nearly $15,000 per child.

Math and reading will count for 60 to 80 percent of a school’s rating. If schools “opt-in” to adding a measure of social and emotional growth, it will count for 15 percent of the score for preschool and pre-K and 10 percent for kindergarten.

Charters already are using these assessments, responds Scott Pearson, who chairs the D.C. Public Charters School Board. “Many school leaders are reluctant to have significant portions of an evaluation of their school be based on an assessment of their students’ social and emotional development” because valid measures haven’t been well-established, he writes.

Early childhood programs routinely assess children without them realizing it’s a “test,” Chaltain writes. But these assessments have high stakes attached. Charters need a high ranking to raise money, acquire facilities and recruit families. They’ll be pressured to concentrate on raising reading and math scores.

Pediatricians check up on reading



Pediatricians are “prescribing” books
 to low-income children who don’t attend preschool, reports PBS. Reach Out and Read encourages doctors to discuss reading aloud with parents.

Via This Week In Education.

NYC will subsidize preschool loans

Should Upper Middle Class Tots Get Subsidized Student Loans for Pre-School? asks the New York Observer.

I thought it was a joke, but no.

City Council speaker Christine Quinn, who’s running for mayor, announced a council initiative to offer middle and upper-middle class parents subsidized loans for daycare and preschool.

“Early childhood education is one of the most important investments a parent can make,” said Ms. Quinn in a statement about the program. “But too often, quality child care is out of reach for middle class families. The Middle Class Child Care Loan Initiative is a smart program that will help parents pay for child care and give New York City’s next generation a jump start on their education.”

Families earning $80,000 to $120,000 a year will be able to borrow up to $11,000 a year at 6 percent interest for kids between the ages of two and four. In theory, less affluent parents can access subsidized child care, but the cutoff is $53,707 for a family of three and $64,762 for a family of four,  according to the Observer.

There’s also the question of whether giving a family earning $190,000 a year a pre-school subsidy will level the playing field, or make it even more unequal. Ostensibly, rather than making the difference between sending a child to preschool or keeping him at home, such loans might be used more to help the middle class’s upper crust pay for elite preschools, putting more distance between very young children in a city that is already plagued by income inequality and where competition for gifted and talented slots is incredibly fierce and many would argue, unfair, given the intense coaching and drilling engaged in by families who can afford it.

Preschool doesn’t teach children from educated families anything they’re not already learning at home. It’s fun for most kids to play with others. But it’s not the difference between academic success and failure — or even between the Ivy League and State U.

In San Jose, Harker, a high-achieving private school, is opening a preschool that will charge $22,000 a year. The Mercury News story gushes:

A mural-and-mosaic entrance, multicolored floor tiles and light-filled rooms welcome families. And of course, this tiny-tot heaven features a sandbox, play kitchen and lawns wide enough to do, perhaps, 75 somersaults in a row.

. . . preschoolers will choose from an array of activities based on their interest at the moment. As kids explore, teachers facilitate social skills and encourage curiosity, discovery and problem-solving.

I’ve never seen nor heard of a preschool that didn’t encourage play, exploration, creativity  and learning how to get along with others. This one will have lovely facilities, teachers with advanced degrees — and the children of highly educated, well-to-do Silicon Valley parents, who hope preschool admission will help their kids get into Harker.