Given that research clearly shows big benefits of quality early childhood education, President Obama’s new proposal to greatly expand these programs seems like a no-brainer. In fact, the first question to ask might be this: Why didn’t he do this sooner?
As it turns out, his administration did promote an early education initiative in his first term, and that is what raises a big concern about the ultimate fate of the new proposal.
Back in 2011, the administration’s Race to the Top sweepstakes — in which states and even districts can compete for federal funds based on promises to implement specific school reforms — had a round that focused on early childhood education. The first priority states were asked to consider as they wrote their proposals was this:
“Priority 1: Absolutely Priority — Using Early Learning and Development Standards and Kindergarten Entry Assessments to Promote School Readiness.”
Yes, the top priority was making sure preschoolers were given standardized tests.
In addition, there has been a movement toward pushing down more and more academic material on very young kids in traditional academic settings, even though most youngsters are not developmentally ready to do it and learn better by play. Said Elaine C. Schaeffer, professor of early childhood education at Edison State College in Fort Myers, Fla.:
My concern is that, in the rush to push formal academics into the earliest years, we may be ignoring what we know from brain research about the way young children construct knowledge.
Young children need to have multiple, varied, challenging, hands-on and open-ended sensory experiences, not worksheets. Children should be encouraged to interact with their environment and build relationships with each other in order to develop critical thinking skills and empathy.
Shouldn’t our goal be to help children reach their fullest potential not just academically, but also socially and emotionally? Why are we rushing past these milestones in order to produce children who “test” well? Do we need to turn them out into the job market at end of elementary school? What is the real cost of cutting short their years of nurturing lifelong learning skills in a developmentally appropriate manner?
In his State of the Union address, Obama proposed, as the White House explained in this release, “a new federal-state partnership to provide all low- and moderate-income four-year old children with high-quality preschool, while also expanding these programs to reach additional children from middle class families.”
The release also includes this:
Preschool programs across the states would meet common and consistent standards for quality across all programs, including:
o Well-trained teachers, who are paid comparably to K-12 staff;
o Small class sizes and low adult to child ratios;
o A rigorous curriculum;
o Comprehensive health and related services; and
o Effective evaluation and review of programs.
A “rigorous curriculum” for 3-year-olds? Really?
There’s nothing wrong with rigorous curriculum, of course, but “rigorous” is not exactly the word you think of when little kids come to mind. How about a creative curriculum? How about a curriculum based on social emotional development?
If the program winds up forcing very young children into learning situations that are not developmentally appropriate and that are test obsessed, an initiative that sounds great will be just the opposite.