What D.C. schools are doing right – and how to make it better

There is a lot to celebrate about the pre-kindergarten program in the D.C. public schools. In fact, some aspects of the program are so strong that school officials would be smart to borrow them for application in later grades. This is all explained in the following post by Elaine Weiss, the national coordinator for the Broader Bolder Approach to Education, a project of the nonprofit Economic Policy Institute that recognizes the impact of social and economic disadvantage on many schools and students, and works to better the conditions that limit many children’s readiness to learn.

Weiss looks at an exemplary pre-K program called Jubilee JumpStart Center in the culturally diverse Adams Morgan section of Northwest Washington, where there will be the screening of a film called “Ready for Kindergarten: The Impact of Early Childhood Education,” tonight, Feb . 27. (You can find details here.)

 

By Elaine Weiss

The two-year bump in the National Assessment of Educational Progress scores in D.C. Public Schools that Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Chancellor Kaya Henderson tout actually mask an increase in the achievement gap between poor and better-off students due to the skew in those scores toward the latter.

Indeed, as Duncan and Henderson praise higher standards and test-based teacher evaluations for raising scores, they neglect to mention that while gains post-reforms compared to those of the prior four years are mixed across subjects and grades, achievement gaps that were already huge have grown larger. The extreme example is fourth-grade reading; not only were overall gains halved post-reforms, low-income students gained just 2 points 2009 to 2013, while their higher-income counterparts saw a boost of 19.

In other words, if these policies have had an impact, they may have served to widen the distance between already advantaged students and their disadvantaged peers than to raise overall scores. We need to invest in policies that lift all students. Luckily, DCPS is well-positioned to do so.

The district has made high-quality pre-kindergarten available to all 3 and 4 year olds whose families want to participate. No state has done better, and most are far behind. Moreover, scores from the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System suggest that benefits for participating children are sustained through third grade.

We have not fully realized these benefits, however. The Jubilee JumpStart Center in Adams Morgan, which provides a range of early childhood supports for children from birth to age 5 and their families, illustrates that there are lessons to be learned from pre-K programs that could improve K-12 policy broadly.

First, Jubilee JumpStart understands that parent development must happen side-by-side with child development; it has made parents true partners every step of the way. When DCPS parents, teachers, and students discuss what is working in the district’s schools and what needs to change, a prevalent concern is the lack of community input in current reforms. Not only were the policies enacted at the federal and district levels and sold as a done deal to those who work on the front lines, outside donors have had a bigger influence on key policies – such as teacher pay – than those with a daily stake in our schools. Indeed, parents often feel unwanted and dismissed; one charter school operator told some parents that they should step aside, let him do the work and come back at graduation. At Jubilee, in contrast, home visits are one of many strategies to ensure that parents guide their children’s education and learn how to reinforce it at home and as their children transition into kindergarten.

Another big difference is seen in how DCPS pre-K and K-12 education view students. At Jubilee, and in pre-K programs across the city, the focus is on the whole child. We understand that “high-quality” instruction is driven by both appropriate training in child development and literacy and support to enable them, and an emphasis on developing nurturing, trusting relationships.

Unfortunately, DCPS seems to believe that the 4 year olds who graduate from pre-K programs are fundamentally different children when they enter kindergarten a few months later.  These young children no longer have time for  hands-on activities to engage all domains of their brains, and are asked to focus on academic work  for six hours with little or no time to run around and play with friends.  Kindergarten teachers who can bump up children’s reading and math scores are seen as more “effective” than those who secure their trust, spark their creativity, and satisfy their social and emotional needs.

These assumptions contradict child development and brain research, which emphasizes the importance of art, music, physical activity, and nurturing social skills in enabling effective learning and teaching. They ignores the current trend in advocacy, which urges closer pre-K and K-3 alignment and a different approach to assessment. And they virtually ensure that we waste some of those early gains in “fade-out” that smarter policy choices would avert.

Finally, given the gains realized from our investments in 3 and 4 year olds, the district should take the logical next step and invest in the infants and toddlers who will become our next preschoolers. When I visited Jubilee JumpStart’s beautiful classrooms, I saw firsthand the developmental benefits for infants of stimulating one-on-one interactions with qualified caregivers. I watched toddlers’ tentative exploration of their classrooms encouraged by teachers who translated their play into learning and resources that helped connect the classroom to the wider world. I listened to parents’ conversations with Jubilee JumpStart staff about how they can take those experiences home and enhance them through reading, conversations, and play. And I understood how helping families who may be less savvy about the school system navigate the challenging array of choices and smooth the transition to kindergarten can ensure that these gains are not lost, but enhanced.

There is much to celebrate about the district’s pre-kindergarten program. It’s time for D.C. officials to take a page from the pre-K playbook to advance policies that advance gains for all DCPS students, not just the luckiest.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · February 26