The Grumpy Giraffe

Critiques on social and education issues

Obama’s pre-K plan falls before it has begun

America is on the verge of education reform as Obama seems to be pumping out new education policies one after the other, as seen in my last post about his commentary towards innovation in high school.

Preschool has a love/hate relationship with the public: for most of us who support the idea that education is important, preschool has been seen as a beneficial investment towards the future of our society. For those who see teaching as a 6-hour daycare facility, preschool is merely an extension of that.

However, we must clarify that preschool is not merely daycare. Preschools actually have a curriculum, which is the government document teachers use to know what to teach to your child at which grade. Daycare does not have a curriculum.

Obviously, a Grade 9 curriculum in Biology is not going to be the same as a preschool curriculum, but there are certain learning expectations that are in the curriculum to prepare them for K-12.

Below are curriculum expectations of a Toddler (14 months to 3 years) in the Ontario Early Childhood Education (ECE; aka preschool) curriculum (page 40):

  • Temporal: using terms related to time (ex. “yesterday”, “tomorrow’)
  • Symbolic thought, representation, and root skills of literacy: using objects to stand for other things, acting out simple themes in a play (ex. cooking)
  • Sorting: sorting and labelling objects by characteristics, such as hard/soft and big/small; matching items by function (ex. spoon with bowl)

All these functions may seem like extremely mundane things we do all the time in our daily lives, but that is because we have been taught it, even if we have not been in preschool ourselves. Many argue that parents can teach their children this already without needing to go to preschool, but keep in mind that not every parent knows how to educate their children. This is evident in some of the behaviours that are exemplified by some of today’s youth (and sometimes, adults as well). 

Because of various research focusing on the impact of Head Start (HS) programs, Obama proposed a national pre-K plan for all American children from birth until age 5.

Overall, the plan looks decent. He has proposed full-day kindergarten (I’m still not on board with this initiative; children get tired, and naps are necessary to re-energize them), but he talks about “competitive basis” to acquire funding for these HS schools. The article also mentions that there will be educational assessments (as there rightly should be), but how will they be used? Most likely to check if a school matches the “competitive basis” for funding. Hopefully this does not sprout into a corrupt system in which schools cheat on their assessments.

There is much evidence that shows HS programs have benefits that ripple out into longterm, but keep in mind that said evidence focuses on high quality HS programs. Obama ties to ensure that we have only qualified teachers, but how do we determine “qualified”? Transcripts? Grades? Resumés? Will there be interviews?

And what will the assessments be like? What will they be comprised of? How will curriculum expectations be assessed and evaluated?

A quick note to all non-teachers: Assessment and evaluation are different. Assessment means you are checking if a child understands what has been taught. There are 3 types of assessments: diagnostic (done before a new concept is introduced), formative (done during a new concept to see if all students are on the same page), and summative (a final check to see if students understand the entire concept). Assessments do not have marks: they can be just a quick checkup (“Write on your exit ticket a metaphor”) or even a short quiz for those teachers who like tests. 

Evaluation is when you assign a mark or grade on an assessment. So if you put 9/10 on someone’s exit ticket, that is an evaluation. Evaluations go into the report card. Evaluations are mostly used for summatives, such as final projects or tests. 

Obama’s plan looks like America will have a very bright future a few decades down the road. However, The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has produced a study that shows that

[T]he $8 billion Head Start program had little to no impact on cognitive, social-emotional, health, or parenting practices of participants.

The summary also states that participation in HS had harmful effects on some of the participants. Teachers reported that non-HS children performed better in math than those who were HS children.

There are also rumours floating on the Internet that the effects of HS fade out once children reach Grade 1.

As an educator, it has been beyond shocking to read that the HS program has little impact on the areas that were the program’s pillars. It is common knowledge (with evidence) that the younger children are, the more impressionable they are, and the better they can grasp a concept. This is especially true for bilingual children: if parents speak in 2 languages to the baby, he/she can distinguish between the two linguistic systems, such as phonetics and syntax. After the critical period, however (i.e. a few years before adolescence), the malleability of the child’s brain decreases dramatically.

Seeing that there is so much research on early childhood education and brain development in children, is it any wonder for the surprise I’ve experienced?

Perhaps the reason for the fade-out of the effects cited in the study and on the Internet may be accounted for by the quality of education in K-12.

When we see children learn, it is clearly evident. Their faces light up at that “A-ha!” moment, and they want to apply what they’ve learned everywhere they go. They actively seek out opportunities to use their new knowledge to test if it is true. In a way, children are scientists: they experiment and observe.

But we start to see the decline of this curiosity as children grow older, and this change is marked most visibly when children finish Grade 5.

Perhaps regular schools are not keeping up with the quality of education. Preschool is more intense than most would think. Remember that we already know how to recognize shapes and how to tell social cues. Most of us already know how to put our emotions into words and proper, coherent sentences. For a child who has only been on the planet for 2 or 3 years, everything is new. Sharing is a bizarre concept: what do I get out of it? If I’m going to have less of this in the end, why should I put myself in that situation? Emotions are bizarre: what is this lump in my throat I can’t swallow?

All of this is in the curricula, not just in Ontario’s.

Because there is so much stimulation (intentional or otherwise) in preschool, day school starts to look increasingly boring. They already know how to write, so why are they still doing writing worksheets? What is the point? Students may believe that they already know all there is needed to know to succeed in real life.

Moreover, in higher grades, the content becomes more abstract and less hands-on. Worksheets become more popular, and there are fewer hands-on activities as the grades go up. How is anyone expected to visually construct 3D vectors that are applicable in “real life”? When is anyone actually going to use differential equations when they’re shopping for groceries?

It is very unfortunate that there are teachers who resort to boring, disengaging worksheets that are completely separate from real life (“Sally wants to find out the angle of depression from the pulley, just because.“). And yes, crayons may or may not have the same appeal for 3-year-olds as they do for university students (although you would be very surprised at how excited some adults can be over crayons and markers).

HHS published the results of the HS study, but some factors may not be controlled, such as quality of education in HS programs and in K-12 schools. If the quality of K-12 is worse than the education provided in HS, it is hardly surprising that the effects of HS wear off by the early years.

Obama is on the right track to revolutionizing American education, but there is still a long way to go. Hopefully he is considering on repealing the NCLB policy completely. After all, he has already granted waivers to over 30 states to be exempt from the rigorous and unnecessary testing mandated by the policy.


5 comments on “Obama’s pre-K plan falls before it has begun

  1. LailahMonte
    February 27, 2013

    I’ve always said, adults drastically underestimate what children are capable of understanding. They quickly reach an age there they know when they’re being pandered to, when they’re just being given “busy work,” and they are capable of a level of nuance and complexity of thought that the education system rarely gives them credit for. Bluntness and honesty shouldn’t be mistaken for simplicity. Also, markers and crayons kick ass.

    • The Grumpy Giraffe
      February 28, 2013

      Exactly! Children are very intelligent: nowadays, they have the tendency to ask, “Why are we doing this?” or “When am I going to use this anyway?” As an educator, it’s a double-edged sword. I’m happy that my students are so curious and wanting to know the practicality and meaning of the content we’re doing, but at the same time, there are some aspects in the curriculum that you must cover that aren’t easily applicable because it may be too abstract.

  2. Pingback: Obama’s pre-K plan falls before it has begun | - Early Childhood Education

  3. Language Arts Teacher
    February 22, 2013

    A big component of a child’s education is what is being done in their home. If education isn’t valued at home by the child’s parents or parent, chances are the child will grow up not valuing their education…

  4. zeudytigre
    February 22, 2013

    Good points made – especially about how boring school can become in the later years, particularly for bright kids who have had a good early start in education. Pre schools also need to understand that some young children don’t want to sit still. Being forced to do so can put them off going to school. If a pre school is being judged on how many kids can form their numbers and letters by a certain age they are less likely to allow a lively child to just play – especially if boisterous play disturbs those kids who love to sit still and draw their letters or look through a book. Structured pre school may not suit every child.

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