On Sunday, the Obama administration released “A Blueprint for Reform,” a 45-page document that proposes revamping our country’s largest education law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
But if this were a blueprint for a physical building, the contractor might ask: Where are the pages that show me how to construct the foundation?
The blueprint includes very little mention of early learning. There is no section about improving the early grades. There is no mention of pre-K, preschool or other educational settings for 3- or 4-year-olds. There is but one reference to the need for better transitions and authentic coordination between early childhood settings and schools. Research
over several decades
has shown the importance of children receiving enriching and stimulating learning experiences in these early years
. We know that these experiences set the foundation for future educational success.
The question is: Should we give the administration the benefit of the doubt? President Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have talked in the past about the importance of early learning and the need for strong support for children from birth to age 8. So is support for early learning supposed to be implied in the larger themes of the document? Shall we assume that when the U.S. Department of Education stresses the need to reward local innovations that it also means preschool programs and seamless preK-3rd initiatives? Shall we assume that the emphasis on rewarding excellence in the teaching profession also includes pre-K teachers, kindergarten teachers, 1st grade teachers, and so on?
Over the next several weeks, Early Ed Watch
will be taking a long look at the blueprint’s proposals. But today, we start with the overarching mission of college- and career readiness, a goal that Obama called “ambitious” in last weekend’s video address
. The blueprint proposes to reward states, districts and schools that “do the most to improve outcomes for their students and to close achievement gaps, as well as those who are on the path to have all students graduating or on track to graduate ready for college and a career by 2020.”
In other words, 2020 is proposed as a new deadline. A lot can happen in 10 years, and strong teaching environments can make a big difference. But don’t forget that the high school class of 2020 is already in their last few months of second grade. If these second-graders have not had a high-quality early learning experience so far – including pre-K and kindergarten programs that propel them to develop strong social-emotional, early literacy and early mathematics skills – they are already behind. In schools around the country, second-graders without the benefit of rich language environments at home or pre-literacy instruction in preschool are now struggling to learn to read. Second-graders who grew up without playful, self-directed and intellectually challenging opportunities to hone their social and cognitive skills are likely still struggling to attain the self-regulation skills that will enable them to focus on assignments or sit through a teacher’s reading. Given that less than one-third of 4-year-olds last year
were served in federal or state-supported preschool programs – and that in many of those programs, the quality is spotty or poor
-- the chances of many schools or districts meeting this 2020 goal are not looking good.
Our hypothesis is that the places that do manage to meet the goal – which the Obama administration wants to call “reward” schools, districts or states – are going to be the ones that invest in high-quality pre-K and early childhood programs that seamlessly connect to high-quality primary grades.
Will schools, districts and states figure this out on their own without any carrots and sticks within ESEA? Given that it took the very overt prodding of the Race to the Top guidelines to cause states and districts to consider other reforms, it doesn’t seem likely.
In Duncan’s press conference
last week, he said that decisions would be allowed to be made at the local level. “We’re not mandating what intervention is the right thing to do,” he said.
At Early Ed Watch, we appreciate flexibility too. And we surely wouldn’t want states, districts or schools to feel as if they don’t have the flexibility to try out evidence-based approaches to helping children succeed. But as we watch the opening proposals for reauthorization of ESEA, we see a need to be explicit about what we know actually works: investing in high-quality early education programs for all children.