It really is about how you package things but not what is inside. That is Obama’s administration plan for early education funding in the Race to the Top education reform. His plan seems attractive and even compassionate toward the youngest members of our society but when you look at the details, it is quite clear that this push for more spending for pre-kindergarten (birth through age 5) learning is more of the same from a big government bureaucracy.
This Race to the Top program should be renamed, “Let’s Move the Starting Line Back”. Even the U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, said in a recent speech, “Today, it is time for every young child in America to have access to high-quality preschool. It is time that we level the playing field and stop playing catch up.” So according to their line of thinking the failed attempts of No Child Left Behind or the dismal standing we have as a nation in public education is due to the fact that we have not put enough money into early education. Let’s move the starting line back and then the race to the top will be a success.
As an early learning educator and a former Head Start teacher, I have some significant problems with this whole plan. First of all, Head Start the federally funded preschool program for low-income three-to-five year olds has had dismal results in helping disadvantaged children become successful in their elementary school years. What I witnessed as a Head Start teacher was a program that was more focused on maintaining their funding than meeting the needs of my students and their families. I quickly learned that the top-down approach to education and social reform was not only ineffective but a waste of tax dollar money. However, the Obama administration seems to think that moving the starting line back and putting even more money into programs like Head Start and even expanding them will somehow create better results.
Secondly, in my opinion, the classroom is not the most appropriate learning environment for a young child. The family home is the best learning place. However, I also understand that a child’s home is not always the most appropriate environment for learning for certain children; especially those who are faced with challenges whether it’s from developmental or circumstance. Every child is different and the developmental rates and needs of a pre-k child vary and there is a wide span. Some children do not benefit from a preschool classroom at a very early age while others do. According to the proposed plan, States will only be federal funded if they meet a “rigorous curriculum”. A rigorous curriculum for a child 0 – 4 years old is not only developmentally inappropriate but it will prove problematic in an early learning program.
Young children are like sponges when it comes to learning. They love to experiment and learn and most of this happens through independent and group play. Preschool teachers will often gear their classrooms according to the needs of their students. Some classes will be more advanced and others need more focus with basic learning concepts. You cannot fit a “one size fits all” approach to young learners because children need time to develop physically, socially and emotionally well before the academic learning. In fact, some children will not retain what has been taught to them in preschool because they are just not developmentally ready and this is perfectly normal for a developing child.
There should always be high standards for preschool when it comes to safety or low adult to child ratios. However, the academic standards should be based on the specific needs of the students. It should not be mandated by a government that feels the best way to achieve education success and to level the playing field is to push reform on the starting line of its youngest learners. Education reform should start with the elementary years when children are more developmentally ready. It should also begin from the starting line of the local school district where parents, teachers and the community can make decisions based on the specific needs of the students including lower-income families of preschoolers.
Obama’s plan for early education in the Race to the Top is just another federally funded package of hope and change with promises that are not backed by proven results. As a teacher who has worked with disadvantaged young learners, I have witnessed the dismal results of federal funds that do not change the outcome for low-income students. Helping disadvantaged families is not a quick fix that can be managed by government education policy-makers through control. It is far more encompassing and many times even the greatest attempts of helping fail because the needs are not contingent on education alone. Moving the starting line back is not the answer. Let our young learners grow naturally in environments of choice and continue education reform in the elementary years where the starting line is developmentally appropriate.