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preschool education policy

Open Letter to Dr. Grover “Russ” Whitehurst on the Head Start Longitudinal Study

Dear Dr. Whitehurst,
Thank you for this incisive article. I am disappointed that the effects of Head Start don’t seem to follow students into elementary school. I have been a preschool teacher for the state funded pre-k program in VA 1997 to 2002 and a Head Start teacher, child development specialist, and currently hybrid HS lead teacher and leader of the Early Head Start program in our school system. I know that by asking us to be hard headed you are asking us to consider the evidence. I also ask that we consider as another commenter suggested, what is not in the evidence. Head Start effects more than just the children enrolled.
I agree that earlier intervention seems promising. My work and minimal research into Early Head Start shows that EHS has a greater influence on parents than on students. I wonder if this might be a clue to where we need to focus our policy, practice, and research of HS. Students who enter HS at birth and participate through to kindergarten is a specialized group that may present some contrary evidence. In my dissertation, (you are well cited thank you ;) I found that Head Start teachers in my small mixed methods study engaged students in literacy but also attempted to engage parents in the dominant culture where literacy has value. This two pronged approach emerged from the engagement of parents in their homes around children’s learning and family goals. I know that Head Start done half way is worth less than half of what is spent. It is a false promise. But, in high quality Head Start settings I think we might find the effects lasting and important for children and families. Fundamentally though, I think we are asking Head Start to do what it is not able to do, fix the effects of poverty in one or two years.
Head Start has always been more of a social intervention than an academic one. The more we ask HS to make children living in poverty like children who don’t, or continue to remove family and social supports once they leave HS the more disappointed we will be. Zigler argued against using IQ as a measure of success in the 60s. I argue the same here. I think your suggestion that HS funds go to state programs is a great idea but, I left my state program prek to make a bigger difference with children and parents in HS. The quality control in HS is higher than in any state funded program I know. In VA the state funded prek oversight has been reduced to a single individual. There are no site visits and the data collected is minimal. The biggest difference though is that Head Start requires home visits the state prek doesn’t. This is where parents connect to teachers and relationships are formed that transform families.
So, is HS failing children and families? Yes, at times it is. But it is a matter of quality erasure. I wrote when the Head Start Impact study was released in 2010,

Head Start needs to acknowledge this report and NOT change the subject. We need to take it as a call to action. I have been asked several times if I am interested in directing a Head Start program. My answer has always been, I am not sure. The program is 40 years old and has not undergone a major revision of performance standards to my knowledge. Much has been added over the years, from Training and Technical Assistance partnerships to requirements of bachelors for half a program’s lead teachers, but nothing has been taken away. It must be difficult for a director to consistently meet the performance standards and not have to cut some quality corners in other parts of their program. As a teacher recently told me, “Head Start requires us to meet standards but doesn’t make it possible to do it.”

A lot has changed in the past 40 years in early childhood education. A significant revision of the performance standards, with a focus on research based quality indicators would go a long way towards changing the results of this study.

Head Start is overdue for a major revision. Maybe now we can refocus on what the program can do and not what it can’t.

Head Start Fraud: Yes and No

I can’t say I don’t believe it. That’s the only way I can respond to this article in the Washington Post on Head Start enrollment fraud. I am a Head Start employee who fully supports the program but it is really easy to see how this sort of fraud might happen. Often the people who enroll Head Start families are from the community they serve. They want to help their neighbors get in on the good deal that Head Start can be for families.

I can see how something like this could happen,

One D.C. center disregarded $9,600 in reported income to enroll a fictitious family of three. An associate at the center told undercover investigators: “We don’t need any extra; we need to keep you low.”

The article doesn’t say that there were eligible families on the wait list, it just says there could have been. There is an important dynamic not mentioned in the article. Head Start is expected to have 100% enrollment on the opening day of school. It is hard but it can be done. There is a lot of pressure to make sure enrollment is full. There seems to have been a strong enrollment push for since 2002 that directors could interpret in different ways.

Obviously this a failure but what kind?

If the eligible families are there but not enrolling then there is a different malfunction in the system. Then it becomes a recruiting issue, are finding the children, advertising on outlets the community is engaged with, are you getting the word out? If a center or program answers, “No” to any one of these questions then there is only one reason it could happen. Leadership.

If the program director is not actively discouraging these types of disingenuous enrollment practices through monitoring and oversight then there is a failure of leadership. If directors are not changing their recruitment strategies to suit their constituents lifestyles it is a failure of leadership.

It is not, however, a failure of the Head Start program, no matter how far opponents of Head Start try to carry this political football. There is a difference between a systemic failure and an individual failure. Could enrollment procedures be tighter, probably, but it is already a more stringent process than enrolling in public school. So lets place the blame but just make sure it falls on the responsible party’s shoulders. This is obviously failure of leadership not the people on the ground serving children and families. Someone told that person enrolling that fictitious family, either explicitly or implicitly, make sure we have our enrollment numbers. If anything is a failure in this system, it is over reliance on numbers to determine success.

Image: http://www.baltimorehousing.org/ps_headstart.asp

Obama’s Top Ten Pre-K Promises


As the students in my classroom watched the inauguration, my assistant cried. (Just a little bit.) It was an amazing thing to see history in the making. It affected everyone in our economically challenged urban elementary school. Yesterday, as I listened to the post-party coverage and people talking on their cell phones in the grocery store, I was struck by how many people are concerned about President Obama moving left or right of where they think he stood on issues. This morning I heard a radio comment that now is the time for everyone to make their opinions known and that they should remind our president of where he has come from. So here is my “don’t forget the pre-k” post-it note for President Obama.

We seem to be on the right track. The House economic stimulus package in Congress already has 2.1 billion for Head Start in it as described in this Wall Street Journal article about the loads of promises the president made on the campaign trail.

President Obama has mentioned funding early childhood education many times since 2007. So in the spirit of David Letterman, I give you President Barack Obama’s Top 10 quotes on early childhood education as found on the website On the Issues. and Youtube.

10 Obama supports increasing funding for the Head Start program for preschool children. Obama has called on states to replicate the Illinois model of Preschool for All.

Campaign website, BarackObama.com, “Resource Flyers” Aug 26, 2007

9 We can start by investing $10 billion to guarantee access to quality, affordable, early childhood education for every child in America. Every dollar that we spend on these programs puts our children on a path to success, while saving us as much as $10 in reduced health care costs, crime, and welfare later on.
Source: Speech in Flint, MI, in Change We Can Believe In, p.249 Jun 15, 2008

Put billions of dollars into early childhood education
8 Latinos have such a high dropout rate. What you see consistently are children at a very early age are starting school already behind. That’s why I’ve said that I’m going to put billions of dollars into early childhood education that makes sure that our African-American youth, Latino youth, poor youth of every race, are getting the kind of help that they need so that they know their numbers, their colors, their letters. Every dollar that we spend in early childhood education, we get $10 back in reduced dropout rates, improved reading scores. That’s the kind of commitment we have to make early on.
Source: 2008 Democratic debate in Las Vegas Jan 15, 2008

7 Teachers don’t go in to education to get rich. They don’t go in to education because they don’t believe in their children. They want their children to succeed, but we’ve got to give them the tools. Invest in early childhood education. Invest in our teachers and our children will succeed.
Source: Take Back America 2007 Conference Jun 19, 2007

6 If you’re a progressive, you’ve got to be worried about how the federal government is spending its revenue, because we don’t have enough money to spend on things like early childhood education that are so important.
Source: 2008 Politico pre-Potomac Primary interview Feb 11, 2008

5 Children’s First Agenda: zero to five early education

High-Quality Zero to Five Early Education: Obama will launch a Children’s First Agenda that provides care, learning and support to families with children from birth up to five years old.
Source: Campaign booklet, “Blueprint for Change”, p. 20-23 Feb 2, 2008

4 We’ve got to have early childhood education.
Source: 2007 NAACP Presidential Primary Forum Jul 12, 2007

3 We’ll invest in early childhood education programs so that our kids don’t begin the race of life behind the starting line and offer a $4,000 tax credit to make college affordable for anyone who wants to go. Because as the NAACP knows better than anyone, the fight for social justice and economic justice begins in the classroom.
Source: McCain-Obama speeches at 99th NAACP Convention Jul 12, 2008

2 Michelle and I are here only because we were given a chance at an education. I will not settle for an America where some kids don’t have that chance. I’ll invest in early childhood education.
Source: Speech at 2008 Democratic National Convention Aug 27, 2008

1 This clip really seems to show where his heart is on the issue of voluntary Pre-K. Hopefully, he won’t forget.

Creativity: Lightning or Pearl?

After returning from a week of painting in the mountains of Virginia I have been slowly re-revving my engine for the education world. While fishing for a topic for this weeks blog I found something to bridge the gap between my worlds.

I found an article from the New York Times on the reality of creativity. I am especially interested in creativity these days as it relates to education. Not only in what teachers do but what kids are taught to do. The article described the falsehood of the Eureka Moment. It described the Eureka moment as really a long fought process of small insight, small fact, small step in a process similar to creating a pearl. “The aha moments grow out of hours of thought and study,” said Jim Marggraff inventor of the Leap Pad Fly pen.

I have found this especially true in the classroom. I have no idea how many times I have told my instructional assistant, “I’m going to figure this one out by tomorrow.” By putting down a problem and continuing to turn it over like a rock tumbler I have been able to find a solution. But this has happened easier and more frequently as I have gained experience. When I was faced with a student this year who continued to bother other students during our rest time, I came up with an idea at 4:00 a.m. I told E.the next morning “I am going to call your mother after rest time, what I say to her is up to you.” This took the choice of the consequence away from him and myself and focused us on the content of our interactions. It really helped but this is just one decision in the hundreds I a make every day as a teacher. The process is also similar to making art. I have been able to make progress each year on my painting retreat because I continue to think about my painting even while I don’t have much time to paint.

I especially find this accretion metaphor valuable in thinking about my education writing. I usually start a paper for my doctoral classes and then think about for 2-3 days, generating and revising ideas, talking to others in the field, and trying to communicate it to my wife. This last one is the real turning point. I know that when I can communicate what I am thinking to someone outside of education I am on the right track. But, all of this takes time just as over time, the process has become easier.

This leaves me with some questions:
How does creativity operate in schools? Is it with a Lightning or a Pearl metaphor that we are using? How can schools become a place where creativity is considered a practice as a opposed to a talent?

Image credits:
painting: “Sunday Morning” sold to to fellow Nimrod artist
lightning: http://nobullets.files.wordpress.com/2008/05/lightning.jpg
pearl: http://www.blackpearls.com.au/images/black-pearl-anatomy.jpg

Summer (Ed Reform) Blockbusters

In the past I have written about riding the waves of reform. I’ve discovered one of the ways to do that in this space is to respond to those big reports that seem to arrive on an almost weekly if not monthly basis like blockbuster movies. But my doctoral studies have gotten in the way of my timely commentary even as my research papers I was writing for class is what is busting blocks on the reform front.
Here is the first of two.

Broader, Bolder– This report has some very big names from the industry attached includingsome of my favorites like: Linda Darling-Hammond, John L. Goodlad, T. Berry Brazelton, James Comer, David Grissmer, (frick and frack) Deborah Meier Diane Ravitch, and Sharon Kagan. It is like a Robert Altman movie, everybody who is anybody has signed this thing.
I guess that might be the scariest thing about this statement, it is endorsed by the establishment. My esteemed TLN colleague, Renee Moore, brought some issues with the statement to the TLN breakfast table a couple days ago. She said, “On the surface, most of what the statement calls for is laudable and logical. But as I read it more closely, a few statements began to trouble me.” She goes on to say:

For example: “Education policy in this nation has typically been crafted around the expectation that schools alone can offset the full impact of low socioeconomic status in learning.” Oh, really? The children of the poor have been the primary concern of educational policymakers? And what is the evidence (or better yet, the results) of that concern?

The report’s major claim is that we need to acklnowledge that schools, as they are currently structured, can’t solve all of the social ills of America. It mentions that we need to start paying attention to what kids are doing outside of schools.

Many of the big names associated with this report were/are part of the Democracy At Risk report that came out recently. I thought that report rocked so I am more inclined to read Broader, Bolder with more interest.

The best part of the report, and another area Renee found issue with, was the pushing of Early Childhood education. I have been researching this approach to the achievement gap and find all of the reasons for investing in early learning sound on many fronts. (More on this later…) I do have to outright disagree with Renee on this statement in her post though…

I won’t take time to go into it here, but the real history of the Head Start program, which began in rural Mississippi, is what I was thinking of when I read the statement’s call for “increased investment in developmentally appropriate and high-quality early childhood, pre-school, and kindergarten education.” That kind of noble talk has been heard before, and it translated into the worst kind of paternalistic racist usurpation’s of parental rights and community-based cultural practices. It was well-intentioned educational policy during the desegregation of the schools that led to the dismissal of thousands of Black school administrators and highly effective teachers. Those same policies led to a dismantling of the cultural ties between communities (in our case Black communities) and our schools. These mostly unintended consequences were, nevertheless, debilitating. Collateral damage from poorly developed and implemented public education policy….Hmm…where have we seen that recently?

Personally, I am very proud of my work with Head Start and its history. As with any large scale reform there are bound to be misuses and unintended consequences, especially in places where segregation was still fought in in 1965. Richmond didn’t desegregate until 1978. But, the strong African-American women who hired me, were the same women who started the Head Start program in Richmond in 1965. They have given me a respect for the program and it’s place in history. They made sure when I was hired (as a white male substitute teacher) that I understood what Head Start is really about. They made sure that I understood that I was going to be a part of something bigger than myself, or Richmond, or Virginia. It is a social program meant to lift families up. And it has done that for 43 years.

The real history of Head Start is that of a National program created to serve at-risk children from across the country. It is not the story of Head Start in Mississippi.

photo credit: YWCA of Chicago http://www.ywca.org/site/pp.asp?c=euLRI7OZH&b=177351

Save Humpty Dumpty!

I am always super excited when coincidence and effective practice converge in my classroom. I found out about the Super Why podcast yesterday and then read Karissa’s post on the Pre-K Now blog. If you are a Pre-K teacher and/or a Pre-K parent you might just know that problem solving in Nursery Rhymes and fairy tales is the premise of the awesome new PBS Kids show Super Why. You can even download free podcasts on itunes or another podcasting tool. Vanessa’s post about problem solving and nursery rhymes reminded me of a lesson we did a couple years ago in my classroom, inspired by my daughter’s preschool teacher who had students solve the problem of saving Humpty Dumpty from cracking. In my daughter’s class they used a real egg to represent Humpty. I was a little less keen on the prospects of eggs splattered all over the art area, so we used a plastic egg filled with jelly beans. Students solved the problem using materials gathered in the classroom. The picture below shows on of the pillows from the House area. We were able to talk about how and why Humpty did or didn’t crack. I know I will revisit this theme in the new year. Thanks for the inspiration Vanessa.

What is making policy?

What is making education policy? I am begining to think that it is really a frame of mind or a way of being. As a former avant garde artist turned all too mainstream, I understand that performance art is the same way. It can become a way of living. I wonder if I apply myself if I can become a policy “maker” like I am and was an art “maker.”
This metaphor has a huge appeal to me because, in times of frustration, I question if I am on the right path, if maybe I should be making more paintings and spending less time trying to make a difference for kids. If I became a policy “artist” then, that would put me in a frame of mind I can live in daily. I am comfortable with the insecurity of the artist who doesn’t know exactly where the next “piece” will come from.
I am excited and scared to realize what I am getting into as I step gingerly into education policy making. I recently made some recomendations to the Virginia Board of Ed. The experience was part of the policy making class I am taking through VCU. Getting my comments down to 3 minutes was excrutiaing but a very useful exercise. Actually presenting went well. I was afraid I was going to mess up because my wife has told me that when I read out loud, unless it is a children’s story, I am unintelligible. Well, it went well. I didn’t connect the way I would have liked to but, I know I made sense because I could tell they were listening.

I have considered associating myself with a an organization but, I just keep finding things that make me pull up short of contacting an advocacy group. Maybe it is my independent spirit. Maybe I am not commited yet. Time will tell.
I have finally begun to find other preschool teachers of the same mind as myself. One is Ms. Pappas at Inside Pre-K
She has some very thoughtful posts and is interested in the bigger issues of preschool.