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Obama’s Universal Preschool Plan: As Good as It Sounds?

6:56 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

President Obama promises to strengthen early childhood education, but will he follow through with funding? (Children's Bureau Centennial / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Originally posted at In These Times

Of all the mildly liberal, media-genic proposals that peppered President Barack Obama’s state of the Union Address, one seemed especially designed to withstand curmudgeonly criticism from the Right: universal preschool. The image of millions of young tots learning their ABCs and fingerpainting is hard to demonize as evil Big Government.

Nonetheless, Obama’s sweeping plan for the nationwide expansion of early childhood learning programs may not be as straightforward as it seems, especially for the workers who will be expected to carry out the program. The White House’s broad talking points leave open the question of whether the dramatic expansion of preschool programs will be coupled with adequate federal funding.

Plenty of empirical research shows that strong early childhood education can boost future educational development, particularly among kids facing socioeconomic barriers like poverty. But getting early education right means cultivating skilled and motivated teachers. Early childhood programs have long lacked the sustained funding to ensure that educators are equipped with pedagogical training and resources to help “level the playing field” for poor kids. Exacerbating the problem, severe state budget cuts have led to deep funding deficits nationwide.

Generally, the White House’s plan—which aims to achieve “common and consistent standards for quality across all programs”—does appear to promote fairer compensation and support for practitioners, including pay that is comparable to regular K-12 teachers.

But ensuring every kid in the country has a shot at a a high quality preschool program means starting earlier, with teacher training, in order to close massive gaps in the early learning workforce, which advocates say lacks the resources to maintain a well-trained, decently paid corps of educators. And that’s at current enrollment levels; unmet needs will likely soar under a universal preschool system, since currently, many eligible children are unserved because their families lack access to under-resourced public programs like Head Start. The White House’s overhaul proposal so far says little about whether Washington will reverse decades of underfunding.

If we want highly qualified staff that really understands child development and can really deliver high quality preschool, then the implementation of the proposal is definitely going to have to include some support for that workforce to be able to get those credentials and better compensation,” says Christine Johnson-Staub, an analyst with the social policy think tank CLASP.

How to nurture great early-childhood educators

From a labor perspective, the current system fails to provide real job sustainability. Early childhood educators are among the worst-paid education professionals. Unionization rates are typically low, and turnover is extremely high—especially when educators might earn far more money teaching kindergarten instead of pre-kindergarten next door. Many preschool educators are denied basic benefits that K-12 school teachers typically enjoy, such as class planning time and decent health benefits.

Advocates say that programs for early childhood development are often viewed simplistically as caregiving work, rather than as a critical part of a child’s education. That contributes to the low salaries and leads to a patchwork credentialing system and widely varying budgets. According to a 2009 analysis of the early childcare and education (ECE) workforce by the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at University of California, Berkeley:

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While Schools Sink, NYC Teachers Get Slammed in Shame Game

9:16 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Image: www.justseeds.org

Cross-posted from In These Times.

If ensuring the quality of teaching in public schools were a perfect science, you’d think that officials would have figured it out by now: since the enactment of the sweeping federal No Child Left Behind law, teachers have been measured, graded and ranked by all kinds of metrics, from demographic trends to standardized test scores. And yet we can’t seem to find that elusive numeric solution to the crisis in public education—possibly because complex social problems can’t be reduced to averages and bell curves.

But the fuzzy math hasn’t stopped New York City from publishing data reports for some 18,000 public school teachers: ratings based on convoluted performance measurements measures for reading and math classes in the fourth through eighth grades.

While officials pit the public’s supposed “right to know” against teachers’ privacy rights (a similar political controversy exploded in 2010 over teacher data for Los Angeles schools), the data hasn’t done much to enhance public understanding of what’s going on in the classroom. Many educators and parents are confused or angered by data that are, according to news reports, riddled with inconsistencies and errors. Though the “value added” ratings are supposed to account for some social disparities, the teachers union and other critics decry the methodology as critically flawed. The figures are further muddled by seemingly arbitrary variance in ratings among schools, as well as massive margins of error (dozens of points in math and reading scores).

Methodological gaps aside, the major problem with the data is an ethical one: the idea of “naming and shaming” teachers as a way to spur school improvement. Karen Fine, a teacher at Manhattan Public School 134, commented on New York Times’ Schoolbook website: Read the rest of this entry →