Will Testing Be the Focus of Pre-K Programs?

The current pre-kindergarten bills being discussed before the United States Senate and House have the potential to positively impact education across our country.  The decision to provide states with the funds to meet the needs of our youngest learners signals a fundamental shift in thinking.  Federal and state politicians seem to finally agree that our country needs to focus on early childhood education.

The House proposal (H.R. 1041- PRE-K Act) includes the following language regarding what pre-kindergarten programs should look like:

Use of research-based curricula that are aligned with State early learning standards that are developmentally appropriate and include, at a minimum, each of the following domains:

(i) Language development.
(ii) Literacy.
(iii) Mathematics.
(iv) Science.
(v) Creative arts.
(vi) Social and emotional development.
(vii) Approaches to learning.
(viii) Physical and health development.

The House’s description seems to be aligned with the goals of most state-level early childhood programs.  They could add a line about the importance of developing a curiosity and love for learning, but maybe they consider that covered under (vi) and (vii).  States will likely have some freedom in choosing the scope and sequence of their pre-kindergarten programs.  Like Race to the Top, however, they will have to meet specific requirements in order to “opt in” to the federal program and receive funding.

On the surface, the proposals by the House and Senate seem to mean nothing but good things to come for early childhood education in the United States. There is, however, one catch that doesn’t seem to be getting much attention.  Both the Senate and House proposals include language that requires states to have a monitoring process to evaluate the effectiveness of their pre-kindergarten programs.  In her Edweek blog, Alyson Klein noted that, “States would have to have early-learning standards, be able to link preschool data to K-12, and provide state-funded kindergarten, among other requirements.”

Yes, accountability is important.  The federal government will expect to have a certain level of control when their funds are used for pre-kindergarten programs.  My worry is that the feds and states will turn the accountability piece into an early childhood version of NCLB and Race to the Top.

Will their pattern of focusing on data override the need to train teachers, provide materials, and build strong early childhood programs?  Maybe some brave member of Congress can bring this concern up before we have a law on the books that leads to an over-emphasis on testing our youngest learners.  Perhaps we could focus first on providing them with rich learning environments and highly skilled teachers.  If we truly care about early childhood education in the United States, we should build the programs up before we examine their efficacy.

What About Kindergarten?

The United States House of Representatives and Senate are currently considering separate bills on strengthening pre-kindergarten programs across the United States.  On the surface, this sounds like great news.  Who would argue against providing educational opportunities to four-year-olds?

There is, however, (at least) one problem.  The House and Senate bills do not address the need to provide all day kindergarten in all fifty states.  President Obama’s initial proposal included funds for all-day kindergarten.  The House and Senate proposals lack that element and include funding formulas that are discretionary (Alyson Klein, Edweek Blog, November 13, 2013).

This could lead to the age-old problem of unfunded mandates.  By the eighth year of the proposed Senate bill, states would be responsible for providing 50% of the cost of their pre-kindergarten programs.  Where that money would come from is a mystery.

So, as exciting as funding for pre-kindergarten sounds, we are still a nation without full-day kindergarten in all fifty states.  In fact, only ten (10) states and DC offer full day kindergarten programs.  Thirty-four (34) states offer half day kindergarten programs and six (6) have no requirement for kindergarten attendance.  In addition, many of the states that offer kindergarten programs do so without making attendance mandatory (childrensdefense.org).

Any bill being proposed to build pre-kindergarten programs must include funding for mandatory full-day kindergarten programs in all fifty states first.  Can you imagine states developing strong pre-kindergarten programs and then sending their students to kindergarten programs that are half day and/or optional?

We should applaud the President, the Senate, and the House for making early childhood education a priority.  Those who work in primary level schools can tell you that the earlier we get children in school, the bigger impact we can make.  The opportunity to reach out to four-year-olds and their families is exciting.  It is, however, tempered by the knowledge that as a nation we have yet to fully commit to the education of our five-year-olds.  Let’s get that right first and then address the pre-kindergarten dilemma.

Related links:

http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/sarameads_policy_notebook/2013/11/harkin-miller_pre-k_bill_released_whats_good_whats_not_so_good_and_a_few_key_questions.html

http://earlyed.newamerica.net/blogposts/2012/full_day_kindergarten-65006

http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/campaign-k-12/2013/11/house_and_senate_preschool_bil.html

Extending the Edcamp Philosophy to School-based PD

I recently attended EdCampBmore at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. This was a wonderfully organized and attended event.  There were educators from Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and even New Hampshire in attendance.  These committed professionals gave up a Saturday to share their expertise with like-minded peers.

If you are unfamiliar with the edcamp philosophy, the following explanation appears on edcampbmore’s website:

“An unconference is an open, participant-driven conference. The content is proposed and provided by the participants, and is often determined on the day of the event. This style of learning is not new. It stems from the model of barcamps, which were originally focused on software, web applications, and open source technology. Unconferences rely heavily on the passions and interests of the participants. Because of this, unconferences have become an extremely popular form of professional development.”

The website also includes this table that explains the differences between traditional conferences and edcamps:

Conference vs Edcamp

Baltimore’s edcamp was organized by Shannon Montague (@montysays), Molly Smith(@historyfriend), Jenna Shaw (@teachbaltshaw), Jen Filosa (@jafilosa), Chris Shriver (@ccshriver), and Margaret Roth (@teachingdaisy).  These amazing ladies pulled together the resources to provide an exceptional professional development experience for those in attendance.

The range of topics covered included:

  • flipping professional development
  • project-based learning
  • school leadership
  • chromebooks
  • student behavior
  • standards-based grading
  • school culture
  • social media community building
  • CCSS
  • early childhood technology
  • blended classrooms
  • engaging students through gaming
  • genius hour
  • STEAM/STEM
  • maker spaces
  • the role of the school counselor
  • student entrepreneurship
  • thinning the classroom walls

I had trouble getting to sleep that evening because it occurred to me that the edcamp philosophy could easily be translated to school-level professional development.  As a firm believer in the collective intelligence of schools, it concerns me that we don’t always tap into the knowledge of the teachers in our buildings.  In fact, one of the most popular forms of PD over the past 30 years has been the use of outside experts to train teachers in the pedagogy du jour.

The edcamp philosophy eschews this approach in favor of professional development that is created by, and shared with, those working in the field.  Our teachers have interests and strengths that can be enhanced when they are given opportunities to discuss their practices.  So much of the time that we give teachers for planning is taken by the functional aspects of teaching.  Very little of it is spent in fostering creativity and improving the profession.

The edcamp approach to professional development could be a great way to inject excitement back into the profession.  How much stronger could our schools become if the teachers in the building were given the chance to share their knowledge with their peers in deep and meaningful ways?  I don’t know the exact answer, but I plan to find out.  Don’t tell my teachers, but we’re about to plan our first school-based edcamp.  Now I’ll never get to sleep!

Will Other States Follow NY’s Testing Scale-back?

The state of New York continues to serve as a sign of what is to come for districts that have adopted the Common Core State Standards.  In Javier Hernandez’s New York Times article yesterday (New York State Seeks to Scale Back Student Testing) we learn that state commissioner John B. King Jr. is offering concessions on testing.

The commissioner, who recently has been criticized by parents and educators, acknowledged in the article that, “The amount of testing should be the minimum necessary to inform effective decision-making.”  That statement alone should give hope to those who are cynical of the current state of testing.

Hernandez wrote, “The proposals are modest, but they represent a rare concession from state leaders, who have faced attacks from parents and teachers in recent weeks over the rollout of a tougher set of standards known as the Common Core.”

In the article, Jane Hirschmann, co-chairwoman of Time Out From Testing, stated that,“All this emphasis is being put on testing, instead of developing an enriched curriculum that produces real learning for children.”  Hirschmann also indicated that the commissioner’s concessions would not satisfy those critical of the level of testing associated with the Common Core.

So what does all of this mean for those outside of New York?  It means that one of the largest adopters of the CCSS is experiencing significant growing pains.  It means that despite the federal government’s attempt to homogenize education, states are beginning to adjust teaching and testing to meet the needs of their students.

Let’s hope that the other states that are a step behind New York in adopting the Common Core State Standards are paying attention.  If so, they can avoid making the same missteps and foster a smoother adoption of the standards.

Link to full article in NY Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/26/nyregion/new-york-state-seeks-to-scale-back-student-testing.html?_r=0&adxnnl=1&ref=education&adxnnlx=1382792424-ZCQX8TXCl7JcONRkTQ9Hsg

Let’s Challenge the “Testing Juggernaut”

Arnold Dodge and Charles Lavine have an article in Valerie Strauss’ Answer Sheet column in today’s Washington Post.  It’s titled, “Legislator, educator challenging ‘testing juggernaut’.”  Dodge is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Educational Leadership and Administration at Long Island University-Post.  Lavine is a member of the New York State Assembly.  It is rare to have educators and politicians collaborate.  Their article speaks to the growing number of parents and teachers who continue to question the state of testing in America.

Dodge and Lavine write:

“The current testing regimes, which impact every facet of school life, are crippling our students’ ability to learn, grow and develop. A recent national poll by PDK/Gallup found the public less than enthusiastic about significant increases in testing, with 41% of respondents saying that additional testing made no difference in school performance and 36% responding that it had hurt school performance.”

At what point will federal and state education officials realize that NCLB and Race to the Top were, and are, poor initiatives that have led to little or no change in the academic achievement of our students?  How long will it take until we realize that we are over-testing our students?

Dodge and Lavine argue that, “We need a rich curriculum, assessment and measurements that are formative and diagnostic for teacher use, an honest look at our current strengths in the worldwide education stage, and an understanding that stressed out kids will not be successful learners.”

Teachers and school leaders embrace the idea that assessment is critical to their profession.  Teachers use data on a daily basis.  Formative assessment is the cornerstone of differentiated instruction.  Imagine, however, what teachers in America could do if all of the money that is spent on paying testing companies was, instead, spent on teacher training and materials of instruction?

We need more advocates like Dodge and Lavine.  We need governors and state education heads to stand up for their children.

Article link:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2013/10/24/legislator-educator-challenging-testing-juggernaut/

Are Teacher-led Schools Viable?

The October edition of Educational Leadership focused on leveraging teacher leadership.  This is a topic near and dear to my heart.  I am convinced that growing teacher leadership is the key to raising the level of instruction in our nation’s schools.  I also believe that principals are responsible for making this happen.  I was, therefore, intrigued with Lori Nazareno’s article titled, Portrait of a Teacher-Led School.

In her article, Nazareno describes the teacher-led school she opened in Denver, Colorado.  According to her, “(they) have consciously created an environment that requires all teachers to lead in a climate in which everyone owns student learning.”  The school reports that is uses teacher teams as well as peer observation and evaluation to guide instruction.

The article gives a balanced view of the innovation that can be fostered in a teacher-led school, while also outlining the challenges of leadership in a “flat” organization.  Nazareno isn’t suggesting that all schools can make do without a principal.

New ideas in teaching and school leadership are needed and should be welcomed.  If a teacher-led school model fosters increased academic achievement, then we should embrace it.  Nazareno, however, doesn’t offer any data to tout her school’s success.  It would be interesting to see a longitudinal study conducted on the efficacy of teacher-led schools.  Of course, there is more to a school’s success than student performance data.

After reading the article, I still feel strongly that teacher leadership should be able to thrive regardless of whether a school is led by a principal or by a lead-teacher.  In fact, a strong, collaborative principal can foster a level of leadership that empowers teachers to make the same instructional decisions that are made in teacher-led schools.  Principals are also skilled at protecting teachers from administrative tasks that can sidetrack their instructional focus.

Frankly, the concept of teacher-led schools also makes me a little sad.  Has the state of education reached such a low point that principals are now seen as obstacles to the learning process?  I also find it a little ironic that when you visit the website for Nazareno’s school*, the Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy, they list a principal and a lead teacher as staff members.  This would suggest that maybe the packaging was changed, but the contents are the same.

Perhaps the biggest contribution of the teacher-led movement is that the term lead-learner has become popular.  If a principal sees himself or herself as the lead learner, then it won’t matter what other titles he or she may hold.  Teacher-led schools are unlikely to replace principal-led schools, but maybe their ideology can influence school leaders to be more collaborative and team-centered.

* As noted in the article, Nazareno left the Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy for a position as a teacher-in-residence with the Center for Teaching Quality in Conifer, Colorado.

ASCD members and EL subscribers can access Nazareno’s article at the following link:

http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational_leadership/oct13/vol71/num02/Portrait_of_a_Teacher-Led_School.aspx

Our Students Deserve Better

“What parents are observing is the inevitable consequence of a reform that did not put the gradual implementation of standards first, but rather put testing front and center, as charter schools do. King’s holding of the microphone for one and a half hours at the now infamous Poughkeepsie hearing (and the subsequent suspension of further hearings) was a strategy to contain the voices of teachers, principals and parents across the state who are saying, “Slow down. Something is wrong. Let’s thoughtfully institute reform, keeping the well-being of our children front and center.”

The paragraph above recently appeared in Valerie Strauss’ Washington Post column.  It was written by Carol Burris, a New York high school principal who has criticized the test-driven reform taking place in her state.

New York has been moving forward with Race to the Top reforms and is ahead of many states in the process of implementing the Common Core.  This means they are also ahead of other states in rating principals and teachers using results from brand new assessments.  New York is an educational canary in the coal mine.  Other states would benefit from paying attention to what is going on there.

What is becoming clear is that the federal government, and the states that are adopting the CCSS, have skipped a step in the implementation process.  Their missteps are driven by an attempt to comply with federal guidelines and to avoid losing out on funds.  They have rushed past the provision of adequate training on the standards to rating and evaluating teachers and principals using questionable student data.  They completely skipped over the teaching part.

I have heard very little criticism directed at the content and scope of the CCSS from teachers.  No one is arguing that raising the level of instructional rigor is a bad thing.  Teachers and principals just want the time to learn the new standards before being judged by assessment results.

Ironically, Race to the Top has brought us right back to the problems associated with No Child Left Behind.  The data-driven focus of NCLB forced many school districts to adopt a teach to the test approach to instruction.  Can we all agree that teaching to the test is a poor way to raise the level of rigor?  Our students deserve better.