Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Is Building Bright Futures
Stacking the Stats
For Universal Preschool?

A friend has attended several data-seeking meetings of the new educational nonprofit serving metropolitan Omaha low-income children, Building Bright Futures, www.buildingbrightfutures.net. She is glad to be offered a chance to try to influence the way the early childhood grants are going to shaped, but is dismayed over the direction she believes things are going.

She supports Building Bright Future's efforts to attract significant additional funding for early childhood education in metropolitan Omaha for low-income children. But she opposes the social engineering aspects that are coming with that extra funding. What's scary is that once the Building Bright Futures program is in place funded by these private grants, the services -- good or bad -- will transform into "entitlements," and eventually the taxpayers will be expected to foot the bill.

It appears to be a regression back toward the standardized child care in the government nurseries of the Soviet Union in the 1950s and '60s, instead of what you’d expect in 2009: an array of richly-diverse choices, including lots of support for parents who choose to mostly rear their own children in their own homes.

Examples: Building Bright Futures is apparently going to suggest a radical reduction in the staff-to-child ratio that is permissible in early childhood settings. That step alone would drive most private-sector day-cares and preschools out of business.

The group also is set to require frequent mental-health "assessments" of preschool children that are likely to lead to lots of "interventions" in the form of prescriptions for drugs such as antidepressants. And the group will likely propose "free" health clinics, perhaps traveling nurses for preschools but full-fledged health clinics in schools.

This school-based health care push will add more costs and tasks to the schools’ already-overburdened "plate" and will contribute to the skyrocketing cost of Medicaid. The clinics will replace parents as the child’s perceived health-care advocate, dispense birth control behind parents' backs, and further build a wall of separation between children and the parents who are supposed to be responsible for their care and upbringing. In a way, it will be "enabling" child neglect.

However, overall, the source is hopeful that the right things will mostly happen if all points of view are explored and discussed in Building Bright Futures – and if the donors are given accurate information that provides a truthful picture of the early childhood world. As a professional in the child care field, she is very excited to know that heavy hitters – rich and powerful people – are interested in donating money to early childhood programs that can make a difference. She just hopes that difference will make things better for all kids, not worse for any.

But she called me with grave concerns over the way that the data on the status of early childhood education in Omaha is being put together. She believes it is being skewed on purpose to favor the taxpayer-funded, heavily-staffed, school-operated, big day-care centers and preschools, and to disparage the quality of smaller church-based and home-based day-care operations in order to drive them out of business.

This information will be presented to donors, state senators and other decision-makers and policy-shapers, but she is afraid the information will be distorted and skewed by the way it is being collected, and decisionmakers will be none the wiser.

She believes the result will deceptively suggest that heavily standardized child care curricula delivered in large, governmental settings is best for preschool children. But that is a bad and dangerous idea. The problem is that the people putting this curricula in place don’t know any other way. They are mostly trained as K-12 educators, and they will control the staff development, so that nobody in early childhood ed will know any other way than the standardized way.

Meanwhile, K-12 educators have a less than stellar track record with Omaha's at-risk student populations as it is. Remember that the vast majority of inner-city students in metro Omaha cannot read, write or do math at grade level, and our percentages of children of color who drop out before high-school graduation are among the highest in the nation. Now that record of failure will be spread to the previously-diverse early childhood world, and it's sad.

Diversity in child-care provision is what my friend supports: strong safeguards for parental choice and all kinds of settings, all kinds of providers, and all kinds of curricula are what she believes is best.

But if this young professional is correct, the Building Bright Futures program is going to kill off the affordable private-sector alternatives in early childhood ed by directing their grants toward the big, standardized nurseries. Then only rich parents will be able to afford private preschools. Middle-class parents will be forced to use the "free" government preschool option. Preschools that aren't dependent on grants will be able to provide better-quality programming. Consequently, the achievement gap between rich children, and everybody else, will be expanded instead of contracted.

While preschool educational outcomes might improve for the poorest of the poor – and research does affirm that quality early childhood education is great for that student population -- the "leveling" that will occur in these large, standardized programs will wind up giving middle class children lower quality preschool experiences that will make them worse off than they are now.

My source shared the Building Bright Futures report, "Key Messages From Early Childhood Providers Outreach Session" dated February 2009, to back up her concerns. The sessions were held in November 2008.

A look at the topics and the people whose opinions were being collected bolsters the notion that these data are being "spun" to make it look like government-provided, subsidized, accredited and standardized early childhood education for all children, rich and poor – commonly called "universal preschool" -- is best for kids, and therefore should be the goal.

As an example, my source pointed to the fact stated in the report that 62% of the participants in the data-collection meeting work in a day-care center rather than in a family day-care home. Of those who work in day-care centers, 64% work at a center that is licensed for more than 50 children. That’s a HUGE child-care setting – not at all what the research shows is best for young children. The best setting is the home, or a child-care operation which mimics the home, with a relatively small number of children, and caregivers who are able to give a lot of warmth, nurturance, support and love.

In large, impersonal centers with the litigation risk looming overhead at all times, staff may not even be able to hug a child. And in the long run, that lack of demonstrated affection in the young child's experience is extremely damaging and might be contributing to the wave of bad behavior in K-12 schools that we're seeing.

It's also sad to note that apparently no stay-at-home mothers and fathers were included in the survey, completely wiping out a huge set of "stakeholders" in how quality early childhood education is defined. There are tons of people who believe that kids are better off with just a few hours a week of preschool experience, spending most of their time at home or in a small child-care setting in a home. But those views aren't included in the survey results.

Another red flag: 61% of participants were using the same canned preschool curriculum guide, Creative Curriculum, which appears to be the "model" for standardized early childhood ed in metro Omaha. While it has a good mix of topics, from cooking to music to pre-literacy activities, it is heavily into the "child-centered" philosophy, also known as "discovery learning," which is prevalent in early primary school classrooms right now.

"Discovery learning," or "constructivism," is popular because the teachers' colleges promote it as "the way" and because working educators have been taught in staff development workshops that it is more "progressive" to merely "facilitate" learning rather than actively, explicitly, systematically and directly teaching the children facts, ideas and skills.

In a "discovery learning" preschool or school classroom, the adults "stay out of the children's way" and let the children guide themselves in "centers" doing activities, rather than actually teach the content to the children.

This kind of philosophy frowns on adults demonstrating, guiding and teaching any materials, or indeed, interacting very much with the children and giving them vocabulary words or explaining things to them. Instead, what is favored is the practice of just laying out the supplies for various activities and letting the kids have at it.

The grade-school equivalent is Whole Language – the notion that if you just expose children to text, they'll pick up reading and spelling on their own -- which has been demonstrated for decades to be a total failure compared to fast, easy, cheap phonics instruction. Another example is Whole Math, which minimizes computation, memorization and math facts in favor of more abstract problem-solving activities, estimating and receiving credit for wrong answers as long as the "process" used to arrive at them was creative, group projects and other "child-centered" math activities which, unfortunately, result in most children having substandard math skills compared to generations past.

But the participants in the Building Bright Futures meetings were not given any options to vote for traditional preschool literacy and math activities. So my friend believes the stage is being set for declaring discovery learning curricula as the high-quality "standard," most popular among early-childhood providers, and sadly, the tried-and-true methods that work will become unfamiliar and soon vanish.

Meanwhile, she pointed out from the statistics that a high percentage of the children served by the participants in the Building Bright Futures surveys were receiving child-care subsidies through Title XX of the Social Security Act and are on the Child and Adult Care Food Program because they are low-income.

That doesn't match the overall demographic of the Omaha metro area, but again, children of all demographics will be viewed the same as these low-income students. That spells overspending, waste, and poor quality, with an accent on the revenue stream rather than on meeting young children’s individual needs.

And here's proof of that: when asked what they would do if they were given additional funding, 44% said they would give staff a raise and another 14% said they would hire another adult. Only 3% said they would buy more toys and materials for the children. That’s pretty telling.

Also evidence that the big-government fix is in is that 79% thought it would be "very helpful" to have a nurse come in to do health checks (no mention, however, of who would pay for that, or what would be done with the nurse’s findings), and 81% favored "developmental" screenings twice per year – again, with no mention of whether young children deemed "at risk" of school failure by some kind of pop psychology standards are going to be identified as young as age 3 and put on psychotropic drugs and so forth.

Can you see the "government nannies" taking over parental autonomy? Now, everybody's for good health care for children. The problem comes when the government tries to substitute in the parent role. It only discredits parents even further in their children’s eyes, and makes people of all ages more dependent on the government.

In addition, 60% of the day-care personnel queried said it would be "extremely important" for them to have "help" with "goals" – translation: standardized programming. And 86% favored having a "coach" to "help" with the overall program – translation: a government overseer. That means they are willing to cave in to the standardizations proposed by BBF in exchange for the grant funding.

So that's the status of the push toward universal preschool in Omaha. But it's nothing new. This is going on all around the country. For more on how this is being done – and how it is being opposed in other states – visit www.EdWatch.org and go to the "National Stories" archive to see stories on "universal preschool," "Baby Ed and Early Childhood Ed" and related topics.

What would be a better course of action than what Building Bright Futures is doing?

I would rather see a volunteer corps of experienced mothers and fathers set up to mentor and advise young parents and empower them, and advise child-care providers on an optional basis, alongside the university and government, rather than funding a huge new behemoth of government services to replace what the family has done down through the centuries: care for children.

I was a member of the Junior League of Omaha, a group of professional volunteers, and I could sure see a "Senior League" being set up to pass parenting life skills on to the next generation.

Getting books into children's homes, teaching their parents to talk to them about anything and everything, and read to them 30 minutes a day, would all go a long way toward improving kindergarten readiness and strengthening the family -- and would be not only more effective for kids, but tons and tons cheaper.

Labels: , ,

Susan, this is a detailed, informed and thoughtful critique of what "Building Bright Futures" is doing vis-a-vis early childhood education. They really ought to read it.

Personally, were I an affluent person donating to early childhood education initiatives, I would start a fund to give vouchers to very low-income parents that they could use at any accredited pre-school of their choice. (Preferably the accreditation would be done by national or regional reputable private associations, as colleges are now accredited, not by the state or national government.)This approach would encourage diversity, innovation and competiton as the schools would compete for the vouchers. Parents could customize thier child's education rather than having to settle for a one size fits all government model.For example, the parent could choose a religious pre-school, or one that specialized in foreign languages, or used phonics..(Early childhood is THE time to learn foreign languages.)

One thing seems clear: We do not need our pretty poor, despite many excellent teachers, public schools, ranked 19th in the industrialized world, replicated in pre-schools. But then, hay, I'm just an epistemological troglodyte, unversed in the arcane and sophisticated methodologies of today's educator classes. Don't mind me.
Post a Comment