Sunday, August 10, 2008

Do We Expect Too Little of our Students from Pre-K On?

This article, "U.S.-British 'learning gap' a Real Education for Mom" appeared in today's Times. It is by Associated Press reporter (and mom) Nancy Zuckerbrod. Ms. Zuckerbrod was living in London and she and her husband had been looking at schools for their 5-year old Olivia. From the article:

"The head teacher and I exchanged pleasantries, and then she laid it out. My daughter, who commonly invokes the Mandarin word for little brother and usually wins at the game of hangman, has a significant "learning gap" when compared with her British peers — especially in literacy."

"An e-mail from the school followed. It politely spelled out exactly what the kids in that school were expected to master by Olivia's age: telling time; fractions — whole, half, quarter and thirds; counting in 5's up to 50; reading books (something called the pink new level) and starting to write "news" independently.

I thought about Olivia's school experience over the past year. She planted basil seeds with her beloved pre-K teacher. She learned about insects, drew a fantastic picture of Saturn and definitely mastered the monkey bars.

But she does not know how to tell time, isn't reading books on her own, and fractions — even American kids well into middle and high school are having massive trouble with those, according to a recent federal report.

Olivia went to a public school in Washington, among the few cities to offer free public pre-K. But even her friends who went to the city's most selective private schools aren't reading, telling time or doing fractions."

She goes on to explain:

"Britain has a national curriculum with specific goals, and schools there are rigorously inspected and evaluated. Most kids enter school at 4 instead of 5, as is the case here, and prekindergarten programs tend to be more academic than in the United States, where standards vary widely from state to state and between public and private settings.

It's not an open-and-shut case as to whether one country's approach is better than another. On a recent international reading test, U.S. fourth-graders and their peers from England had the same results. They weren't all that impressive. Students from the two countries posted lower average scores than students in Russia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Luxembourg, Hungary, Italy and Sweden, along with several Canadian provinces.

In math, kids in the United Kingdom, which includes Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, outperformed their American peers on an international test given to 15-year-olds."

Nothing new, students in the U.S. are not in the top ranks internationally.

What made me pause on this story, because we are in an election year, is that we need to do better, as a city, as a state, as a country, for kids ages 1-5. We need universal preschool. We need to close the gap that exists as kindergarteners walk in the door on day one.

Sure, there's always kids who are "ahead". My older son read at 3 1/2. Both my kids had Montessori pre-school and knew the continents and how to read a map at 4. (I consider my sons' Montessori teacher probably the finest teacher they ever had.)

Could they tell time, do fractions (well, simple ones, probably), read AND write like British kids? No.

In Sweden, they spend a lot of time on socialization and getting kids to think cooperatively and to learn at their own pace. Is that better?

I think as a district or as a country, we can (and should) decide what are the basic learning blocks we want our kids to start out with. Many would say in a competitive world, the sooner they start reading and writing the better. Some would say we rob children of their childhoods.

I vividly recall doing checks for my older son's kindergarten teacher. I took each student out to the hall. I was to give them a pile of disks and ask them to count them as high as they could. Most kids got to 20, a couple just to 5 and a few past 50. Then, I was to show them a box of 8 crayons and ask them the colors. One child only knew blue. At 5 years old, he knew one color (and he wasn't colorblind). And so on. It was painful to know, for kids at the bottom and kids at the top, how difficult the year might be.

The kids at the bottom might lose their self-confidence and happiness in going to school if they couldn't catch up. The kids at the top get to be bored while the teacher plays catch-up. And what of the teacher? Does she or he teach to the middle? What if the class size isn't an ideal 15-18? What if there are 25 kids?

It's one thing to have a few early bird learners and maybe a child who wasn't read to but it's another thing to have a classroom with equal amounts of both and then wonder what it does to the whole class.

We need universal Pre-K. It is better to invest in our children on the front end then try later on.


anonymous said...

Even if we have universal pre-k it would not be mandatory to send your children to it. We sent our kids to a Waldorf pre-school because we did not want them to be inundated with academics at age 3 and 4. It seemed absurd to us. Sure, they learned a lot at home just from interacting with us. They could count to 25 or so, they knew all of their colors from doing tons and tons of art projects, they could add and subtract 1 and 2 digit numbers. But they certainly did not know how to read, tell time, or do fractions. And we were happy about it. They were focused on what we believed 3 and 4 year olds should be focused on. Play, cooperation, learning how to listen, wait your turn, share, and be independent of mom and dad for short periods of time.

I would shun pre-k if it were offered to me, if it were academic based, however, I do understand how it could be a huge asset to families where children are not exposed to natural learning opportunities at home.

Jet City mom said...

Personally, I would prefer my children learn about their place in the world and the community: how to be kind, that it is ok to make mistakes, how to try new things when they are entering a group educational setting at a young age.

Both my kids entered " formal" schooling at roughly the same equivalent ages. One taught herself to read at three, the other didn't pick it up until nine.
What would have been accomplished by having her in a setting that demanded that she make up her " shortcomings" before she could go on to other work?

I agree that you can introduce concepts at a much younger age than is currently done.
Both my kids were introduced to algebra in their private schools- however- it wasn't called that.
But kids should be learning how to learn, not held to a checklist of tasks that some committee that wrote the WASL decided they should know before their 6th birthday

old salt said...

Finnish students score higher than UK students in international high school tests. They don't start school until age 7.

Perhaps early school experience is not the biggest variable that makes a difference.

hschinske said...

The real difficulty isn't about formal academic skills like fractions. It's about some children's lack of holistic *exposure* to language, math, science, etc. An enormous amount happens to children in the early years that they aren't necessarily ready to process and spit back out as product, but that makes an great difference to their achievement later on.

There is a difference between a child who has been read to every day and one who has seldom or never been read to, even if they eventually learn to read for themselves at the same age. There is an even bigger difference between a child who has talked with adults every day and one who hardly talks with adults at all.

Sure, there are a few kids out there who pick up on stuff like fractions and telling time very young, but it's not solely because they have nurturing environments (though most do). The point of creating a rich early learning environment isn't so that children can mature early, it's so that they can mature *well*. In such an environment, some do express their natural precocity, but some are late bloomers, too, and that's fine.

Helen Schinske

LouiseM said...

I am a Pre-K advocate if it focuses on socialization and basic learning. All four of my children started Pre-K at the age of two. They started 3 hours/day, 2 days/week then progressed to more days a they got older.

When each of them entered kindergarten, they had great vocabularies and were ready to learn. I could within 5 minutes tell which of my kids' classmates had Pre-K 'cause they had no clue what is was like to be in a classroom and follow instruction. Even my youngest daughter who is a special ed student did better because she had that early experience.

Personally, in terms of academics, I'm good with kids knowing their ABC's and the difference between numbers and letters, counting to about 50, writing their full name, and knowing their colors before they hit Kindergarten.

LouiseM said...

OK, let me try that one sentence again:

I could within 5 minutes tell which of my kids' classmates did not have Pre-K 'cause they had no clue what is was like to be in a classroom and follow instruction.

SolvayGirl said...

At 6-weeks, my daughter and I joined a PEPS group for MY education. At 6 months, we progressed to the parent-infant class at Seattle Central Community College. At two, we were at Capital Hill Co-Op. At three, she enrolled at Graham Hill's Montessori preschool (2 blocks from home) for 1/2 days.

The Montessori approach was perfect for her, and had a great combination of group activities and solo projects. She learned how to share, pick up after herself, work as a team and work alone. By kindergarten (full-day) she was ready to read and socialized. She was totally comfortable in the classroom and with the school as a whole.

When Graham Hill was on the closure list, one of the biggest reasons was the disparity between achievement of students in the Montessori Program and those in the traditional program. For those of us who were in the trenches, the only real difference was the preschool component. The traditional program has fabulous teachers...but many of their students start kindergarten with little/no preschool and many have not been read to (ESL students, etc.). It takes them a while to catch up.

My personal experience showed me that preschool (not necessarily one heavy in academics) can make a huge difference in early education.

anonymous said...

My children went to a non academic pre school. They had a lot of fun, learned to play with other kids, learned to follow instruction and listen to their teacher, etc. However they were not taught anything academic.

We read to our children at home, we travelled, we sang the ABC song, but we did not try to teach them academics. We just didn't feel that it was age appropriate.

When my first son got to kindergarten he knew all of his colors as he was very artistic and drew a lot at home, he could only count to 15 but did not recognize numbers when seen on paper and he could sing the ABC song but did not recognize letters on paper.

He was one of the first kids reading in the class. In fact he was reading at a second grade level at the end of kindergarten. Now, in middle school, he takes all honors classes!

He was nurtured at home, and he was ready to learn. Being exposed to academics at the early ages of 2,3 and 4 may make it easier on a teacher that has 24 students, but I don't think it benefits the average child.

Perhaps children that do not get nurtured at home would benefit from an academic approach at a younger age? Perhaps it could make up for what the child lacked learning at home. But for the average child, that is read to, cared for, taken on walks and to the park, makes art, and socializes with other children, I don't think an academic pre-school makes one bit of difference.

dan dempsey said...

Try the list below from the last time PISA MATH was given. The international test to 15 year olds. Keep in mind that idea of better late than early and check the Finland results.

Our principal problem is politically correct bureaucratic control that fails to look for measurable results. Our math in the USA is founded on a different philosophy from the rest of the world. Our social family structure in in much worse shape than three decades ago.

Here is you math list:
Mathematics scores in PISA 2006

Finland 548
Korea 547
Netherlands 531
Switzerland 530
Canada 527
Japan 523
New Zealand 522
Belgium 520
Australia 520
Denmark 513
Czech Republic 510
Iceland 506
Austria 505
Germany 504
Sweden 502
Ireland 501
France 496
United Kingdom 495
Poland 495
Slovak Republic 492
Hungary 491
Luxembourg 490
Norway 490
Spain 480
United States 474
Portugal 466
Italy 462
Greece 459
Turkey 424
Mexico 406
OECD average 498

Hong Kong-China 547
Macao-China 525
Liechtenstein 525
Latvia 486
Russian Federation 476
Uruguay 427
Thailand 417
Indonesia 391
Brazil 370
Tunisia 365

In 2006 the only countries scoring lower than the US are:

Portugal 466
Italy 462
Greece 459
Turkey 424
Mexico 406
Uruguay 427
Thailand 417
Indonesia 391
Brazil 370
Tunisia 365

The USA is not below either Russia or Spain by a Statistically Significant amount.

The USA is below, by a statistically significant amount, 23 OECD members and 4 partners.

It appears that the only significantly advanced creditable industrialized country that the US outscored in math was Italy.

USA dropped 9 points from three years earlier.

PISA is given every three years.

x said...

So, I don't ever recall taking the "PISA". I don't ever recall my children taking the "PISA". Talk about paying attention to data. Data based on tests which the tester selects the tested, is also pretty worthless. Lots of this chicken little math attitude is based on exactly tests given to some tiny group here and there... and then drawing lots of conclusions.

Dorothy Neville said...

Google PISA. Download the technical report. It is 322 pages. Sampling design is discussed starting on page 39, right after a comprehensive explanation of test design.

Let's hear it for mathematical and statistical literacy.

dan dempsey said...

Dear X,

PISA is a test given to specifically selected samples of a student population. The age of 15 is selected because that is the age at which students are still required to be in school in the European Economic Community. The sampling is done in such a way as to give a random sample of those in school at age 15.

Most countries scores varied only small amounts from 2003 to 2006. The USA score was one of the largest drops 9 points.
Japan revised their math standards in 2002 (which they do every 10 years). Japan made significant changes which made them more USA like. From 2003 to 2006 Japan scores dropped 11 points. When PISA results came out in late 2007 Japan began looking at revisions to what was done in 2002 rather thn waiting until 2112. The thought was that 1992 Japan standards were much better than what happened in 2002.

You make a valid point about..
Data based on tests which the tester selects the tested, is also pretty worthless.

The question becomes about how the sampled group is selected. PISA and TIMSS maintain their sampling procedures given a statistically valid random sample of each nation.

If you look at the text books used in these countries and compare them with the books in widespread use in the USA. These results are certainly reasonable. The use of Singapore Math Textbooks in the few places implemented in the US gave excellent results. This certainly give reason to believe that the Singapore Grade k-6 curricula in math is vastly superior to those widely used in the US. The fact that Singapore has led at both grade 4 and grade 8 in the TIMSS tests over the last several years is not a sampling problem it is a reflection of reality. Our nation has had great changes both socially and educationally since the USA was an education leader in the 1960s.

Look at current remediation rates and the statement made by UW professors. Read it in the PI click HERE.

Other nations expect more than does the USA in math. Look at the Everyday Math books and Connected Math books in use in Seattle k-8.
Look at Singapore Math books grade 6. Our curricula in Math is defective.

Jet City mom said...

Fergawdsake hard as it is to believe, there are more important things than writing proofs in high school/

Personal responsibility & community involvement, the ability to recognize ethical dilemmas and make thoughtful decisions & appreciation and tolerance of those who are of a different race/religion/educational background than yourself are all things I would place above being able to use paper and pencil for something that others may need a calculator.

Didn't any other teachers or parents participate in the Seeds of Compassion gathering earlier this year.?

There are more pressing issues in our community than academic rigor being pushed down to preschool.

dan dempsey said...

Class of 75,

I agree. I mourn the disappearance of the non-rigorous kindergarten. It now appears that some would like preschool to become academia.

Finland is a high scoring nation that de-emphasizes standardized testing and believes in better late than early.

A lot of things in school are taught poorly and too early, then a lot of time is spent trying to correct mistakes.

Is education creating richer lives?
In some cases it apparently impoverishes living life.

On size does not fit all.
Unfortunately NCLB, WASL and the SPS appear to believe otherwise.

Melissa Westbrook said...

Well, I did try to present this issue in a balanced manner. I'm not advocating an academic push in pre-K but just saying that the gap between children who have been read to, taken to the zoo, library, etc. and those who haven't needs to close. I'm on the side of the Swedish/Finnish model but my kids got a lot out of Montessori without any heavy-duty academics.

Maureen said...

We did Co-op preschool with our kids--very child directed play, very nonacademic...however the culture and the cohort was very educated. I've often thought (and said to many people) that co-op--with its parent education program, community creation, and relatively low cost--would be great for low income/young & or single moms.

I've been told, repeatedly, that young, poor moms don't want people (or at least middle class people) telling them the best way to parent their kids. Could this be true? (I loved having experienced parents and educators give me guidance!).

I think that the achievement gap cannot be eliminated if we start with five year olds: Universal pre K might have a chance, if only because people will sign up to cover child care costs. It can't just be available to low income kids though--that won't get enough support. It has to be available to middle class families as well--even if many of us don't take advantage of it. (They do this in Georgia for 4 year olds -- Not everyone gets a spot, but assignments are by lottery, not income level).

Jet City mom said...

Regarding Family & Education Levy
Services Funded

Levy and CYAP funds are used primarily to expand and extend child care, building on services and supports that are ongoing. For example, Seattle’s child care subsidy fund existed for some years before the levy, and the city has funded child care training for many years. New activities are also funded: for example, funds go to family advocates based in family support centers across the city who work directly with child care providers and parents to improve relationships, and to the Business Initiative, which is working to build partnerships among area businesses and child care programs.

Child care activities are funded within two categories, totaling $2.3 million: early childhood development and out-of-school activities. A total of $1.8 million was allocated for subsidies, training and other quality improvements in early childhood development in 1995-96. Within the out-of-school activities category, $520,000 was allocated for school-age child care.

The $1.8 million represents a variety of programs. About $450,000 was added to the city of Seattle’s child care subsidy pool, which is designed to serve families who are over the income eligibility limits for state child care subsidy funds. Support and training for child care service providers (including school-age care) received $300,000. Support for the school district’s preschool program (CAMPI, named for its originators, the Central Area Mothers’ Preschool Initiative) totaled $650,000. Another $400,000 partially supports the school district’s state prekindergarten program (ECEAP - Early Childhood Education Assistance Program) and local Head Start agencies to expand services, offer longer days and improve quality. (These funds can be used for Head Start’s required local match.)...Part of the revenue generated by the levy ($2.1 million) was designated to fund programs formerly funded by the school district. In the original plan, these were: $146,000 for Head Start and the state-funded prekindergarten program (ECEAP); $407,000 for the locally designed preschool (CAMPI); $231,000 for elementary guidance counselors; and $1.325 million for nursing services in schools. Shifting funds from the school district budget to the city budget could have the potential for "supplantation." However, the school district was required to redirect the amount of funds freed by the levy to a defined set of specific educational enrichment priorities that would improve classroom learning environments. How these redirected funds are used must be reported annually as part of the accountability plan for the levy. The district has used the "redirect" primarily for class-size reductions and staff development.

I remember the CAMPI preschools- they were very popular.

anonymous said...

Maureen, I was the chair of the Diversity Committee at my children's south end co-op pre-school (I used to live in the central area). We continually tried to reach out to low income families, but were never very successful, even though we were one of the few co-ops that offered scholarships.

The number one barrier that I ran into with low income families is that they needed all day care so they could work. Our pre-school was only opened four days a week and then just four hours a day. The second barrier was transportation. They needed a school within walking distance or that provided transportation, like some of the church daycares do.

TechyMom said...

It seems like we're just un-funding K. We make K like 1st (or even 2nd) grade, and many people wait until their kids are 6 to start. You know, 6, when most kids are ready for sit-in-your-desk-and-write-in-a-workbook first grade work. So, those families end up paying for preschool and pre-k programs that are like K used to be, and loosing a year of publicly funded school. You also get 19-year-old seniors, which just seems like a recipe for dropouts.

If some kids are ready for 1st grade at 5, by all means let them skip K and start 1st grade at 5 (I did, and knew a couple others in school). For the rest, offer a real K experience.

MRabbit said...

In the original article the author was told that the UK schools had specific knowledge requirements for 5 year olds. This is true for all grades, but not unlike here not all children have to have met all of these requirements to pass to the next grade. We shouldn't construe the article to mean that all 5 year old children in the UK can tell time and know fractions. Not unlike here, that may be true for the school of a child of the middle class, but not for the unemployed or working poor. In the UK, the education is extremely test centric and most likely the author received the note from the headmaster/mistress because they didn't want their high achievement test scores messed up by a child who, while bright in her own right, didn't have the specific knowledge to pass the test. Along with the yearly testing for Key/Stage achievement, they also have school inspection reports which make or break the careers of heads of schools in the UK. In general, this has pushed them down the path of worrying about the test scores more than about the actual learning of the children. One benefit of the system is that at least all children take the same test. You can see across the country how any given school is meeting the testing requirements.

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Anonymous said...

Interesting to read back these posts from 2008, and to compare this to which countries are succeeding in their approach to educating children. Those who top the list are the countries who delay formal academic instruction until age 7. So I think the answer to the question posed by this blog post is, "Do We Expect Too Much (academically speaking) of our Students from Pre-K On."

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