And How are the Children..?

Posts Tagged ‘education

Obama’s Right-Wing School Reform | The New York Review of Books.

I wonder what people think of this article (HT to @Thanks2Teachers via Twitter for bringing it to my attention).  Please share your thoughts:

I have been disappointed with what feels like a pretty conservative approach to education reform.  *To clarify, I mean conservative in the ‘slow, cautious, playing-it-safe’ way, not as a ideological label for a group of people (i.e. the political opposite of ‘liberal.’)*  Also disappointing: support for early childhood remains insufficient, continuing to follow the ‘table scraps’ model of funding.

I don’t know anything about this author, Diane Ravitch.  Her headline is sensational.  She’s marketing a book.  But she also seems to make some sound points.  I wish she had provided some examples of possible solutions among her list of complaints and criticisms.  This piques my ongoing issue with educators: a great deal of willingness to discuss problems, but little action toward solving those problems. This is not a personal criticism of Ravitch, and may not be consistent with her record – I will have to do some reading before making that determination.  Perhaps there are solutions discussed in her book.

She does note that she is seeking leadership outside of herself – political leadership.  If she finds that leadership, I wonder how she would participate.  How do any of us engage with leaders who have taken up our cause?  How can educators really be the change we want to see in the world?

Thoughts?  Discuss!

Obama’s Right-Wing School Reform | The New York Review of Books.

John Holland of Inside Pre-K writes about ‘Fueling the Pre-K Fire’ and the effects of negative reports about preschool education.  According to Holland:

Every once in a while a study or report is published that is less than positive about public pre-k. These reports are like rocks thrown on a bonfire when you consider the quantity and quality of studies that support the benefits of pre-k for children and communities. Sure, some sparks fly when a study that is less than positive is published but that is all there is, sparks. When a bonfire is really burning, you can’t put it out with a rock.

I really like this ‘rocks on the fire’ metaphor.  Problem is, a few pieces of bad spin can do more damage to the cause of promoting preschool education than we’d prefer.

Rocks on the fire cannot shake the resolve of those of us who are already dedicated to early childhood care and education (ECE).  But for the uninitiated, the skeptical and the uncertain, what seem like rocks to us die-hards, can be like a bucket of water.  This is an issue because legislators, potential funders and other policy-influencers often tend to be uninitiated, skeptical and/or uncertain when it comes to the value of investing in ECE.

Speaking of exactly why ECE is so important, here’s some useful info (thanks to Mr. Holland at Pre-K Now) – you’ll find this especially useful if, when it comes to early childhood issues, you identify as among the uninitiated, skeptical and/or uncertain:  If you like charts, graphs and tables, I direct you toward the Public Policy Forum’s excellent table of research on early childhood education outcomes.  This great visual provides us with:

  • Names of Longitudinal Studies (studies done over time to figure out whether or not there are lasting effects), Reviews, Meta-analyses (studies done on the outcomes of multiple studies), and Cross-sectional studies (studies that use data from a single point in time).
  • The cognitive, behavioral, social, educational, societal effects found, as well as the benefit-cost ratio of said studies.
  • Whether or not outcomes were measured, and whether or not they were significant outcomes.
  • A glossary of terms in PDF format.

If you’re a visual thinker like me, then you will really appreciate this resource!

Great resource number 2: The Pew Center on the States has published a nice little summary of RECENT evaluation findings for your convenience!  It’s called ‘The Case for Pre-K in Education Reform,’ and it summarizes positive outcomes found in research done on preschool programs in 6 different states.  These studies have been published in the last 5 years, and present important findings on improving early literacy and math skills, as well as reducing numbers of children who repeat grades.  From Louisiana, for example:

An evaluation of the LA 4 pre-k program by the Center for Child Development at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette shows that, at the beginning of the school year, the average early language, literacy and math skills of pre-k children in the state fall within the lowest 20 percent of the national peer group. By year’s end, these children caught up to the national average.

Based on data collected from 2002 to 2006, when compared to peers who did not participate in the program, children who attended LA 4:

• were as much as 36 percent less likely to be held back in kindergarten; and

• were as much as 49 percent less likely to be placed in special education through second grade.

This summary shows how pre-k education continues to be relevant and beneficial across the country.  And it’s only 6 pages long!  Yes, yes, quality over quantity, but we’re all busy people.  Let’s appreciate the opportunity to enjoy a brief, yet highly  informative resource.

I think Holland’s ‘rocks on the fire’ notion applies best in the company of ECE advocates.  Step outside of our ranks, though, and I think it is overly optimistic.  We have got to stay vigilant about bouncing those rocks back at the naysayers, and keeping our spin positive (especially since our positive spin is actually true and beneficial to society!).

And for those of you who have yet to make up your minds, check out these links on your next coffee/tea break and see for yourself.  Our nation needs what quality preschool education has to offer: children, better prepared to succeed.

Because I am essentially a big nerd, I envisioned that the 57th Street Bookstore would be teeming with early childhood enthusiasts.  I feared that if my friend and I arrived any later than 5:30 pm, we would have to squeeze through a standing-room-only crowd to get a decent vantage of the visiting author, and that I’d have to wait forever to get a book signed, if there were even any copies of the book left.  I am pleased to say that while the event was well-attended, my anxiety was unwarranted.  And it was a lovely time listening to Vivian Gussin Paley talk about children, stories and relationships.

While there was no throng of early childhood practitioners, I set out to buy my books before the talk, so I could have them signed afterward without too much waiting (besides being rather averse to waiting in lines myself, I was accompanied by my 11 month old son, who might not tolerate waiting after an hour-long lecture/reading).  As I approached the book table, Ms. Paley walked into the room with her husband.  Yay!  Almost immediately she engages me, the conversation starting with Duncan (my son), and moving on to the topic of the early childhood job market and what’s going on with the Illinois state budget.  I mention how she was the honored guest at my masters degree commencement, trying my best not to sound like a groupie.  She has that kind of unabashed openness that puts you at ease, and makes you feel like you are talking with someone you already know.  I see my friend Rachael arrive, and I excuse myself go to purchase my copies of ‘The Boy on the Beach,’ and ‘You Can’t Say You Can’t Play,’ before the talk begins.

What strikes me most about listening to Paley describe what she sees and learns from observing children’s play, is that she is able to articulate the value of play in a way that relays the essential humanity of it.  I attended a luncheon presentation once, sponsored by the Alliance for Childhood, where the speaker was a woman who teaches children to play for a living.  She expressed her frustration at the limited understanding people generally have for the importance of play; how play skills are taken for granted and her work is often gently dismissed with “Well isn’t that nice?” when she thinks of herself as advocating for a human rights issue.  Vivian Paley gets it, and she explains it rather elegantly.  During her talk, she discussed how children, in play, offer and accept roles from each other, building relationships through the mutual acceptance of each other’s stories.  Talking about loneliness, or “the dark spot of children going to school,” Paley explains how “one piece of dialog makes a friend out of a stranger.”  What great, simple tools for educators to use!  So much of intentional instruction and guidance of children is just this: knowing how to sculpt education and growth out of what already occurs.  She encourages us to make way for conversations that will happen among children, and to see why those conversations- facilitated in imaginative play- are essential to children building relationships, and building community among each other.  Another favorite quote along those lines: “With play, a young child figures out a way to be necessary to the group.”

Of course, the kind of play that Paley is talking about takes a lot of time and space created by adults.  The rich soil of great play is being eroded by time constraints, testing expectations and didactic instruction, and we talked about that.  Paley presented us with the metaphor of “Play is a Play,” and stated that we are cutting that performance somewhere between Acts II and III.  She challenges us to consider what happens in classrooms where play is cut off before Act III emerges, before the story the children are weaving reaches its logical or necessary conclusions.  What is lost when we cut these stories short?

When she opened the floor for questions, a person brought up digital media and how it creates disconnection, encourages short attention span, etc.  Naturally we talked about how preparing for assessments dominates a lot of classroom time.  I have to admit a mild lack of patience for these parts of Q&A sessions, because there is a tendency among educators to begin a lot of hand-wringing and wondering aloud why no one listens to us.  A lot of time can be spent complaining about ways that our collective store of knowledge is ignored.  I don’t mean to say that venting frustrations is a waste of time, but doing it while Vivian Gussin Paley is sitting there, willing to answer questions, would be a wasted opportunity.  My solution to this problem is to circumvent with a well-placed question about action and advocacy.  My question:  As the nation moves in the direction of more assessment-for-accountability and the conversation about common educational standards changes the perception of early childhood on the national stage, have you participated in any initiatives or activities to address prioritizing play in terms of policy and advocacy?  Her answer: Engage parents in advocacy. She said the adult who is most easily reached regarding this topic is the parent, and that parents groups are the best groups to speak to in order to effect some change.  Then, bringing it back to the educators she said, “Teachers can make more use of their parent groups than they have.”  There’s a gentle challenge there, I think.  There is often tension in the relationship between teacher and parent (reasonably so), and too often, even when good relationships exist between parents and educators, there can still be a pernicious Us v. Them mindset that prevents us from fully harnessing the power we could wield if we not only worked together, but advocated for each other (for example, how many parents have out there in Illinois have considered calling your legislator and speaking up to save teachers’ jobs?  How many teachers have contacted their state representative to support house bill 174 -or any legislation- on behalf of families?).

My friend Rachael, a teacher of at-risk pre-k and kindergarten asked a follow-up question asking what advice she had to give to teachers who are trying to preserve play in their classrooms when many are moving towards having common schedules for each grade level yet still want to advocate for play? and Paley responded “It can be done with more… like-minded help,” encouraging Rachael to make more use of a community effort within her school, and find creative solutions to getting enough bodies in the classroom to support such an effort, like using older students to record story dictations.  I appreciate Paley’s suggestions to create more of a community effort within classrooms, however, I think sometimes teachers should be encouraged to advocate outside of the world of the classroom, which can be very insular and isolating. Play is unappreciated in institutions beyond individual schools or school districts, and we have to contend with more than principals and superintendents.  Legislators, and others who influence policy can always stand to hear input from constituents who are educators.  Some teachers may have to step outside of their comfort zones to affect change on a community-wide level.

I look forward to reading Paley’s latest work, and benefiting from her insights.  Her voice is an important one among advocates for play.  I’m glad I got a second chance to hear her speak, and thank her for her words and wisdom.

I have been spending the day as a visitor in the 3rd grade classroom of my friend and colleague, David Groves. I brought an art activity to do, based on the story Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold. The students are bright, enthusiastic and so knowledgeable – they took to the story and assignment with verve, asking thoughtful questions and making astute observations.

I would love an opportunity to guest teach again – I haven’t been in a classroom in such a long time, and there are so many practical considerations of group rhythm, pacing and ongoing focus, guidance and, well, teaching. Mr. Groves is adept at not only managing behavior, but guiding it toward learning at every opportunity. This is why I admire teachers so much, and why I intend to make a career out of giving them support.

Thank you for this opportunity, Mr. Groves. I am learning so much, and will definitely look for more opportunities to spend time in classrooms.

Here is a great, easy-to-use advocacy tool for citizens of Illinois interested in supporting quality school environments and education jobs: NO TO 37.org.  You fill in your info, and it not only locates you legislators BUT ALSO generates a message that you can edit with personal touches, and automatically send to all of them.  Incredibly easy and fast.

The form also generates phone numbers for your personal senator and representative, and if you are in Chicago, the senator and rep for whichever CPS school you enter.

NO TO 37– Contact Your Legislators.

Keep in mind. personal letters and phone calls have the greatest impact on legislators.  We all pay closer attention to a handwritten letter than a form letter.  People think about how much effort you put into getting in touch with them.  So if you have the time, go that extra mile – it will be appreciated!

But this is so easy that there’s no reason not to, and if you follow up with a phone call or personal note, or office visit, so much the better.

NO TO 37– Contact Your Legislators

Every voice matters!

These are my final thoughts on Replicating Harlem Children’s Zone in Chicago,  an event hosted by Loyola University last week featuring Paul Tough, and a panel of local human services and education experts.  Tough is the author of Whatever it Takes, a book chronicling Geoffrey Canada’s work creating and managing the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York.  I attended and wrote a live blog of the event last week.

During the Q&A session, there seemed to be an air of skepticism in the room, which is not surprising.  One woman asked very plainly, how can this mixed funding structure work in a state where the budget is not doing well, and human services has taken such a big hit?  The essence of that statement is not so much a question of where matching dollars will come from, but rather, if we don’t have the collective will to pull it together and fund the myriad programs and services already in place, then how will we manage to get something like HGZ going?  Paul Tough described Geoffrey Canada’s statement to potential Promise grant hopefuls at the HCZ conference, in which he told them, basically, ‘If you only think you can do this with the grant money, you should leave now.’  It’s a hard statement, but a necessary one.   Budget troubles of the past year make it quite clear that the most powerful among us have not been prioritizing the well-being of people who are poor, who have the most need.  To be realistic, we have to question whether or not the dedication is there.

Chicago would have a truly formidable system of comprehensive social supports for families that struggle with poverty and lack of resources, if only the programs that currently exist could pull together under a common/shared set of goals.  If service providers would view themselves as links in a chain, they could be so powerful.  It is unfortunate that many service providers are fairly uninspired, and end up serving to perpetuate the status quo.  And as panel member Azim Ramelize stated, if things are going to change, it won’t be business as usual.  I think it is difficult for many people who have been serving in non-profits for years to see anything beyond business as usual.  But I also think that there are many, many people in non-profits who are tired of business-as-usual, tired of feeling like their work is a drop in the ocean, tired of talking themselves into believing in what they do every day.  Some of those people must have been in the audience that night, looking for a thicker strand of hope to pull on.

From what I’ve read, hope is much of what Geoffrey Canada’s concept is riding on now: hope with an almost desperate promise of metrics, if we could all be patient for a while.  And many of us are willing to be patient, because we believe as we have believed for years, that he’s making it happen – he’s doing it.  He’s doing what we thought should be done all along: comprehensive services, for all stages of childhood, supportive of the family and community as well as the child.  This is the silent promise we’ve been imagining, and Canada actually managed to speak the promise out loud.  And it’s a little tense, because we have this seed of fear deep within us that something bad will happen, and when the math is all done, it won’t be proven.  Our children won’t succeed, even with all of this money and effort, and then no one will invest in them ever again.

But I do believe.  I think it must work, once all is said and done.  These families that are going through the Harlem Children’s Zone will be generally better off, better prepared.  These children who are starting in the Harlem Gems, and going through the HCZ schools and programs will do better than they would have done, statistically speaking, and will advance further as a group.  I am reminded of the new Illinois Action for Children mission: Strong families, powerful communities, where children matter most.  The HCZ model essentially creates a community environment where children do matter most; where money is spent on their education, and they are shored up on all sides.  We shall see how it all plays out, but I think that it really does take this much money and effort to level the playing field, considering how much goes into throwing it off-balance. When the panel responded to the woman who asked about state funds, each response resonated along the same lines: it’s not that we don’t spend money on children, it’s that we spend it on the wrong things.  I appreciate that they were willing to name this as a problem.  This kind of programming would reflect an increased dedication to the success of children in all of our communities.

It was good to hear the perspectives of the different experts, but with such a diverse audience, I would have liked to have heard more of a conversation between the panel and the audience, or even among and between the panel members.  Less lecturing, more interacting.  Ultimately, I don’t think we got a good sense of what it would take to bring Promise Neighborhoods to Chicago, besides hearing people say the phrase “political will” over and over again.  One issue that was touched on, though not in-depth, was the fact of Canada being a charismatic leader who drives the program with his own determination; Can anyone expect to replicate that?  It makes me think of that book Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson, in which his colleagues admit that at a certain point, the organization that he founded was essentially advancing based on Mortenson’s reputation and personal character.  Not that other people were not involved or highly dedicated, but when one person’s relentless will and determination breathe life into a project, it is difficult for someone else to take the helm, or to create the same effect without that charismatic leader.  Can Promise Neighborhoods work with dedicated teams that are not led by a desperately ambitious, intensely driven go-getter with a compelling personal story?  I think much could be done if a strong replication model is developed, but I also think that it is an issue worth investigating further.  Canada’s vision is genius, but genius tends to be obsessive and willing to sacrifice a lot.  Can Promise Neighborhoods find that in enough leaders besides Canada to take Obama’s money and spend it well?  I hope so.

The idea of Promise Neighborhoods and the model of the Harlem Children’s Zone is very exciting for people who want to serve children and families.  Along with that excitement, however, comes a healthy degree of wariness.  Will this happen?  Can it?  Our time and resources are so limited – will this be worth the effort?  These Promise dollars will be highly sought after, so I am confident that more events will follow.  I look forward to seeing how Chicago rises to this challenge, and whether or not we can make the most of this opportunity.


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