Early Childhood Education and the Education Policy Challenge

            One reads often these days that the United States is falling farther behind other developed nations in ensuring an educated population. This appears to be true across the preschool through high school age group, that is, from Pre-K through grade12. And that academic achievement gap seems to be widening. This fact is especially salient to faculty members here at the Institute currently active in the New River Valley region’s Smart Beginnings program aimed at encouraging and securing the ongoing availability of quality Pre-K educational efforts for all eligible students.

            The external context for this vitally important improvement effort is, however, challenging. The recent recession forced many states, including Virginia, to cut their education budgets sharply and the national government, while admitting its No Child Left Behind education initiative, the most recent reauthorization and revision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, is flawed and has fallen far short of expectations, has not adopted a wholesale fresh reform to address the nation’s growing education crisis. In any case and complicating matters still further, our school systems’ difficulties are not distributed equally across the nation. Many wealthy suburban districts continue to provide curricular experiences that allow their students to compete for college entrance or otherwise prepare for the workplace. But far too many urban and rural school districts lack the advantage of the tax base and general population education levels of affluent suburbs and must also cope with difficulties in attracting a high quality workforce, deal with shabby facilities and seek daily to assist children hailing from circumstances that make it difficult for them to learn.

            Poverty is closely aligned with broken families and hungry children obviously find it much more difficult to learn than do those who come from food secure homes. All of this is well-known and yet the nation and its states continue on a path of too little public support for pre-school programs, considered vital by researchers, to ensure that young children are well-prepared to learn and develop as they enter kindergarten and elementary education. Unfortunately and despite these facts, for far too many legislators in Virginia and many other states, preschool education especially, is viewed as what former Virginia Governor Douglas Wilder habitually labeled public services he did not wish to support, “a nicety.”

            In short, despite strong evidence that we cannot “test our way” to educational excellence and accountability and that youngsters will do better in kindergarten, primary school and beyond if first provided well-crafted and structured learning opportunities in preschool, our legislators at both the state and national levels have moved too little on either concern. In consequence, our nation’s overall elementary and secondary school achievement level continues to decline against the attainments of other developed nations. In lieu of adopting meaningful reforms that might help address both the enduring poverty in many communities and the closely linked broken schools in those and others, GOP representatives especially, have not supported early childhood education and have sought otherwise often to blame teachers as the architects of America’s growing educational mediocrity. Not surprisingly, these elected leaders have generally also argued that test results should determine instructor salaries and retention.

            Without imagining that teachers have no share of responsibility in producing learner outcomes, these assertions must strike any reasonable observer as poorly targeted. Education is a deeply mediated enterprise and instructors possess no control over whether the youngsters who appear in their classrooms come to school hungry, have been encouraged to fulfill their assignments and have otherwise received appropriate support from their parents or other family members to enter school each day ready to gain all they can from the experience. Indeed, the evidence is strong that too many children, especially from broken homes and poor families, do not enjoy secure meals, let alone vigorous support for timely completion of learning goals and assignments. Poverty particularly, creates an inauspicious environment for student success, and teachers may hardly be expected to redress it alone, even when threatened with loss of their posts if unable to do so. And yet, in a vain search for “easy fixes,” many elected leaders are offering just such claims and choices. Neither tests nor punitive action against supposedly poor teachers will remedy scenarios that are beyond a school’s or individual teachers’ capacity to address. So, however rhetorically handy, this supposed policy alternative is no option at all.

            That is, the apparent deterioration of our country’s overall primary and secondary educational situation will not be remedied by simply blaming already harried teachers for it. Nor will it be addressed by additional testing or more punitive measures linked to such efforts, which thus far have yielded little by way of long-term learning outcomes besides focused student preparation for prescribed examinations. Moreover, this trend has arisen amidst growing employer and educator complaints that the Pre-K-12 school system is doing too little to teach students how to think and reason analytically, engage in problem solving and communicate effectively orally and in writing.

            None of this is, on its face, surprising, as it fits what one might expect of the current brand of politics ascendant in our nation. First, the political difficulty in securing support for universal preschool education in many states reflects a long-time view that such efforts constitute goods best suited to private provision, rather than the vital public good they in fact represent. That orientation makes it difficult to gain legislator attention irrespective of the persuasiveness of the argument advanced. Second, many in the GOP especially have embraced various alternatives to public schools, including vouchers and nonprofit and for-profit-managed charter educational institutions and have viewed the development of more such entities as a sufficient policy response to the continuing downward spiral in educational quality evident in many areas of the country. Critics of this stance suggest it is only exacerbating negative trends for the worst-off schools. In any case, legislators have been unable to attain consensus on how to proceed with reform in light of this deep disagreement.

            All of this bears little relationship to reality. First, we are unlikely to assist our nation’s at-risk children without effective programs and policies aimed at doing so. Essentially doing nothing about these overriding and undergirding socio-cultural and economic challenges looks likely only to exacerbate the already massive inequalities among school systems, states and regions and will do little to improve student learning outcomes in any location. Given these realities, it seems especially paradoxical that some Republican leaders have lately been attacking Head Start, the most significant federal program aimed at readying children from disadvantaged backgrounds for school. Second, there is little evidence that privatizing additional public schools or chartering them under different management will remedy the complex dilemmas created by the confluence of broken families, impoverished conditions and poor physical plants so typical of the nation’s poorest performing educational institutions. Nor is there verification that these strategies by themselves lead to improved student learning and capabilities. Likewise, we now have ample confirmation to suggest that testing, or imagining that teachers can be held responsible for addressing students’ learning woes, will not alone change those outcomes either.

            Instead of continuing on our current course, our policy-makers must find ways and means to deal with the endemic poverty and inauspicious context created by many of our nation’s households and neighborhoods, by funding quality programs aggressively aimed at addressing that difficult context’s multiple implications for affected students, especially for those preparing to enter kindergarten and primary school. Rather than call for its demise, leaders should use the nation’s long experience with Head Start as an excellent foundation on which to continue to build such initiatives. Second, educators must develop curricula for Pre K-12 students that focus on developing analytical reasoning capabilities and communications capacities, including age-appropriate mathematical, reading, writing and language competence. Such materials should be focused on ensuring writing and reasoning capabilities and encouraging students to engage with a variety of texts in history, literature, science and more. This orientation implies that teachers will need to be well prepared themselves to realize this approach in their classrooms. Whether the Common Core standards now being implemented in several states ultimately fill this role remains to be seen.

            I do not pretend here to be able to offer specific curricular answers to the nation’s Pre-K-12 education system woes for instructors or students, but it seems clear that the broad outlines of such systemic changes as are undertaken for the nation’s schools will acknowledge the role of poverty, broken families and unequal system resources in creating the current crisis, while also methodically experimenting with mechanisms to ameliorate the worst effects of that reality for affected youngsters. More generally, true reform will continue to move away from a nearly complete reliance on standardized testing as a measure of quality and toward more nuanced ways of demonstrating student reasoning and communication competence. None of this will be possible without also ensuring that all children have access to quality preschool education experiences. Institute faculty members are in the vanguard of efforts to design and secure just such a result for Virginia and beyond.