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Nancy Bailey's Education Website: Universal Pre-K? Good Idea But Concerns About the Curriculum

Most politicians, including presidential candidates, highlight Universal Pre-K (UPK). President Biden is no different. It’s good that the President is concerned about this issue, but the plan deserves scrutiny.

Supporting families who need childcare assistance, no matter the child’s age, is critical. Offering UPK for children starting from age three may bring children together, and there are good things about this plan, but there are also concerns.

Here’s the President’s Fact Sheet.

A big question surrounding UPK is the curriculum.

Will UPK micromanage children to teach skills beyond their developmental capability?

How stressful will preschool be for three and four-year-olds? An environment like that found with the Perry Preschool and Abecedarian Project seems right, and the President’s plan mentions these programs.

But words describing preschool by New America include standards, alignment, and benchmarks. New America prominently influences UPK. Here are the New America people and their funders.

Where are groups like Defending the Early Years, Alliance for Childhood, teachers, or early childhood specialists like Rae Pica who understand early childhood research, young children, and their needs?

Putting pressure on three and four-year-olds to master outcomes designed by adults is worrisome and may negatively affect children, especially those who learn slowly.

Consider that kindergarten is now called the new first grade. What used to be a half-day introduction to school, where a child played, took naps, learned their numbers and letters, and how to tie their shoes, is now a time for nonstop seatwork and assessment to ensure students haven’t fallen behind.

Is preschool the new kindergarten?

Or that third graders are held back a grade when they fail a reading test. For years research has shown that third-grade retention laws can be detrimental. There are far better ways to help children who work slowly.

Will preschool be micromanaged? States have already signed onto Kaplan-backed Connect4Learning (C4L), which involves predesigned learning modules for young children. C4L recognizes a debate surrounding the push for content learning.

They say:

False dichotomies and fierce debates often plague the field of early childhood education. Play versus academics is perhaps the most widely cited example, with the implication being that they are mutually exclusive. 

The research evidence suggests that high-quality instruction and high-quality free play do not have to compete for time in the classroom. Doing both well makes each one richer.

So, where’s that discussion?

Some play-based activities might be helpful, and if UPK is developmentally sound and children get to have free play, it could be a good program, but this isn’t clear.

What’s meant by high-quality instruction and free play, and workforce references? 

Early childhood education is about nurturing young children, not manipulating how children will improve the future economy. Economists might predict the later effects of educating young children, but early learning should be about children.

One report the Biden administration cites is by the EdTrust nonprofit many educators don’t trust. They, like New America, highlight research by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER).

Steve Barnett leads NIEER, called a pioneer. Barnett is an economist who has written much about education and cost analysis of programs like the Perry Preschool and Abecedarian Project. He is often a leading voice about UPK.

Barnett knows essential information about preschool. He makes some good points, but he speaks about preschool and intensive high-quality teaching. Barnett says we don’t know what that is or how difficult it is.

But well-prepared early childhood educators do know what good preschools involve.

He also claims: What we need to have is data collection embedded in the everyday activities of teachers and leaders in preschools and schools that is constantly used to improve my practice.

What does he mean?

UPK and confusion about Oklahoma and their third-grade failure rate.

President Biden’s plan mentions a 2017 Tulsa preschool study, which implies that retentions will go down, retentions that should have never occurred. It’s essential to learn which programs work well for children and Oklahoma’s schools look like they qualify. But do they?

In 2016, The Hechinger Report reported, Why Oklahoma’s Public Preschools are The Best in the Country. Numerous articles highlight their preschool program fully funded for four-year-olds regardless of family income since 1998.

But in 2018, Oklahoma was one of the top states in the nation to hold students back in early grades. The Tulsa study says that third-grade retention decreased. Did it reduce retentions there and not in the rest of the state?

According to Oklahoma Watch:

These early-grade retentions are happening more regularly in Oklahoma than almost any other state. According to the data, reported by schools to the U.S. Department of Education, nearly 10,000 students in kindergarten through second grade were retained in the 2015-16 school year, compared to just over 2,500 in third grade. That represents 6 percent of all students in those three grades, the second-highest rate among the 50 states plus the District of Columbia, according to an Oklahoma Watch analysis. Only Mississippi retained a higher proportion of students in those early grades.

Are preschools in Oklahoma pushing children to learn information before they’re ready?

The same Hechinger report states:

Critics of prekindergarten programs attached to K-12 schools have worried that such programs could become too focused on building academic skills in developmentally inappropriate ways. Drilling young children in their letters and numbers has actually been found to be counter-productive.

Who’s determining what it is that preschoolers should know and when they should know it?

America’s time is now to care for its young children without focusing on the future workforce and monetizing that care. The Biden administration can do that by considering a variety of opinions about what these programs should look like.

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Nancy Bailey

Nancy Bailey was a teacher in the area of special education for many years, and has a PhD in educational leadership from Florida State University. She has authore...