Teaching & Learning

August 08, 2001 7 min read
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AFT Leader Calls for Universal Preschool

The president of the American Federation of Teachers is calling for a national commitment to universal preschool starting at age 3.

Sandra Feldman unveiled a blueprint last month for an effort she said would make such services affordable for all families and ultimately help shrink the achievement gap between disadvantaged and better-off children.

“It would give poor children the access to high-quality early-childhood education that they are now largely denied—the preventive medicine they need to compete,” Ms. Feldman told the more than 2,800 AFT members attending QUEST, the union’s biennial professional-development meeting, held in Washington July 12-15. “Working and middle-class families would get a higher-quality early-childhood arrangement at less cost, something they desperately want,” she said. “It could mean that children of all backgrounds would be able to learn together right from the start.”

Such efforts are crucial to the academic and social development of young children, especially for those whose families can’t afford to provide them with intensive educational experiences at home, Ms. Feldman said.

The leader of the 1 million-member union proposed using Head Start, the federal preschool program for poor children, as the foundation for the new national initiative, and called for fully financing the effort, which is up for congressional reauthorization in 2003. Families now eligible for services would continue to receive aid, but the net could be cast wider to include others who are poor but do not meet federal guidelines.

Additional federal aid would likely be needed, Ms. Feldman said, and state and local money could be leveraged to help pay for the system, with costs subsidized for families who could not afford to pay. A sliding scale could be used to charge others tuition. The union estimates universal preschool would cost $41 billion annually.

Civics Knowledge

American students’ knowledge of civics changed little over 10 years, according to a report on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

For More Information

Read “The Next Generation of Citizens: NAEP Civics Assessments—1988-1998,” from the National Center for Education Statistics.

The nation’s 4th, 8th, and 12th graders answered about two-thirds of the questions correctly on one version of the latest civics test, given in 1998, turning in a performance similar to that of their counterparts in 1988.

The report, “The Next Generation of Citizens: NAEP Civics Assessment—1988 and 1998,” issued last month, examines students’ knowledge of civics and teachers’ instructional patterns in the subject over a decade.

Two NAEP tests in civics were administered in 1998. The main test, given to about 22,000 students in the 4th, 8th, and 12th grades, followed a framework different from that of the 1988 test. A separate sampling of about 2,100 students in each of the three grades was part of a special study. Those students were given the same multiple-choice questions that were part of the 1988 assessment so that comparisons could be made between the two tests.

The results suggest that while students generally know dates and major political figures throughout the history of the republic, they lack a sufficient understanding of the underlying principles of the U.S. Constitution and how governments work. (“Beyond Basics, Civics Eludes U.S. Students,” Nov. 24, 1999.)

Despite the common perception that American students today know less about their government than their predecessors did, there is little indication that they are less knowledgeable in civics than students tested in 1988, according to the report. In 1998, for example, 4th graders did slightly better on the test than their counterparts a decade earlier, while 8th graders did slightly worse. The assessment found no statistically significant difference in 12th graders’ performance during that time.

The civics tests were scheduled to be given again in 2003, but would be delayed until at least 2005 if Congress passes pending education legislation, which mandates a wave of new reading and mathematics testing.

Like the main version of the test, the newly released special study includes information on the instructional methods and materials used by teachers in civics classes.

Middle School Help

The urban districts and organizations that have been working to improve middle-grades education with grants from the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation had expected the funding to come to a screeching halt this summer. The foundation decided last year it would no longer support school improvement efforts in the middle grades, and instead would focus its grants on community organizations with strong youth-development programs.

But foundation officials have decided that stopping the student-achievement program so abruptly would make it harder for the participants to sustain their work. So the foundation will “phase down” the program over the next two years, officials announced recently.

The philanthropy could award additional grants totaling up to $4 million to the Corpus Christi, Texas, and San Diego and Long Beach, Calif., school districts through 2003, as well as continue providing support for organizations such as the National Forum To Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform, the Southern Regional Education Board’s “Making Middle Grades Matter” project, and the Education Trust.

Clark’s 12-year-old Program for Student Achievement gives money directly to school systems and community organizations, hires outside consultants and experts to evaluate progress made by participating districts, and provides professional-development opportunities for teachers and administrators.

“We want to try to help [grant recipients] both sustain and accelerate their work,” said M. Hayes Mizell, the director of the program.

For More Information

Take an online tour of the National Forum’s “Schools to Watch": .

Meanwhile, the National Forum, an alliance of educators seeking to improve middle-grades education, has launched a Web site that allows visitors to take cyber tours of middle schools it has identified as “Schools to Watch.” The tours provide information on four schools selected for their innovative programs: Barren County Middle School in Glasgow, Ky.; Freeport Intermediate School in Freeport, Texas; Jefferson Middle School in Champaign, Ill.; and Thurgood Marshall Middle School in Chicago.

College Board Success

New studies suggest that students in two programs sponsored by the College Board outperform their peers at home and abroad in math and science.

Students in the New York City-based organization’s Pacesetter precalculus classes outscored a control group on a mathematics exam, says a study commissioned by the board.

For More Information

Read the Pacesetter study and the Advanced Placement research.

Both the Pacesetter cohort and the control group scored at about the same levels at the beginning of the school year, but students in the Pacesetter program “showed significantly greater gains” by the end of the year, according to the report by the Human Resources Research Organization, an Alexandria, Va.-based company.

Pacesetter offers high school courses for math, English, and Spanish. Two years ago, a study of the English courses found similar results, the College Board said.

In a separate study, the College Board’s Advanced Placement students outscored what are considered the best students in countries that participated in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study.

American 12th graders in general scored near the bottom in math and science on the 41-nation survey of student achievement. (“U.S. Seniors Near Bottom in World Test,” March 4, 1998.)

Researchers analyzed the scores of students who took both the TIMSS exams and calculus an dphysics tests in the AP program. Students who scored a 3 or higher on the AP’s 5-point scale ranked at or above the levels of the highest performers in every nation in the 1995 international study, according to an analysis conducted by the Boston College-based center that operates the international testing program.

When the researchers included the scores of students who scored a 1 or a 2 on the AP exam, the average TIMSS scores were as good as those of advanced students in Japan, Singapore and most European economic powers.

The Colege Board offers the AP program as a way for high school students to earn college credit or higher-level placement in college courses. Most colleges recognize a 3 on the end-of-course exams as a passing score.

—Julie Blair, David J. Hoff, & Kathleen Kennedy Manzo

A version of this article appeared in the August 08, 2001 edition of Education Week as Teaching & Learning


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