Essay on Early Learning 'Danced Around' Issues

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To the Editor:

The Commentary by Paul Vallas and Nina Rees danced around the issues crucial to getting preschool education policy right ("From the Cradle to the Classroom," Sept. 22, 2010). The problem is not the shortage of interdepartmental coordinating committees or meetings between principals and preschool operators. Putting more money into day-care centers will, likely, worsen the problem, as will relying on for-profit operators.

The authors simply ignore the quality problem in day-care centers and Head Start programs. Only high-quality preschool improves the odds of children from poor families having a fighting chance to be literate by 3rd grade. Funds should flow to improve quality and open new preschools of excellence, not to reinforce custodial day care.

Second, the authors assume that most K-12 educators embrace high-quality preschool as essential to closing the achievement gap. They don't, at least not when budgets are struck and policies made.

Third, the authors offer New Orleans as a model. Other struggling districts do not get to start over with emergency powers and only half their students. When baseline results are shockingly low, as they were in New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina, the rate of improvement is likely to be greater than in neighboring districts.

Fourth, Mr. Vallas and Ms. Rees urge the inclusion of for-profit operators. There is no strong evidence that for-profit preschools do well in poor neighborhoods. In fact, they avoid them. For-profits are driven by the funding, not the difficult work of connecting preschool practices with those of primary schools.

New Jersey's extensive experience in implementing preschool in poor cities—that was closely connected to intensive early literacy—is instructive. First, it is possible, but not inexpensive or simple, to convert day-care programs to high-quality preschools. It requires a combination of early-childhood expertise, clear and concrete standards, and relentless focus by both district and state educators.

Second, many urban superintendents in the state saw preschool as just another mandate. They were unwilling to oversee the expansion of preschool and its integration with primary-grade literacy instruction. Superintendents who undertook the difficult effort to intensify instruction in the primary grades realized dramatic improvements in literacy.

Improving early education so that poor children are strong readers by 3rd grade takes a lot more than policy boards, more meetings, and more dollars.

Gordon MacInnes
The Century Foundation
New York, N.Y.

The writer served from 2002 to 2007 as the New Jersey Department of Education's assistant commissioner for implementation of the Abbott v. Burke school finance decision.

Vol. 30, Issue 06, Page 24

Published in Print: October 6, 2010, as Essay on Early Learning 'Danced Around' Issues
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