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Early-Childhood Issues Raised for NCLB Law

By Linda Jacobson — November 14, 2006 6 min read
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With the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act scheduled to begin next year, the Bush administration has raised the idea of expanding the law’s requirements into high schools. But some educators think the attention should be directed downward—toward the preschool years.

As states continue to add public preschool programs—in the hope that greater access to early-childhood education will improve schools’ chances of meeting the NCLB law’s targets—it’s not surprising that some organizations are pushing to increase the federal government’s role in the years before kindergarten.

Libby Doggett

The federal law “does not adequately address the critical education of children under age 5. This must change,” Libby Doggett, the executive director of the Washington-based advocacy group Pre-K Now, said when she spoke this past summer to members of the Commission on No Child Left Behind. The bipartisan, 15-member panel, formed by the Aspen Institute, is formulating recommendations for reauthorizing the nearly 5-year-old law.

“In order for schools to fully realize the goals of NCLB and close the achievement gap, the law must help schools close the readiness gap, which begins before children enter school,” Ms. Doggett said in her statement at the commission’s July 20 meeting, which focused on early-childhood issues. “Every aspect of NCLB should be reviewed to find ways to extend provisions, where appropriate, to pre-K.”

Ms. Doggett recommended an expansion of Early Reading First, the federal preliteracy program aimed at preschools, and allowing state-financed pre-K programs located in private centers to be eligible for NCLB money, meaning they would also be subject to the law’s requirements that teachers be highly qualified.

She added that she would also like to see an early mathematics program, similar to the federal Reading First program, and would like to see the law used as a way to spur more integration of preschoolers with disabilities into regular public pre-K programs.

Concerns Over Testing

The feeling that the link between the federal education law and state pre-K programs should be strengthened is not unanimous, however, largely because of concerns that the testing requirements that are in the law would be pushed further down, into the preschool years.

The law requires annual testing in reading and math in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school. Results of the testing are used in determining whether schools have made adequate yearly progress toward bringing all students to academic proficiency by 2014.

Some experts in early-childhood education are already disturbed by the types of preschool assessments states are using to hold public pre-K programs accountable for improving children’s readiness for kindergarten.

Jim Lesko, the early-childhood-education specialist at the Delaware Department of Education and the current president of the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education, told the commission at the same July 20 session that it’s unfair to require a system of testing and accountability in preschool. Children in preschool have such a wide range of classroom experiences, he pointed out, and the credentials of preschool teachers can range from a high school diploma to a doctoral degree.

Samuel J. Meisels

“You don’t have a level playing field before kindergarten,” Mr. Lesko said in a recent interview, adding that the association is conducting a survey of state early-childhood specialists to gather more opinions on preschool accountability.

Samuel J. Meisels, the president of the Erikson Institute, a graduate school in child development in Chicago, and an expert on early-childhood assessment, has been an outspoken critic of using tests given to preschoolers to hold teachers or programs accountable.

Mr. Meisels told the NCLB panel that he would not recommend “that testing be moved down to kindergarten from 3rd grade, because testing children that young is unreliable.”

Using Title I

Some experts argue that there is already plenty that schools can do for younger children under the federal Title I compensatory education program. The No Child Left Behind law, which was a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, encompasses the program.

Title I money has long been available for preschool services if school districts choose to use it for that, said Adele Robinson, the senior director of public policy and communications at the Washington-based National Association for the Education of Young Children.

The 120,000-student Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., district, for example, uses a large chunk of its Title I funds to operate the Bright Beginnings preschool program, which serves about 3,000 children in 14 elementary schools and five community-based centers.

And Independence, Mo., schools Superintendent Jim Hinson, who also addressed the NCLB commission’s meeting, talked about his experiences of blending federal and local funds to operate “child and family learning centers” in all 13 of the 11,000-student district’s schools.

“We know several good superintendents who pull together” federal dollars and other financing for early-childhood programs, Ms. Robinson said. “But others feel that is taken care of by Head Start.”

She added that there’s no indication that districts using Title I funds for early-childhood programs have pulled money away from that purpose to spend it in the elementary grades since the NCLB legislation was signed into law in January 2002.

“But there hasn’t been a great expansion, either,” she said.

One change she would like to see in the NCLB reauthorization, however, is a provision that would allow school districts to open professional-development opportunities to early-childhood educators in the community. Before the enactment of the current law, she noted, the ESEA included language that allowed for such collaboration, but then the focus shifted to meeting the “highly qualified teacher” requirements of the law.

Testing Issues

Alex Nock, the director of the NCLB commission—which is chaired by two former state governors and includes business and education leaders—said panel members are interested in why some districts are more likely than others to use Title I to support early-childhood programs.

He added that commission member Eugene Garcia, the vice president of university-school partnerships at Arizona State University, in Tempe, and an expert on language and bilingual development, would especially like to see a greater focus on the early years in the law, even if Title I funding isn’t the vehicle for doing that.

On assessment, Mr. Nock said, the commission members—who are still a few months away from making any recommendations—came away with a consensus that even those concerned about using tests for accountability aren’t opposed to testing altogether.

“The folks who testified said testing wasn’t bad if it’s used for program improvement,” he said. “The question is what are the results used for, and what is the purpose of the assessment?”

Shortly after NCLB was passed, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., then the chairman of the Senate education committee, expressed interest in increasing the federal government’s role in preschool education. With the Democrats regaining control of the Senate, his views on early-learning programs could attract more attention.

A version of this article appeared in the November 15, 2006 edition of Education Week as Early-Childhood Issues Raised for NCLB Law

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