Because early-childhood educators have paid too little attention to the importance of gathering evidence about what approaches work best with preschool youngsters in areas such as literacy, the U.S. Department of Education will soon conduct research to get a better sense of what does work, a top department official told educators at a recent meeting here.
Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, the assistant secretary for educational research and improvement and a participant in a panel discussion at the annual conference of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, said “evaluation is too often treated as a hoop you have to jump through.”
Educators, particularly those in the early-childhood field, have historically paid little attention to gathering evidence, Mr. Whitehurst contended.
His blunt comments—made at the first-of-its-kind NAEYC panel discussion involving top officials from the Education Department—irritated some early-childhood-education advocates at the conference. The meeting attracted more than 20,000 people to the Anaheim Convention Center from Oct. 31 to Nov. 3.
Sue Bredekamp, the research director for the Council for Professional Recognition, a Washington-based organization that works to improve the skills of people working in early-childhood education, said it was not helpful for Mr. Whitehurst or other federal officials to imply that early-childhood educators don’t care about research or early literacy.
“If you want us on board,” Ms. Bredekamp told Mr. Whitehurst and other Education Department officials, “that is not the way to do it.”
The “What Works in Preschool?” research project will be part of the Bush administration’s efforts to conduct research on early-childhood education and literacy and apply those findings to the field, said Mr. Whitehurst.
Federal researchers want to find out what effective programs are “exportable” to other communities, said the OERI chief, who was chairman of the psychology department at the State University of New York at Stony Brook before joining the administration.
One such program that might be reviewed is Bright Beginnings, a prekindergarten program in the Charlotte-Mecklenberg, N.C., district that is financed with federal Title I money, Mr. Whitehurst said in an interview after the panel discussion.
In another exchange during the panel discussion, Helen Blank, the director of the child-care and -development division of the Children’s Defense Fund, a Washington advocacy group, asked the Education Department officials how they planned to bring high-quality early-literacy instruction to the many children on waiting lists for child-care subsidies.
When Robert Pasternack, the Education Department’s assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services, responded that child care is not the responsibility of the federal government, the audience jeered.
Still, he stressed that he was concerned that too many parents cannot find child care for young children with disabilities, many of whom are eligible for aid from the federal government. “Inclusion has got to start when these kids are born,” he said.
Increasingly, the annual conference has offered sessions focusing on states’ efforts to begin or expand universal prekindergarten. And one such session this year was held to preview the position statement on the issue by the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education.
“The notion of universal prekindergarten has really been percolating,” said James Squires, a member of the organization and an early-childhood specialist in the Vermont Department of Education. “It was important for us to come out and take a stand.”
According to a draft of the statement, prekindergarten should be available to all children, offered in a variety of settings, and financed with federal, state, and local tax money.
The preliminary recommendations were presented here to collect comments from participants. The board of the state specialists’ group is expected to review a revised draft of the statement in January.
Universal prekindergarten, Mr. Squires added, should be a system that holds programs—whether they are managed by public schools, child-care centers, or family child-care providers—to a core set of standards. And the standards should cover what is provided in the classrooms and what children should be learning, he said.
But he cautioned that the instruction should still be appropriate for young children."We are not [advocating] academic programs for young children,” he said.
The participants also heard from Alisa Frank, an early-childhood specialist in the Oklahoma Department of Education, who talked about how that state has implemented universal prekindergarten in a relatively short time.
For many years, the state served preschoolers in a “targeted” program for children from low-income families. But in 1998, the legislature voted to establish a universal-prekindergarten program by financing it as part of the regular K-12 funding formula, which made prekindergarten free for any parents who wanted their children in it.
Participation has jumped from about 8,000 children to more than 23,000, which represents more than half the 4-year-olds in the state, Ms. Frank said.
And while districts don’t have to offer prekindergarten, 85 percent of Oklahoma’s 544 school districts are participating, Ms. Frank said.
Districts can contract with community-based providers to offer the program. The teachers, however, have to be certified in early-childhood education.
During a question-and-answer period at a conference session, Vermont’s Mr. Squires tried to allay fears from community-based preschool providers that public school districts are trying to take over early-childhood education.
The role of schools vs. community providers is exactly the issue in New Jersey, where the state is starting a prekindergarten program in poor districts under an order from the state supreme court.
The program, which was the topic of discussion at a conference session, is offered in public schools, Head Start centers, and child-care centers in 30 “priority” districts. But many district officials believe that providers other than school districts are not capable of offering high-quality services, said Gary Resnick, a researcher at Westat, a research organization based in Rockville, Md. He was the featured speaker for that session.
To determine if that is the case, Westat is conducting a five-year study, financed by the state, of the New Jersey prekindergarten program. The study includes an analysis of the implementation of the program, as well as longitudinal research on a sample of 1,488 children.
Preliminary results show that prekindergarten classrooms run by school districts have better materials, more adequate outdoor space, more spacious and comfortable indoor space, and more teachers with graduate school or advanced degrees, compared with the Head Start and child-care centers.
But the Head Start programs and child-care centers, the findings show, are more likely to plan daily activities; have teachers who prepare materials in advance; have a balance of whole-group, small-group, and individual work; and have teachers who are taking continuing education courses.
While the district-based programs had better evaluations overall, the results show that it is possible to have high-quality providers in community-based centers, too, Mr. Resnick said.
A version of this article appeared in the November 14, 2001 edition of Education Week as Ed. Dept., Advocates Clash At NAEYC Meeting