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Does Preschool Matter?

I’ve just finished something I’ve come to love. The fact that I love it does not speak well of my mental health. I love being on the only woman – the only teacher, the only one who has ever had to get the attention of 35 human-type children – on a televised panel.

I guess it takes one wise Latina to balance out the guys.

Regardless, I’ve just returned from taping a panel discussion, hosted by one of my favorite reporters, Ray Suarez, for a show called Destination Casa Blanca – Destination White House.

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The show addresses political issues of importance to the Latino community, and arguably one of the most vital issues is education. The panel had a researcher, a civil rights advocate, a private school voucher advocate, Ray and me.

The topic was early childhood education and whether or not it mattered to the success of low-income Hispanic children.

Well, yes, I said. It does. The researcher said, yes it does. The civil rights advocate said, yes it does. The private school voucher advocate said, well, if it does, it doesn’t last so, no. It doesn’t.

That’s when the debate began.

I find there is an irresistible attachment to the simple. The voucher man quoted research that said that, yes, readiness skills for school and even access to health and nutrition programs greatly improved with Head Start, and that children who had had at least two years of a full-day program were on a par with their peers entering kindergarten, thanks to early childhood education.

But by the third grade, they were again behind. Ipso facto, Head Start doesn’t work and is a waste of money.

What poor parents need is not a public program like Head Start or even a public program like a good public school. What poor parents need is a voucher so they can choose a nice private school where all will be well.

And if it isn’t, they can just choose another nice private school. Or another. Until they find one they like. Markets are bound to meet the demand of low-income, immigrant communities. Simple. Case closed.

Video: With Lily behind the scenes! (this is what you won’t see on tv)


But I was the woman who had taught eensy beensy spider to low-income 4 year olds.  So case not so closed.

First, the gap referred to is always a simple standardized test score gap. I will never concede a standardized test score to be more than it is: One rather weak line of evidence of student achievement. But I gave the voucher man that point because it was, after all, only a one hour program with commercials.

Everyone at the table, including the voucher man, agreed that Head Start worked to prepare disadvantaged kids with the skills they needed to be successful beginning school. If in the next four years the gaps between them and their classmates grew, shouldn’t we be looking at what’s happening in those primary grades?

What types of supports and focus and training allowed the Head Start teachers to be so successful? Are our class sizes in primary grades what they should be to support individualized instruction? Do we have programs in primary grades that involve parents in helping their students at home? Do we have bilingual teachers’ assistants where they are needed?

Do low-income schools have needed health and nutrition programs that were designed into Head Start programs? Are our teachers given the specialized training in English language acquisition and cultural competence to understand and support the whole blessed child in our increasingly diverse communities?

To the voucher man, all this was too complicated. We don’t need no stinkin’ programs. Give the parents a voucher. Wish them well. Someone out there will come up with something. Someday. Someone out there will choose them. Simple.

And simply wrong. Early childhood education works. We must build on what works. What works are well-prepared teachers and support professionals (You can start your search for on-line professional development at the NEA Academy). What works is involving the parents.

What works is looking for multiple lines of evidence of success so that children aren’t labeled unfairly and inaccurately by test scores. What works is an appropriate class size.

What works is bringing the school community together to decide what they want for their children. And then making it happen. Demanding that it happen.

It’s hard. It’s complicated. There are no silver bullets to shoot at these problems.

There is no template guaranteed money-back formula for success. It’s work. And it’s messy. And good people can debate on what to tackle first and what models fit what communities and how to get from good to great. But there is no debate on one point: It matters.

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