Although I was disappointed last Thursday at the New America Foundation's discussion on Race to the Top's Early Learning Challenge, I found myself thinking that the answers to the broader education debates may be found within good early childhood policy.
The areas that need to be addressed to create policy that will positively impact early childhood are policies that are true for the rest of education as well, but have been ignored for easier solutions in the broader debate. The mere nature of early childhood makes it impossible to give standardized tests in order to hold teachers and schools accountable.
1) The development of quality rating standards-
States are currently encouraged to develop quality rating and improvement standards in order to determine what is considered high quality childcare. I am not very familiar with these standards, but my understanding is that they take into consideration caregiver interactions with the children, the developmental needs of the children, and kindergarten readiness. They do not judge a childcare facility based on the outcome of test results, but instead look at the needs of the whole child. They do not sound as though they have been easy to create, nor to assess, but they are being put into place. Thought is going into developing these standards and people are being trained in how to evaluate the interactions of childcare providers and the children. From what I understand it seems to be working. It is certainly not as easy as getting a spreadsheet of test scores at the end of the year, but these are our children- it does not need to be easy, it needs to be done correctly.
In developing these standards states are looking at how to support the professionals delivering the care, how their support can help improve the quality of care, and how to reach out to parents to educate them on what to look for in a quality care facility.
I can't help but think how nice it would be to apply this same type of assessment to school evaluations. Test taking would of course be a part of the equation, but the broader assessment of our schools should be done while considering the developmental nature of children, looking at the quality of interactions with students, and thinking about how to support teachers in order to improve teaching, all the while working toward reaching out to parents to help them understand what to look for in their child's classroom. These standards cannot just be made by a group of politicians or policy makers in a room one month before they roll out their newest education initiative. They need to be developed as a team in combination with educators, child psychologists, cognitive psychologists, along side policy makers. They need to be beta-tested and then piloted, tweaked, revised, and retested.
2. An understanding that we are focused on a long-term investment.
Putting down the time and energy to develop quality early childhood experiences is not something that will immediately provide amazing results. We are looking at supporting and developing children's long-term growth. It is not about what they learn at the end of the year, but at the end of the road. We're looking at their social and emotional development and how supporting that will lead to an increased ability to learn down the road. We need to have patience to develop needed policies and criteria, as well as patience to determine what is working. There is no short-term fix. To do this we must first understand what we want to see results in. What will success look like for a child in a year? Two years? Three years? What do we need to put in place to get there?
3. Understanding that to meet the needs of the children we need to look at the needs of the family.
Early childhood programs realize they are a two generational program. They cannot solely look at the needs of the little ones walking into their doors, they must consider the nature of where those children are coming from, how they are getting to their childcare facility, and whether or not the children's ability to access the childcare facility will be impacted by the parents' loss of a job, health insurance, or loss of housing. As a part of that, educating the parents as a part of the equation is essential as well. Only so much can be done in schools, but promoting quality interactions between parents and children will go far to benefit the needs of the students.
By its very nature early childhood presents us with a complex situation that cannot be easily remedied. Yet people are actively working on creating these quality scales, promoting parent participation, and focusing on long-term goals. I have hope that if early childhood proves it can be done it may be able to be carried over to education as a whole, meeting the needs of the whole student.