Sunday, October 25, 2009

The elementary schoolization of preschool through approved curriculum

As I said before, my greatest fear (except for brown widow spiders) is that, in order to get effective preschool for the kids who need it most, politically the program will have to be given to K-12 as a new grade Pre-K. The problem with this is that it will be run by K-12 people, who mostly don’t understand that little kids are different, and they will push their teaching methods downward. At its worst, school readiness will come to mean knowing how to bubble in a scantron.

I’ve met a lot of elementary and middle school teachers and administrators. From my kid’s kindergarten through 8th grade, I was on committee after committee: Site Council, District Advisory Council, one curriculum selection committee for social sciences and another for science, a committee to figure out how to divide the middle school into four smaller schools. The people I met were dedicated to their idea of what was good for kids. There were a lot of wrong-headed people, but there was no lack of dedication.

There was a lot of talk about doing what was best for the kids. By coincidence, a lot of time what they thought was good for kids turned out to be convenient for administrators. Time between classes was shortened by a minute to gain enough instruction minutes to take a staff development day later in the year, but the official reason was if kids didn’t  have time to talk to each other between classes, the next class could start its work with less distraction, and kids would learn better.  A proposal to change a start time was dismissed out of hand; all academic schedules are run by the bus schedulers, and everybody  likes their afternoons off. Holidays are determined by union negotiations, not how the curriculum is broken up. The curriculum follows the staff calendar, not the other way around. Someday remind me to tell you the story of the two math teachers.

The different people on the curriculum selection committees all believed one or both of two things:
  • There is a body of facts and concepts that kids should be exposed to at particular ages. Textbooks and ancillary materials represent that body of knowledge closely enough, and it should be presented to the kids in about that way and in about that order.
  • Beginning teachers and mediocre teachers need a crutch to help them teach. Knowing your geography isn’t enough. You need to know what questions will guide the kids to understanding of some concept and maybe some little group exercises. The teachers’ copies of textbooks being considered all had virtually a script for teachers to follow. Committee members said experienced teachers would just ignore the clutter on the pages and do whatever they always had done.
Now, I don’t believe it, but I’m willing to discuss the proposition that there is a known body of knowledge that sixth graders should be exposed to, and if so, there could even be a best way to organize that over a school year, but it is definitely not true for teaching preschoolers.

And it is probably true that a first-time or experienced-but-mediocre sixth-grade teacher will teach better if she has all the lesson plans all written out for her. But it is probably not true that an inexperienced teacher who follows daily lesson plans for preschoolers is better for the kids than an inexperienced teacher who just plays blocks or dress-up with them and reads them whatever stories she finds on the shelves. (Yes, there are also inexperienced teachers who are just bad for kids, yelling at them and such. That's why we put beginning teachers with experienced teachers, unlike K-12, where they throw them into the fire alone, with maybe a mentor to talk with half an hour a week.)

Nevertheless, the big companies that make elementary school curricula have pushed their methods down two years. Houghton Mifflin sells a preschool curriculum. It is now being used at Whittier Preschool, in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District. It has a complete curriculum, including daily lesson plans. "A comprehensive, integrated curriculum provides everything you need for your Pre-K day." The authors have  thoughtfully posted their principles of an effective preschool curriculum.

What is a curriculum?

Which brings us to the question of what is a curriculum?  What does it mean to use one? What would it mean to require one in preschools?

While in ordinary language the word “curriculum” means roughly all the stuff you intend to teach, as used by K-12 selection committees, a curriculum is a commercial product that shows day by day what to teach. A curriculum consists of a series of lesson plans and all their parts, in a book, on disc, and on the web.

So what is not a curriculum? Oh, High Scope, Reggio, PITC. These are not curricula; they are philosophies of teaching;  they are methodologies, not curricula in any sense recognized by K-12. A curriculum says what you  will be doing next Tuesday, not how you are going to react when kids bring in pretty rocks.

Why do I hate approved curriculum? Let me count the ways.
  • The point of emergent curriculum is that you can’t have lesson plans a year in advance. You don’t know what kids are going to be interested in, or in what order, and you don’t know what stage a particular 4 year old is going to be in on day 175 of the year. Following lesson plans made a year in advance is bad for little kids.
  • If universal preschool is run by K-12, it will probably require a recognized curriculum, and they’ll have a state-wide selection committee to decide which big companies’ products will be acceptable to be bought by school districts. These will become the approved curricula for tiered reimbursement levels, regardless of what the ELQIS design committee decides to start off doing.
  • Some schools that have been using Reggio or High Scope will adopt Houghton Mifflin because it is on the approved curriculum list.
  • While some teachers will pretend to use the canned curriculum and instead use emergent curriculum, others will follow it slavishly. Some administrators will say you can’t talk about dinosaurs today; this is butterfly week. And some teachers will just fall into it because it’s easy and all the other teachers are doing it. They even have a script to follow.
  • The quality of some 22 programs may marginally improve; the quality of your average Title 5 program may go down.
  • And, God help us, we might end up measuring preschool teachers on how well their kids do on bubble tests. However much I think we have to work toward merit pay for K-12, I don’t see how it could work for preschool. I'd be willing to talk with ECE people who think there may be some way of  measuring kids' progress under particular teachers, but I would reject using a K-12 methodology pushed down a year. Little kids are different from big kids.
Gedanken experiment

Let’s imagine two preschools when  tiered reimbursement comes in. One is Title 22 and uses the Houghton-Mifflin preschool curriculum. The other is Title 5 and uses a more-or-less Reggio approach, with some PITC and High Scope ideas thrown in.

 Under the kind of tiered reimbursement system I’m most afraid of, the Title 5 center would have to adopt one of the approved curricula, thus reducing its effectiveness, to qualify for a particular tier.

Under a  system I’m only marginally less afraid of, the Title 22 center just has to check the box saying “using approved curriculum, yes/no” but the Title 5 center would have to turn their educational philosophy into an approvable curriculum, with daily lesson plans for the year.

Because what an approvable curriculum will mean is something that a visiting inspector can see to check off a box of the form. They will want to see materials from an approved list, and they'll want to see damned lesson plans. The inspectors won’t be trained in evaluating teacher-child interaction or in seeing how teachers follow a child’s interest deeper into caterpillars. They will just need to check the box saying “using approved curriculum.” It will be another case of what is good for administrators trumping what is good for kids.

While I don’t doubt that these master teachers could, after many wasted hours, translate what they do into a sample curriculum that would satisfy inspectors and compromise relatively few of their values, the whole idea of having a preschool curriculum – a body of knowledge that 4 year olds are supposed to be exposed to through an organized set of daily lesson plans – is just crazy.

So how do we fix the problem, or keep it from happening? I’m afraid we can’t, but if we could, it would be by approving methods as well as curricula for tiered reimbursement qualifications and by keeping as much of preschool as possible out of theK-12 system. People with masters degrees in ECE can be trusted to run preschool with an emergent curriculum, but people with masters degrees in elementary education cannot be automatically trusted to know how to teach preschoolers.

Maybe something good will happen when ELQIS meets next Thursday. I don’t have any inside information, but the bird entrails auger great hardship ahead.

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