Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Preschool doubts

Lisa Downs Henry's father and stepmother opened Downs Preschool in 1984 as a private day care center in Watkinsville, Ga. Business was good, but it really took off in 1995 after the state approved state lottery receipts to pay for pre-kindergarten classes. The family converted the day care center into a preschool, which has since become a kind of institution in Oconee County, an hour's drive east of Atlanta. Of 12 preschool classes countywide, Downs boasts seven.

Each fall, Henry, the school's director, welcomes a new class of 140 children, all 4-year-olds, all attending tuition-free. "Since it's state-funded, you just don't have to hound parents about money," she says.

If you're a 4-year-old in America, it's a safe bet you're in school. The past 20 years have seen a quiet but steady rise in the number of children in preschool. The most recent federal statistics show that more than 1 million children were enrolled in public programs in 2005, up 63% from 1995. The rise far outpaces that of public school enrollment, up 10%. "It's what we do with children now," says Joan Lord of the Southern Regional Education Board.

What's behind the increase? A bigger share of working mothers and a shift in thinking: States increasingly finance preschool programs, citing research that says kids are ready for school at an earlier age.

Proponents of publicly financed pre-K say the push will pay off in better achievement, higher graduation rates and lower chances that a child will need expensive special-ed services. But they also say the quality of programs is uneven. Research suggests a lot of private programs are "pretty mediocre," says Steve Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. The institute says 75% of 4-year-olds now attend some sort of preschool.

A study released today by the RAND Corp. finds a growing body of research that shows funding pre-K pays off in the long run, saving money by reducing social services later in life and by increasing tax revenue from higher earnings when students grow up. "There's growing evidence that supports the idea that prevention has an advantage over treatment," says Rebecca Kilburn, a RAND economist who led the research team. But the RAND report also notes that not all pre-K programs produce long-term benefits big enough to offset their costs to states, which the Rutgers institute puts at more than $3.7 billion, or $3,642 per child.

It's still an open question whether the pre-K return will ultimately be worth the investment, she says. "The research we're doing says we're making a difference in the shorter term, and yet we need to know whether those results are going to hold."


Poison Ivy

What has me dwelling on ivy is my recent realization that much of what I don’t like about American politics — namely, American politicians — can be traced back to Ivy League schools. It can’t just be a coincidence that four or five universities keep spitting out presidential candidates and their spouses with the sort of regularity that Notre Dame used to turn out All American football players. What’s more, it’s not a sudden development and it’s not limited to just one party. William Howard Taft, for crying out loud, went to Yale. Theodore Roosevelt went to Harvard, and so did his fifth cousin, Franklin Roosevelt. Woodrow Wilson graduated from Princeton.

George Herbert Walker Bush went to Yale. His son, not willing to leave bad enough alone, went to both Yale and Harvard. Bill Clinton, Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Kerry, all went to Yale. Al Gore and Michael Dukakis went to Harvard. Ted Kennedy went to Harvard. Twice. The first time, they booted him out for cheating on a Spanish exam. Barack Obama went to Columbia and his wife, Michelle, went to Princeton. With such a terrible football team it’s really no wonder she was never proud to be an American.

Considering the politicians the schools have let loose on us, perhaps they should rename it the Poison Ivy League. It’s enough to make me wonder if the reason I liked Harry Truman was because he’s the only president since 1896 who didn’t have a college degree. Ronald Reagan had one, but it was from Eureka College, which probably didn’t even have ivy on its walls.

It is worth noting that, although Harvard has been around since 1636, Yale since 1701 and Princeton since 1746, none of them can claim Washington, Jefferson or Lincoln, as an alumnus. George Washington was home-schooled. Thomas Jefferson attended William and Mary and graduated in two years. Abraham Lincoln was also home-schooled, but he was both teacher and student, a true autodidact who read the Bible, Shakespeare and his law books, by candlelight.

Dwight Eisenhower attended West Point and John McCain graduated from the Naval Academy. So it’s no surprise that Ike was able to lead the fight against Nazi barbarians and that McCain was able to stand up to Viet Cong sadism for five long years. Which, come to think of it, is longer than Barack Obama has spent garnering leadership experience listening to the likes of Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd spewing forth on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

The only thing that prevents me from giving whole-hearted endorsement to a military education is that one of our former presidents also graduated from the Naval Academy: Jimmy Carter.


Backdown on school 'league tables' in Australia

School secrecy prevails. Parents must not be told how bad a government school is

National literacy and numeracy testing of Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 school students begins for the first time today but frustration looms for parents who want to use the test results to compare individual school performance. Despite the Rudd Government declaring it was vital that Australians knew how well the education system was performing in providing literacy and numeracy skills, state education bureaucrats have vowed to stop the outcomes of the tests being released on a school-by-school basis. Individual schools will still have to report their results, but not until more than a year after the tests are taken.

The Queensland Studies Authority says it will keep secret results that would identify school performance on the tests. The authority also has reminded school principals that student assessment information it collects is exempted from release under Freedom of Information laws. It has warned schools that "access to these reports should be limited to those who have a legitimate reason to do so". Instead, the published data is likely to only compare the performance of the states as well as males and females and indigenous and non-indigenous students.

Parents will get reports on the performance of their child in the tests and schools will receive student, class and school reports. But, under current rules, parents wanting to know how their school fared in the tests this week may have to wait until June 30 next year to access the information.

The tests, hailed as the first truly national assessment of children's literacy and numeracy skills, will be spread over today, tomorrow and Thursday. It is the first time Year 9 students have sat national literacy and numeracy tests and also the first time all students will sit the single national test. Education authorities across the country decided on May dates for the testing because it was early enough in the year for the results to help diagnose learning problems or issues.

Parents will receive reports showing how their child has performed on a scale of achievement using bands, allowing the child's progress in numeracy and literacy to be tracked throughout their schooling. Education Minister Julia Gillard said parents would not just know how their child was performing against a national benchmark but whether he or she was in a low achievement band or a high achievement band. However, Ms Gillard yesterday ducked questions about how the performance of individual schools would be reported. "At this stage what parents are going to get is their own report card," she said in a radio interview. "We are talking to state and territory governments about the best use of this information. Obviously it can be used by government to work out who needs additional assistance."

State Education Minister Rod Welford said there would be little change from previous testing arrangements. He said parents should reassure their children that the tests include material that they would have covered in the classroom. "The real focus of the assessment program is to look at how students are performing and where they may need help so we can then look at our teaching and curriculum planning," he said.


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