Saturday, April 14, 2012

Report: TN kids lack skills for kindergarten

National report finds too few in state prepared to meet greater expectations

Kindergarten used to be considered a place kids learned how to learn, with simple lessons on how to sit still and recognize shapes and colors.

Today, by age 5, they’re expected to count to 100, know whether shapes are two- or three-dimensional, and read most pronouns, according to state standards. In Tennessee, too many are showing up without those skills, causing alarm for early education officials as the state moves its curriculum forward in leaps.

A report released today by the National Institute for Early Education Research says state-funded pre-kindergarten does well at instilling those skills, but only 21 percent of Tennessee’s 4-year-olds are enrolled. In Florida and Oklahoma, the figure is more than 73 percent.

For Tennessee children who can get in, those classes are among the best in the nation, the curriculum hitting nine of 10 nationally accepted benchmarks. The problem is the number of children who don’t qualify — and don’t get the prerequisites in private programs or at home.

The institute estimates a third of children nationwide arrive at kindergarten unprepared, although the number can be tough to measure. It’s a figure U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called “staggering.”

“The goal for the country is to get that down to zero absolutely as fast as we can,” Duncan told The Tennessean last week.

Some state changes are under way, such as evaluating teachers in early grades, adding depth to the curriculum and making sure those who work with children ages birth to 5 have more rigorous standards based on that new curriculum. The Early Childhood Advisory Council is working on a more encompassing definition of kindergarten readiness and hopes that, as the state rebounds financially, lawmakers will pump more funds into pre-K programs.

Lindsay Ferrier, a blogger for, noticed when her daughter Gigi entered Harpeth Valley Elementary in Bellevue two years ago that some children were ahead of the pack.

She realized they had a common factor: They had gone through preschool and learned to write their name, knew the alphabet and could read a little.

So as her son Jack, 4, prepares to enter kindergarten at the same school this fall, she hasn’t home-schooled him as she did Gigi, but enrolled him in preschool part time. She and Jack do workbooks and skill-building activities at home, too. That way, he will be both socially and academically ready, she said.

“Sitting in a class for seven hours is a challenge when you are away from your loved ones … and then you throw in these new standards,” she said. “It’s tough if your child doesn’t have those basics down.”

No uniform testing

It’s difficult to measure kindergarten readiness because the state has no formal definition of what that is and because school districts use different ways to test 5-year-olds’ skills. The tests even vary from school to school within districts.

In Metro Nashville, the number of kindergarten students who are behind could be more than 35 percent, officials say. Depending on the school, students entering kindergarten are either simply screened for delays or given a fuller assessment to see whether they know shapes and patterns, are able to share toys or can recite the alphabet.

Metro’s leadership and learning department is interested in moving to a common kindergarten test.

“It has been several years since we were using the Brigance Screens (readiness test) districtwide,” said Paul Changas, Metro’s executive director of research, assessment and evaluation. “Our numbers were around 33 percent to 35 percent of students being flagged at risk in terms of kindergarten readiness at that time, and I would expect it to be a little higher now with the higher numbers of economically disadvantaged and non-English background we serve.”

Some Middle Tennessee parents elsewhere say they’ve already observed a change in the pace of kindergarten.

Stewarts Creek Elementary kindergarten parent Yasmine Mukahal of Smyrna said she didn’t realize that kindergarten had advanced so much until she enrolled her daughter, Zeina, this school year. Zeina is required to cut out words from her mother’s Us
Weekly and Redbook magazines to form sentences and distinguish whether a book is based on real events or the creative mind.

“You think kindergarten is coloring and fun, but no, this is hard-core work,” Yasmine Mukahal said. “She comes home with homework every night except on Fridays.”

New standards

Much of the push comes from the new Common Core Standards being adopted by 48 states. It will cost Tennessee at least $2.95 million in federal grant money to implement the curriculum, throwing out state content that is no longer vital for college readiness to focus more heavily on lessons that are.

Soon, Tennessee will be tested on the same standards as much of the nation — tests that require students to think critically and apply what they’ve learned to real-life situations.

Some schools already voluntarily adopted Common Core in their K-2 classrooms, and spring Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program tests for students in grades 3-8 will include sample questions based on the new standards that let education leaders know how far behind students are.

The math curriculum starts being phased in next school year. All grades will use the curriculum for math and reading by 2013-14, with new standardized tests by 2014-15.

Under the new Common Core kindergarten standards, children are asked to count to 100 by ones and tens; identify the front cover and title page of a book; and use a combination of drawing, verbal cues and writing to narrate an event in sequence and give a reaction to what happened.

It would be easier to get all kids doing that with better access to pre-K programs.

Decreased funding

Steve Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, an advocacy group for better and more widely available pre-K programs, said 22 states, including Tennessee, increased enrollment in the past decade.

The institute’s report out today, The State of Pre-School 2011, looked at access, funding and quality of state pre-K programs as well as 10-year trends.

Although enrollment increased, state funds collectively decreased by almost $60 million in 2010-11, and per-child spending declined $145 from the previous year.

“Our key finding is that preschool expansion over the past decade garnered great attention, but something else happened that got less notice: Funding slipped,” Barnett said. “That means we’ve taken a giant step backward as a nation.”

Tennessee spends, on average, $4,620 per child per year compared with $4,151 on average nationally and served 21 percent of the 4-year-old population, up from 2 percent a decade ago when state-funded pre-K was piloted. The national average is 28 percent.

Bobbi Lussier, the state Department of Education’s assistant commissioner of special populations, says funding has stayed steady. Tennessee pays for pre-K for only its low-income 4-year-olds to close achievement gaps. A few states have pre-K for all 4-year-olds, while 11 states have no funded programs.

“I think the feeling is, once our state recovers economically, that we need to really look at expanding the programs to serve more children,” Lussier said.

Robertson, Polk and Bedford counties have 60-70 students each who qualify but can’t get in because there are no empty seats, she said.

Local school districts fund some of their own pre-K programs, and there are federally funded Head Start programs plus church-run and private schools offering pre-K curriculum. It’s up to parents to be sure the schools aren’t providing only day care but also the proper academic preparation.

An impact at home

Lussier and Linda DePriest, Metro’s assistant superintendent for instructional support, said parents can make a huge learning impact at home in their children’s early years, even if they can’t get them into a pre-K program.

Parents can ensure their children have rich experiences simply by taking a walk and counting things such as leaves on a tree or buds on a flower. Reading to children daily and then asking them questions about a story and characters and just talking to children also can be powerful.

“It’s exposing them to print and developing their listening skills, which tie in well when they go to school,” DePriest said. “It helps them listen and develop vocabulary.”


NJ Middle School Principal Who Banned Hugging Resigns

Last month, The Blaze reported about Matawan-Aberdeen Middle School Principal Tyler Blackmore’s decision that his school would become a “no hugging” zone. As you may recall, the reasoning behind the ban on student embraces was centered upon the allegation that there were some “incidents of unsuitable physical interactions.”

Now, it seems the principal is moving on — literally. On April 5, Blackmore filed his resignation from Matawan-Aberdeen Middle School, where he had worked since July 2010. In an interview with the Asbury Park Press, School Board President Charles Kenny said that the resignation was a personnel matter and the reasons behind it were confidential. The Press recaps last month’s events:

    "On March 22, Blackmore told students at the middle school that they were in a “no-hugging school.” District officials came to Blackmore’s support at the time, with Superintendent David M. Healy releasing a statement that night saying the announcement was intended to address incidents of “unsuitable physical interactions between students.”

    “There is no policy specific to hugging, and we have not, nor will we be, suspending students for hugging,” Healy said in the statement, adding that the Board of Education does have policies in place to address bullying, inappropriate relationships and inappropriate conduct.

At a Board of Education meeting on March 26, Kenny explained the principal’s controversial “no hugging policy” and maintained that it was “not at all intended to prohibit a passing embrace.”

“Some students had prolonged, overly physical contact that (Blackmore) considered inappropriate for the middle school,” Kenny said at the time.

There is no indication that the hugging controversy was at the center of his decision to leave the school.


British teaching unions show their true colours

This week’s outrageous claims have revealed just how reactionary and self-serving the unions are.

It was when the union spokesman justified long school holidays on the grounds that teaching is the “most stressful profession in the country” that the presenter Evan Davis’s eyebrows hit the roof. I was sitting in the Today studio, having been invited on to defend the pioneering head teachers who have shortened their summer holiday to combat their pupils’ loss of learning between July and September. Kevin Courtney, the deputy general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, started by arguing that there was no academic evidence for the idea, which was rubbish but at least sounded reasonable. But he lost all sympathy when he argued that teachers needed long holidays for “essential relaxation”.

Evan Davis has an economist’s suspicion of humbug. He asked, in exasperation: “Are you ever, at the NUT, really welcoming of any kind of experimentation, change, something ambitious and different, thinking outside the box when it comes to teaching?” I simply added that the unions are wrong to describe the notion of shorter summer holidays as a government conspiracy against teachers. In fact, teachers themselves have come up with this new thinking. Ministers have latterly (and rightly) given them support. It is the NUT that wants to impose its thinking on schools, in this case by a blanket veto on change.

In truth the teaching unions have done us a great service at their recent conferences by revealing just how reactionary and self-serving their agenda is. We don’t need to dwell on the fact that the NUT conference is heavily attended by the Socialist Workers Party, which speaks for a tiny handful of voters on the extreme Left who want to change the government via a workers’ revolution rather than a democratic election. We can pass over the fact that NUT delegates once forced David Blunkett, then Labour education secretary, to take refuge in a room for 30 minutes after he committed the heinous crime (in their eyes) of condemning teachers’ strikes and promising to sack bad teachers and shut failing schools. These things scarcely matter, when compared to their actual demands in regard to education and their own privileges.

Two unions have now called strike action over the Government’s freeze of teachers’ pay and the requirement for teachers to pay higher contributions towards their pensions. Both of these changes are entirely reasonable. On one estimate, a private sector worker needs to build up a pension pot of £300,000 in order to obtain the average teachers’ pension. It used to be said that public sector workers’ higher retirement benefits were a compensation for lower pay, but nowadays public sector pay has more than caught up with the private sector, as Lord Hutton’s review found. A teacher on the average salary will now have to pay a mere £10 a month more towards their pension. Most private sector workers will be amazed that teachers will strike over such a slight change to what are very generous terms and conditions.

They will also be surprised by the NUT’s vehement opposition to the basic idea that schools should measure the performance of their teachers and expect improvement. For the union this is (again) a cause of “stress” which “leaves teachers feeling overwhelmed by the constant pressure”, as one of this year’s conference motions put it. Inspectors sometimes dropped in on classrooms “unannounced”, complained a motion, when clearly this is the best way that inspections can capture the true performance of the teacher. This is not all. As Damian Hinds MP pointed out yesterday, the teaching unions argue against the testing of children, at all ages, just as much as they do against the testing of teachers.

In fact, staff at the best schools – both state and private – understand that teaching is a skill that can be learnt and developed. Schools such as David Young Community Academy in Leeds have even drawn up their own training framework, grounded in a practical understanding of what works in teaching day-to-day and based on a passionate commitment to improvement. This vision of good education seems to be the polar opposite of that of the NUT.

The question for the Government is how to respond to the unions’ demands. So far it has sought compromise. For example, most schools still operate under national terms and conditions (and the regional pay-setting proposed by the Chancellor is not a fantastic improvement) and a national curriculum, which the Department of Education is refreshing this year. These ideas are entirely consistent with the NUT’s worldview – nationalised, top-down, one-size-fits-all. That should give ministers pause for thought. There is still time in this parliament to do something radical. One idea would be to go beyond regional pay, and implement local pay-setting in every school, as if every school were an academy. It would not be supported by the unions – but that should hardly be ministers’ first concern.

The NUT’s formal motion in favour of long summer holidays ended as follows: there is a “misconception that more teaching automatically leads to more learning”. It has come to something when a teaching union questions the value of teaching itself. The unions’ ideas on education are dangerous, damaging and unrepresentative of the good practice in many state schools. When they sit down with the unions in future, ministers can afford to be a little tougher in their negotiations.


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