A New York Times article today said that Race to the Top (RTTT) “also-rans” like California, New Jersey and Pennsylvania will get another chance to compete for federal RTTT grants, only this time the pot will be much smaller. These “losers” will have the opportunity to trip all over each other to impose merit pay, increase private charter schools, and otherwise convince the feds that they are the most education business-friendly states in the nation, all to win grants worth between $10 and $50 million.
Hopefully none of the states will bite. This kind of money is chump change to states grappling with multi-billion dollar deficits. Furthermore, there is no evidence that the reforms being demanded by the Obama Administration will improve educational outcomes, though there is plenty of evidence that they improve the bottom line for educational management organizations and private charter school companies. Merit pay and “evaluation reform” also have the potential to weaken teachers unions and harm students, by forcing out many quality veteran teachers who happen to work at low income schools, which tend to have lower test scores. This increases the percentage of young, novice teachers who not only lack experience in the classroom, but who also tend to be less active in the union and more willing to go along with “reforms” that threaten effective existing programs, as well as teachers’ working conditions.
Obama is also making $500 million available in competitive grants for early childhood programs. However, this is far less than the $10 billion he had asked for in 2009. Congress denied that request and another similar one last year. Regardless, this is also chump change considering the true cost of providing early childhood education programs for all eligible children in all 50 states. However, when offered competitively, it forces states to make terrible compromises, like allowing private businesses to operate public services with minimal oversight and for private profit. And while some early childhood programs, like Head Start, have a proven track record in improving some educational outcomes, none of these programs really address the most significant influence on academic success: familial wealth.
Kathleen Sebelius , whose Health and Human Services department administers the Head Start program and will co-administer the early learning competition, was quoted by the NY Times saying that many 5-year-olds were unprepared for kindergarten because they lacked “social skills that would allow them to sit in a classroom or listen to a teacher.” However, gaps in social skills, as well as in language and pre-reading skills, already exist by the times kids are three, well before most early childhood preschool programs begin.(See the work of Burkam and Lee and Hart and Risely).
The gap is class-based, with middle class kids being much more likely to be socially and academically ready for preschool- and kindergarten. There are numerous reasons for this. Poor children are much more likely to be born prematurely and to suffer malnutrition, iron-deficiency anemia, and exposure to smoke, lead and other environmental toxins. Each of these can impair cognitive development or lead to learning disabilities. Likewise, poor children suffer higher degrees of stress, which leads to the overproduction of the hormone cortisol, which can impair memory and learning. Higher income parents tend to read much more often to their children and at an earlier age, while also exposing them to a greater variety of words and expressions.
While early education programs can help to mitigate this gap, it would make sense to also address the causes of the gap well before children are ready for preschool, so that lower income children are not constantly playing catch-up. Furthermore, even if we increase the investment in early childhood programs, but continue to allow kids to live in poverty, many of their earlier gains will be reversed.