Friday, April 24, 2015

The Great Disconnect in Early Childhood Education: My Review

About the Book:
Early childhood educators need to be cognizant of the disconnect between public policy and classroom practice—the success of children they teach depends on it. This book analyzes how ineffective practices are driven by unexamined public policies and why educators need to challenge their thinking in order to make a difference in children's lives. A very complex story about public policy and the importance of teaching is told while entertaining and engaging the reader throughout.

Michael Gramling is an expert in providing family literacy training and positive guidance training 
and has conducted experiential supervisor and mentor coach institutes for Head Start programs.

My Comments:
"Data-driven instruction" is one of the big buzzwords in education today.  It is something accreditation teams expect to find and something from which lots of computer companies make a lot of money.  Michel Gramling says it is hurting those it is most supposed to help--low income "at risk" kids in preschool programs.  

In short, the model of education adopted by many low-income schools is to define objectives and then plan lessons, experiences and evaluations to determine if those objectives have been met.  This leads to a process of basically "teaching the test" where the teachers constantly go over--teach in a "linear manner" the items on the test.  Making a construction paper jack-o-lantern is an opportunity to review the colors orange and black and the names of facial features.

While not denying that knowing such things is important, Gramling points out that the major difference between high-income students and low-income students is the number and quality of words to which they have been exposed prior to entering schools.  Because the high-income students' parents tend to be better educated and tend to use a more sophisticated vocabulary naturally, even when conversations are not directed at the children, the children absorb the sounds and meanings of those words.  As a result, high-income students are far ahead in language acquisition when they get to school--whether school is kindergarten or preschool.

Further, it is Gramling's belief that the way to increase the vocabulary of low-income students is not to directly teach the words, but rather to engage the children in conversations or to allow her to hear conversations where the teacher is using a variety of words, talking about a wide range of topics and using sophisticated sentence structure.

For example, using the linear model, a teacher would approach a child building a block tower and compliment him on it and then ask him questions about the shapes of the blocks he was using, how many blocks he was using or the colors of the blocks.  Using Gramling's approach, the teacher would look at the tower and ask what it was used for.  Upon receiving an answer, the teacher would continue the conversation, doing most of the talking, but giving the child a chance to analyze, think, and to hear words that would not necessarily come up in a lesson plan.

For example, a child built a house.  The teacher talked about not liking it when people barged into the bathroom and asked about building a bathroom just for the child's mother.  The child had never seen a house with two bathrooms, so she rejected that idea, but did come up with putting a lock on the door to assure privacy.  The linear model, Gramling states, exposes children to far fewer words and does so in an isolated manner.

The pre-schools of the well-to-do focus on providing a lot of experiences in a lot of areas to enrich the child's life.  The data-driven government-funded pre-schools for the poor focus on meeting objectives, many of which are developmental and which cannot be hurried along by direct instruction.  Gramling points out that unless there is a developmental problem, all children learn to sit up, roll over, stand and walk, in pretty much the same order and at about the same time--though some take longer than others, and there isn't much you can do to hurry the process.  Nevertheless, Gramling points out that many preschools attempt to do just that--to force the children to behave in school-appropriate ways with the excuse "they will have to do it in kindergarten, so we need to get them ready".  

What Gramling found most distressing, and what is alluded to in the title, is that the data-driven linear methods of instruction are not what all the research on child development or learning processes reveal to be effective.  In short, teachers and schools are teaching the way they do, not because they know or believe them to be the best way, but because the drive for accountability in schools has basically forced it on them.  Teachers have to document that they teach the defined skills and that the children have mastered them.

I found the book to be an interesting read.  My older kids attended a public school; my youngest attends a Catholic school.  One thing I like much better about the Catholic school is the lack of emphasis on testing.  Both schools are good schools with caring, nurturing, stable staffs.  However, the Catholic school's test scores aren't in the paper yearly.  The school isn't considered better or worse than the one down the street based primarily on test scores.  I'm not so naive as to think test scores don't matter to the school, or to the archdiocese, but we don't have kids getting sick because of nerves over standardized tests and if a principal or teacher loses her job, there are going to be reasons other than just test scores.  I personally think that much of the backlash against Common Core is a backlash against the whole over-emphasis on testing.  

I'd like to thank the publisher for making a review copy available via Edelweiss.  Grade:  B+

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