Wednesday, February 13, 2013

State of the Union 2013

I find it easier to go through the State of the Union and other such speeches the next day, once I can look at the full text. Here, from the New York Times, is the Pre-K-12 education section of last night's speech:
Study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road. But today, fewer than 3 in 10 four year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program. Most middle-class parents can’t afford a few hundred bucks a week for private preschool. And for poor kids who need help the most, this lack of access to preschool education can shadow them for the rest of their lives.
Tonight, I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America. Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on – by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime. In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children, like Georgia or Oklahoma, studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, and form more stable families of their own. So let’s do what works, and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind. Let’s give our kids that chance.
Let’s also make sure that a high school diploma puts our kids on a path to a good job. Right now, countries like Germany focus on graduating their high school students with the equivalent of a technical degree from one of our community colleges, so that they’re ready for a job. At schools like P-Tech in Brooklyn, a collaboration between New York Public Schools, the City University of New York, and IBM, students will graduate with a high school diploma and an associate degree in computers or engineering.
We need to give every American student opportunities like this. Four years ago, we started Race to the Top – a competition that convinced almost every state to develop smarter curricula and higher standards, for about 1 percent of what we spend on education each year. Tonight, I’m announcing a new challenge to redesign America’s high schools so they better equip graduates for the demands of a high-tech economy. We’ll reward schools that develop new partnerships with colleges and employers, and create classes that focus on science, technology, engineering, and math – the skills today’s employers are looking for to fill jobs right now and in the future.
First of all, if this all sounded to you an awful lot like Governor Patrick's State of the State address a few weeks back, well, that wasn't just you ("He mentioned that it’s 'our generation’s task' to fix this mess and pushed for early education and some other really familiar sounding proposals. So familiar, in fact, I think the Axelrod/Patrick/White House conference call might have been a really good one this year.") That's pretty disappointing; I'd hope for a broader vision from the federal government. 
Overall, this boils down to preschool, early college high school, and STEM, which makes it largely a retread of what we've been hearing in education for the past few years. 

Now, don't get me wrong: preschool--and frankly, it's about time we came up with something to separate out when we're talking about kids younger than 4--is an important thing to support, and to support much better than we do now. Head Start is the largest and longest running preschool program in the United States and the results are that are pretty amazing. See, for example, the chart Andrew Sullivan posts today on the results at age 27. The rest of what you'll see up there (and elsewhere) is the "but the results fade out after third grade." However, it is the test score results that fade out after third grade, and I sure hope that we're doing a lot more in this country than raising standardized test scores.
I hope.
I think there's a couple of things that the President missed here (yes, realizing that he did have to cover the entire country in the limited time available). Anything that looks like universal preschool leaves out those that choose or wish to choose to have their young children spend time at home. It may be home with a parent; it may be the home of a grandparent. This may be a minority--it may even be a somewhat silent one--but we make a mistake if we leave it out. We also make a mistake if we assume that it only follows the "mom's home; dad's at work" pattern. We have a number of cultures across the country who would rather have a child with Gramma, whatever her level of education, than in any sort of preschool.
That's why I wish here, much like with Race to the Top, that instead of going for a competitive and institutional answer, he'd gone for a coordinated and community one. For someone who spoke at such length about Harlem Children's Zone, he didn't follow up. Yet the parts of that model that were new (not the ducking out of the public school system with charters)--talking to parents about talking to their babies, getting not to kids but to families very young--are tackling the so-called achievement gap where it actually starts, and doing so in a way that isn't isolating the kids, but is bringing the entire community along. 
Diane Ravitch hits my part of my concern on the early college high school; we say kids need more education, and then we say we should follow the example of a country with a lower college graduation rate? The other piece of my concern is based on what we've seen here in Worcester; if those programs are competitive in any way, we'll end up with the brightest kids in them, not those who actually could benefit most from the program. That's a mistake, and it's one that will make both halves of the problem worse.
On STEM: what can I say? It's hip now. It was after Sputnik, too. At some point, I hope we'll remember why we thought we ought to be teaching literature and history and the social sciences.
I hope. 

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