Friday, October 21, 2016

My Visit To Preschool

I'm in Seattle for almost a week, visiting my daughter, her husband, their newborn son, and their almost two-year-old son. This provides all manner of entertainment (you'll notice blogging has run a little slow), but today it provided an opportunity for me to be a visiting grampa (actually, my grandparental name is "Gump") at my grandson's pre-school class.

Like many education observers, I have an increased interest in pre-K because policy-makers and the Big Money Crowd are interested in pre-K these days. And while there are many good things to be said about pre-school programs, they remind me of what my high school band director said about playing clarinet-- it's easy to do, but really hard to do well.

This guy

I have read a little bit about Seattle's co-operative pre-schools before (check out Teacher Tom's blog over in the bloglist to the right). There's a big, semi-painful network of co-ops, coordinated by levels of boards, run out of colleges and other civic groups. Co-ops are big in Seattle. It's a complex system that is still evolving (still reportedly working on consistency in teacher pay). But I'm still curious-- how exactly do you run a pre-school for children under two? And what would Department of Education officials require to prove that the program was high quality?

My grandson's pre-school is on the campus of North Seattle Community College, in a large rambling building that looks like it would have made a good set for a bad seventies sf movie, but is still clean and pretty and, on this particular morning, glistening with steadily falling Seattle dew. It's a co-op , and this particular class includes children between one and two years old.

The two-hour session starts with a half hour of open play in the outside playground area (this is Seattle so the play area is under an overhang so that it's still usable even if the dew is falling heavily).  Then there is circle time, in which the children and their parents (every child comes equipped with a parental unit) sit on the carpet in a circle-like format and Teacher Kari (who plays a mean autoharp) leads some songs. There's snack time, then play station time (not PlayStation time), then cleaning up time, then circle again, and then goodbyes.

You could call it loosely structured. The parents sang the songs and modeled the actions and at any given moment, some of the children were following along and some... not so much. But the whole atmosphere was relaxed and nobody pushed the children to stay "on task." The play stations were completely self-chosen, and parents monitored, but did not direct the activity. During the stations, parents also rotate in and out of parent education sessions.

Teacher Kari delivered pretty much everything in song. There was a greeting song and a picking up song and a goodbye song. The circle songs used lots of props, like blackbirds on a stick and scarves and a parachute.

Was there academic content? Well, some of the songs used some numbers and body parts (make the blackbirds dance on your shoulders). But any attempt to measure the "outcomes" would be a fool's errand; today one boy is having trouble separating from his mom and another just wants someone to read him a book. How do you propose to measure that?

Was there non-cognitive skill content? Did I mention the age? They show some social behaviors, but mostly managing to play in the same space as another tiny human is a win. They interact well with the other parents (my son-in-law is the most popular kid in class).

So was this more than just a loosely organized play date? Absolutely. Could any reasonable human actually assess any of this? And the very idea that you would try to would be a clear signal that your pre-school does not have its heart in the right place. And before you tell me that nobody in their right mind would try to do assessment of two-year-olds, I'll remind you that only a few years ago nobody would have seriously suggested testing five-year-olds.

So it's nice to know that somewhere in the world-- especially in the part of the world where my grandson lives-- people still know how to do pre-K right. I can only hope that as the US Department of Education inserts itself into the world of pre-K, they manage to visit that world.


  1. Pete,
    As an 18 year veteran Pre K Special Ed teacher, who has experience in the Part C, the special need Federal program for birth to two children, I can tell you there is tons of material out there for measuring these programs and outcomes. If you are interested, you might look into the Perry school project, a 40 year long research into the outcomes of the High Scope teaching method. Please don't judge my grammar, it's early I haven't had my coffee. Love your blog!

  2. As an early childhood educator...please....please...please....we need more programs and more people to "do pre-K right". I was lucky, my bachelors degree in ECE was based in my college's Human Development Department, not the Education Department. Doing pre-k right requires a solid understanding of child development/family studies, not assessments and rubrics.

  3. Prek Jen- You are correct about the abundant research measuring quality and outcomes. But there is no perfect measure. Program philosophy can be greatly different, for example Montessori and Waldorf do not fit well into any current 'measurement', very hard to measure apples, oranges and avocados with the same tool. My personal experience is the best measure of quality and positive outcomes lies in the warmth of the teacher and her supportive interactions with children and parents. My main concern is the current political forces at play in pre-k. In NYS all funding goes to public school, other programs such as parent cooperatives are closing. Choices are becoming extremely limited. Without parent choice I see the end of early childhood education as we once knew it, and as described in this well-written piece.

  4. You hit the nail on the head: all attempts at stiffly monitoring progress where preschool and even kindergarten are concerned are, and have been, only the result of A FOOL'S errand. Absolute fools spouting their blind foolishness have, for so many long years now, imposed upon -- and caused great harm to -- our children.

  5. I spent time at Woodland Park when Teacher Tom was "not teaching." It's critical to read his blog on a regular basis to understand the intent of a play-based preschool. The blog is a master's program in early childhood education--not because he tells people how to "teach" these children, but because he describes what HE learns from the children...and how to "facilitate" early childhood education with as little intrusion as possible into the authentic learning of the children. I watched a 3 year old spend 20 minutes pouring water from a container into a plastic water wheel and watching the wheel turn. He repeated this again and again--totally absorbed in what he was doing and oblivious to the chaos around him. Finally, he filled his glass one more time, stuck his finger into the water wheel, pushed down a lever, and poured the water into the top. This time the wheel turned in the opposite direction. He did it one more time to confirm his hypothesis and then took off to explore his next question. Anyone who feels the need to "measure" his learning is blind and/or obsessed with meaningless data. You have to spend more than a couple of hours there to appreciate the depth of authentic learning that is going on--and to see why "teaching" social and emotional learning is totally unnecessary when children are allowed to freely explore their interactions with one another. I can't recommend Teacher Tom's blog highly enough.