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.
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.