May 1, 2006

Universal Preschool Follies

There's another great debate shaping up at Edspresso. This time the subject is Universal Preschool and pits the edusphere's very own Joanne Jacobs against Susanna Coopers.

Apparently unaware of the educational missteps of the 20th century, Ms. Coopers proposes a club of a solution-- the same tired old solution that was tried and failed repeatedly last century. Big government monopoly. Lots of money. Drive out competition. Impose standards designed to make the solution overly expensive. No evidence of success. Liberal sprinkling of emotional appeals.

In sharp contrast, Ms. Jacobs proposes a 21st century laser of a solution. Targeted assistance to the exact area of need--language deficiencies in low-SES children. This is exactly the right solution to the very real problem that prevents many low-SES kids from learning how to read with adequate comprehension.

We already know that most low-SES kids can be taught to become expert decoders in a well designed reading program. We also know, however, that many of these kids will experience a fourth grade slump when texts get more difficult and reading comprehension plays a more prominent part of reading. The cause of the problem: vocabulary (language) deficiencies.
The enduring effects of the vocabulary limitations of students with diverse learning needs is becoming increasingly apparent. Nothing less that learning itself depends on language. Certainly, as Adams (1990) suggests, most of our formal education is acquired through language. Learning something new does not occur in a vacuum. Rather, new learning always builds on what the learner already knows. Adams suggests that new learning is the process of forming novel combinations of familiar concepts. Learning, as a language-based activity, is fundamentally and profoundly dependent on vocabulary knowledge. Learners must have access to the meaning of words teachers, or their surrogates (e.g., other adults, books, films, etc.), use to guide them into contemplating known concepts in novel ways (i.e., to learn something new). With inadequate vocabulary knowledge, learners are being asked to develop novel combinations of known concepts with insufficient tools.
From Vocabulary Acquisition: Synthesis of the Research

Here is what causes the vocabulary deficiencies:
  • Parents with professional jobs spoke about 2,000 words an hour to toddlers.
  • For working-class parents it was 1,200 words an hour, and
  • For those on welfare only 600 words an hour.
  • By age 3, children on welfare will have heard 30 million fewer words than children of professional families
Hart & Risley (2003)

The result of this language exposure disparity is that low-SES children have a much more limited vocabulary than higher SES children by the time they learn to read.

So, as Ms. Jacobs suggests, if you want to do preschool right you need to target your resources to the kids who need it the most and focus on the deficiencies they have.

There are two good research based language instruction programs that are commercially available: Language for Learning and Reasoning and Writing. Both of these programs are in use in the City Springs School in Baltimore City which is a very low-SES school.

In 1998 the City Springs School's fifth grade CTBS/TerraNova scores went from the 14th percentile to the 87th percentile in 2003. Similarly, the City Springs Kids are almost all expert decoders by the end of first grade--their first grade scores were 99th percentile. Naturally, the school uses Reading Mastery to teach decoding and reading. Try getting scores like that with your fancy balanced literacy programs.

No fourth grade slump here. Moreover, language instruction doesn't begin until kindergarten in this school, so the whole issue of funding preschool may already be moot.


Anonymous said...

well....Reasoning and Writing looks like just what I need, but naturally I can't buy it

I have to love the fact that the schools have roundly rejected Engelmann and all he stands for, and yet he's writing his books for a company that refuses to sell to parents

KDeRosa said...


KDeRosa said...

Hi Michele.

Anacdotally, there are plenty of preschool providers in my area of southeast Pennsylvania.

It may also be that parents do not see the benefit of the extra expense of preschool over daycare and are unwilling to pay the premium. The evidence is pretty thin that general preschool leads to increased student peformance.

Admittedly, low-SES households may ned to be subsidized in order to afford the preschool their kids may need. But, there is no guarantee that the CA plan will be able to provide it bsed on CA's performance with its public school system.

Lastly, as I pointed out in my post the City Springs School seems to have made the whole preschool issue moot. Coincidentally, they use one of the few instructional programs endorsed by the AFT.