Obama and Early Childhood Education – Response From A Practitioner

In my post about Barack Obama’s focus on early childhood education I noted that the gap between low performers and high performers gets much more difficult to bridge as students get older. Obama’s early learning proposals are pragmatic because they aim to close the achievement gap when it is easiest and most effective.

Michelle King, today’s guest blogger, makes the important point that it is the relative gap not the absolute gap that presents a challenge to teachers. Michelle is an administrator at a large urban school district and a former 1st Grade bilingual teacher.

Michelle’s insights amplify the urgency for intervening in the early grades. She also points towards a Response to Intervention (RTI) program that is addressing this challenge here in Texas.

The original post “Obama and Early Childhood Education” is here.

Guest Post by Michelle King

139391 A Boy A Girl And A BookAs stated in Lee’s post, oral language may be “hard wired” but it is still very much in development at the primary grade levels, especially for English Language Learners that are building oral language skills in their native and second language.

Retaining a student is never a decision that is taken lightly. The original post states that “When a student drops out in 10th grade the cause can be traced all the way back to 2nd grade or even Kindergarten”. The fundamental struggle faced by primary grade teachers is how to close the gap for a struggling learner lacking the foundations of literacy while still promoting him to the next grade level? Most educational research today discourages the practice of grade retention.

In Barack Obama’s backyard, a 2004 research study from the University of Chicago indicates students that were retained, regardless of the grade in which retention occurred, have a higher likelihood to drop out in 10th grade when peer pressure is at a particularly heightened level and academics are increasingly rigorous.

The gaps of struggling students at the K-2 level may seem small compared to the widening trend in the upper elementary and middle school levels, however, teachers in Grades 1 and 2 have real challenges in the achievement gap from day one. 
I taught students that didn’t know how to spell their own name (or even recognize the letters) sitting next to students that were reading the latest Harry Potter book.  Couple that challenge with the fact that kids don’t get naps or extra recess as they did in Kindergarten, they are expected to sit at an assigned desk with their assigned textbooks, and have nightly homework while still trying to learn how to tie shoes and keep track of their favorite pencil. 

Although I agree the primary focus in K-3 is on acquiring basic skills in reading and math, teachers in K-3 are expected to teach Science and Social Studies while promoting literacy and math skills development.  A good teacher knows how to integrate curriculum to get the most bang for their instructional buck (think Johnny Appleseed) but that means less time for rote skill building and core subject instruction.

With the focus on high stakes testing and AYP, the shift in public schools understandably moved towards reading and math intervention at the upper elementary level and middle school levels.  Yet what we are seeing now is the achievement gap is actually growing at the middle school level because the K-2 teachers were left behind to pull up struggling learners with limited outside help (aside from gracious volunteers and the occasional tutoring opportunity for the highest of high-need students).

Enter the state’s Response to Intervention program.   Here in my Texas school district, our 2008-09 RTI efforts are in initially in the Language Arts domain with a particular focus on grades 1, 2 and 3 (with other grades and content areas being phased in over time).  This is coming not one day too soon.

It all starts with the basics and the amazing teachers in early childhood education.  These teachers may not be the data leaders of the school but they certainly play a major role in setting the stage for student success in the years to come.

The original post “Obama and Early Childhood Education” is here.

Michele King is the Administrative Coordinator of Instructional Support for a large Texas urban school district. Ms. King oversees the district’s instructional management system and serves as the C&I liasion for a variety of technology-driven district initiatives. She taught as a first grade bilingual teacher while earning her Masters in Education from Texas State University. Prior to entering the education profession, Ms. King spent ten years as a manager and consultant for a variety of technology-focused companies.

The views expressed in this column are the personal beliefs of Ms. King based on her teaching experience and do not necessarily reflect those of the district for whom she is employed.