Lessons from Preschool

Seven years ago, I began my transition from research to teaching.   I also moved from preschool to high school.  It was an awkward transition in my thought and practice, just as it is for students.

While best practice in early childhood education tells you to observe children, see what they are ready for, and encourage and support their natural development, best practice in K-12 is to drag a kid, kicking and screaming if necessary, to a standard that has been set by someone who has never met the kid, a standard that may in fact be impossible for that kid to meet.  (I know, I know, we’re never supposed to say that anything is “impossible” in education.  But trying to force a kid from a 6th grade reading level to a 10th grade reading level in one year is unfair and inappropriate, if not impossible.)

It makes sense that preschool is different from high school.  It doesn’t make sense that they are this different.

I worked in a preschool myself for several years, and then I moved to the research side, and gathered data on preschool programs around the area.  I probably sat in on 500 preschool classrooms, and they certainly ran the gamut.  There were rooms with teachers so kind and sensitive and creative that I never wanted to leave.  Soft spaces, warm light, a myriad of intriguing toys, gleefully taken out and carefully put away.

I also visited preschools where ten kids had to share twenty toys, all day, every day of the year.  Places where teachers fell asleep while I was observing them.  Roaches and dirty band-aids in the sink.  Broken glass on the playground.  And even worse: teachers who barked at you all day and acted angry and indignant when you did normal two-year-old stuff like wandering off.

Some of these differences were associated with the economic status of the kids and the institution.  But there were fancy centers who didn’t get creative, and places just scraping by who dazzled me.

What I learned was that, regardless of the sparkly wow factor of the place, I had a solid feeling about the teacher within the first half hour.  You know a good teacher when you meet one.  The kids are comfortable.  You are comfortable.  Things happen calmly, and everybody knows what to do.  I don’t think it’s any different with teachers at other levels.  You actually hear and see people learning things.  Even if you’re only there for a couple of hours.

I also don’t believe a quality educational environment can be reliably faked.  The kids betray the teachers almost every time.  Just wait for the student who says, “Why are we doing it that way?  We never do that.”

Observe the teacher.  Ask the students what they are learning about.  There are ways to turn this into numbers that look rigid and crisp, but, more importantly, you’ll learn a whole lot more about the quality of the school than you would from a test.

Moving to the high school level seven years ago, I began to wonder why other schools couldn’t be observed and assessed the way that we studied preschools.  High school teachers are usually observed during student teaching, and by administrators, but it has not been the focus of school improvement efforts.  High school teachers should have effective routines, a comfortable environment, and stimulating activities planned.  I agree with early childhood theorists that if they do,  students can hardly keep themselves from learning.

Assessing K-12 schools this way could also break the grip of teachers’ unions in a healthy way.  It makes sense to assess teachers on their performance and pay them accordingly.  It makes more sense to assess them by their practices than by student test scores.  If teachers are providing appropriate routines, activities, and interactions, students will learn.  Their learning may not show up in a test, and it may not show up that year– the human brain is mysterious that way.  But they will learn.

If we observe and assess schools rather than looking at test scores, we can put the horse before the cart again: see if teachers are doing what they should be, then look at test scores.  Finally we ask: what do these test scores tell us?  Do we need to change our routines and curriculum and activities?  What is this test telling us, and what is it not telling us? Tests are supposed to serve students, not the other way around.  They should never be used in isolation to make judgments.  Those numbers are too easily influenced and manipulated.  We need more comprehensive information.

To follow up, another day: why no one wants to do this.  Who is threatened.  And why we should, anyway.

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