Commentary, Education

NC needs to dramatically expand early childhood education…the genuine kind

[Cross-posted from the blog of veteran North Carolina educator Justin Parmenter, Notes from the Chalkboard.]

As members of the North Carolina House and Senate huddle behind closed doors to hash out a budget compromise which may well include a controversial online Pre-K pilot, a new report by the non-partisan Program Evaluation Division of the North Carolina General Assembly recommends an increased focus on early childhood learning.

Earlier this session, Union County Representative Craig Horn introduced legislation to create a virtual Pre-K pilot program.  The program would provide in-home access to online preschool for North Carolina children who are living below the federal poverty line and would test the feasibility of expanding access to all preschool-aged children in the state.

The Senate declined to include the pilot in its budget, but Horn has vowed to keep fighting for it–despite the fact that dozens of early childhood education experts have called for an end to such programs, pointing to the dangers of increased screen time and the importance of relational learning opportunities with actual human beings.  Those experts recommend instead expanding access to high-quality Pre-K, which North Carolina has received national attention for not sufficiently funding.

Now the General Assembly’s non-partisan Program Evaluation Division has issued a report which falls very much in line with the recommendations of the experts.

Entitled ‘North Carolina Should Focus on Early Childhood Learning in Order to Raise Achievement in Predominantly Disadvantaged School Districts,’ the report points out that the disadvantaged districts in our state which manage to maintain high levels of achievement are those that focus on early education.

The Program Evaluation Division concludes that the General Assembly should require low performing schools to add an early childhood learning improvement component to their currently required improvement plans and also that the G.A. should require the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction to comprehensively assess early childhood learning for districts across the state.

Responding the PED’s recommendations, State Superintendent Mark Johnson suggested that ‘personalized learning,’ a catch phrase for students learning on their own using computer software, is a great way to improve early learning results.

I bet I can find dozens of early childhood education experts who disagree.

Commentary, Education

Virtual Pre-K back in House budget, no funds for expanding legitimate Pre-K

[Cross-posted from from the website “Notes from the Chalkboard”]

This is the post I didn’t want to write.

On Thursday night, a successful amendment to the House budget by Mecklenburg County Representative Carla Cunningham stripped funding from Representative Craig Horn’s Virtual Pre-K pilot program initiative and transferred the money to the Department of Public Instruction’s Students in Crisis grants, which aim to “increase school safety by providing evidence-based and evidence-informed crisis services and training to help students develop healthy responses to trauma and stress.”

It was a short-lived victory.

On Friday, at the eleventh hour of budget negotiations, Representative Lewis’s amendment to restore that funding for Virtual Pre-K passed. Now the ball is in the Senate’s court.

To recap, the Virtual Pre-K pilot program will provide in-home access to online preschool for four year olds who are living below the federal poverty line.

In his impassioned speech to the House K-12 Education Committee last month, Horn vowed that his goal was merely to provide educational opportunities to those who would not be attending a real Pre-K program anyway and that Virtual Pre-K was not in any way intended to be a replacement for high quality Pre-K.  Furthermore, he claimed Virtual Pre-K would be accompanied by continued expansion of access to Pre-K. (You can actually hear him make that claim here.)

Neither Representative Horn nor any of his colleagues proposed expanded access to Pre-K in this year’s House budget.

North Carolina has received national attention for the quality of its Pre-K program, which research has proven reduces special education placement and the likelihood of children repeating a grade between 3rd and 8th grade as well as improving reading and math assessment results in both elementary and middle school.  Unfortunately, that national attention has also called out state funding for Pre-K as being entirely inadequate.

Earlier this year, the National Institute for Early Education Research called on North Carolina lawmakers to do a better job of providing young children with the foundation they need to be successful in school:

NC Pre-K now reaches less than half (47 percent) the children it was designed to serve. Significant numbers of young children–almost 33,000–across all races and ethnicities, in both rural and urban areas, are losing the opportunity to develop foundational skills needed to succeed in school and beyond. In fact, 40 counties are serving less than half of eligible children.

While children may be attending other early education programs, those programs do not provide all the quality components of NC Pre-K—so those vulnerable children are less likely to gain the lasting benefits provided by NC Pre-K.

But back to the Craig Horn and Virtual Pre-K. Not only did Horn and his colleagues fail to even propose expanding access to NC Pre-K in the current budget, Horn’s Virtual Pre-K legislation calls for testing the feasibility of expanding Virtual Pre-K ‘to all preschool-age children in the State.’

(ii) test the feasibility of scaling a home-based curriculum in reading, math, and science delivered by computers and the Internet to all preschool-age children in the State.

This legislation opens the door to lawmakers backing away from funding legitimate Pre-K in favor of an approach they can frame as innovative ‘personalized learning’ for young children.

Our children deserve access to a quality preschool education. They deserve to be provided with the opportunity to interact with other children and develop skills of collaboration and communication that will serve as a critical foundation as they transition to elementary school. They won’t get that in front of a screen.

Commentary

New power grab by Superintendent Mark Johnson is a recipe for dysfunction

DPI Superintendent Mark Johnson

A bill filed by Lincoln County Representative Jason Saine in the NC House this week would bring the State Board of Education’s legislative director Cecilia Holden and general counsel Eric Snider under NC State Superintendent Mark Johnson’s supervision.

As Johnson already has a legislative director and general counsel (Kevin Wilkinson and Jonathan Sink), it’s very possible that Holden and Snider would then be relieved of duty.

Let’s unpack the implications of this move for North Carolina’s school system.

The State Board’s legislative director serves as the primary point of contact between the board and state and federal policymakers. The loss of Cecilia Holden would deprive our State Board of Education of a valuable source of information which is essential to shaping the work it does on behalf of 1.5 million students and nearly 100,000 teachers every day.

Recently, Holden was instrumental in laying the groundwork for collaboration between the State Board’s J.B. Buxton and Senator Berger’s office in working to improve Read to Achieve legislation. On the other side of the coin, the school supply bill which was proposed last week by Senator Wells included zero input from the State Board. That legislation was dismissed by our last two Teachers of the Year as being a terrible idea for schools. Amid the resulting fallout, Mark Johnson was left scrambling to reassure teachers that he was working with the General Assembly on increasing funding for supplies.

The work of a legislative director in connection with the State Board can be that crucial link in the chain to ensure policies that are in the best interests of our teachers and students. The State Board’s general counsel also plays a vital role in allowing the board to effectively carry out its management oversight, through legal services that impact school personnel directly such as contract review and responding to litigation.

The loss of the independent check and balance of the board’s legislative director and general counsel would allow Mark Johnson to work even more in isolation with the General Assembly than he already does. That would come as a serious blow to our public school system at a time when constructive working relationships between the various bodies that serve North Carolinians are more needed than ever.

Justin Parmenter is a veteran Mecklenburg County educator who writes frequently about public education in North Carolina at the website Notes from the Chalkboard, where this post first appeared. You can also follow him on Twitter at @JustinParmenter.