A weekend interview with ...
... early childhood education advocate David Lawrence. The former Miami Herald publisher helped push Florida's universal prekindergarten constitutional amendment to victory in 2002. Now head of the Early Childhood Initiative Foundation, he tours the country talking about the importance of educating children ages 0-5. (For a more detailed bio, click here.) Lawrence discussed the pros and cons of Florida's Voluntary Pre-K program as it ends its second year with reporter Jeff Solochek.
Lawrence: On the plus side, there are 115,000 or so 4-year-olds who are going to be in the program. ... That’s a very big number. If you consider that 220,000 children are born each year in Florida, you now have more than half of the 4-year-olds. And when there are only three universal programs in the country - Oklahoma in a very small state, 3-million people and a very different kind of model, Georgia which is a close model to Florida. But in the first year of Georgia’s program, which was 1996, in a state half the size of Florida, they had 8,800 children in theirs. So when you consider the program is only in its second year, that’s a pretty impressive turnout. Clearly parents have said, Boy there’s something valuable for my child here. That’s the big plus.
Here are the things I think folks need to work on. First, there is no requirement from the get-go for a research-based, evidence-based curriculum. We know we can easily identify at least a dozen research-based curricula, and yet the state of Florida isn’t requiring that. You can essentially use anything you want for a couple of years, and then if the program in theory isn’t working, you’ve got to use something the state wants you to use. I would argue since the state is spending close to $400-million ... people are entitled to know that their money is spent on quality.
The second area is, as you know, the pre-k advisory council chaired by the lieutenant governor (Toni Jennings), of which I was a member, voted unanimously for within five years an associate’s degree for the lead teacher, and within eight years a bachelor’s degree in early education for the lead teacher. The Legislature decided that it would make those “aspirational goals.” Aspirational goals is a recipe for never getting it done.
JS: The governor has said he supports that (having degreed teachers). Do you think that his comments will drive anything?
DL: Like so many Floridians, I am optimistic about the new governor. And so, yes, that fuels, energizes, my sense of optimism. But of course, it still needs to be done and it hasn’t been done. And the next regular session of the Legislature is when? Next March. So that’s another area.
The third area I would say ... in a high-quality program of wisdom, your son would go that program and at the beginning of that program - next month when he goes in - he would be assessed. Not tested. I’m not talking about baby FCATs here. He would be assessed for how ready he is. How is he doing? Where is he vis-a-vis early literacy? How is he doing socially and emotionally? Then ... and again I emphasize, not a test but an assessment. That assessment to be shared not only with the teacher, but with the parent. You and your wife are entitled to know how your child is doing.
That assessment would then form your child’s instruction and learning for the next several months. We would say ... he does real well in this and this, but he needs some help in this and this. And then during the course of the year a teacher would help him. And then at the end of the year we would minimally see, where is he now? What did he get from the program? And in an ideal program, this would be done several times during the year.
That isn’t done now. Some programs do it. But it is no requirement for that. And instead, the state talked about this readiness rate for kindergarten kids.
JS: You I take it don’t see that as being very valuable.
DL: Well, I think it has some real deficits. ... You probably have books and magazines around the house. And you probably don’t use television as a babysitter, which is one of the great evils. And you talk with and sing with and do other things. And you child probably is in spectacular shape. ...
That is another challenge here. Well, let’s assume it’s a child from 2 miles over who lives in a very different kind of environment. Didn’t get the attention, didn’t get the nurturing. People were exhausted. Television was used as a babysitter. Didn’t sit and read with the child, point out things to the child while shopping in Publix or whatever else. Didn’t know the colors. Well, my God. How could we expect the readiness rate to be the same?
You’ve got to know where kids are, and where they next are, in order to know where they’ve been and what they have learned out of all of this. One of the fears of this whole thing was that centers would cherry pick children. ...
Another thing, and this is really critical. If you asked today ... What do we know that works? If you ask the state, they cannot give you an answer. They can’t give you an answer because the data has never been put together. What do I mean by all this?
In a high quality program you would have a data system that ended up meaning something. ... I don’t want 100 pieces of information to know if the program is working. It would blind me. What I do want to know is at least six things, and then I want them cross-tabbed. Let me tell you what the six things are. One, who is the child’s teacher, meaning what type of credentials. Number two, what curriculum is being used for that child? Number three, what type of accreditation does the program have?
Number four, what’s the child’s primary language? Number five, the race and/or national origin of the child. And, number six ... the mother’s education and the family’s poverty level. ... It is the mother’s education that generally has more to do with the child being successful.
You can guess why. In many homes there is only the mother. 40 percent of the children in Florida are born to single women. That’s one thing. ... Secondly, you may be the exquisitely enlightened human being. But I promise you your neighbors think that raising children, to a great degree, is women’s work. ...
Now, we have let’s say there are 115,000 children in the program. We ought to know if you are using public money the answers to those six questions for every child. Not so we can invade the privacy .. but because you would then know, Oh, I see what works now.
All of this information is easily available. ... But until you have this kind of data, you’re not going to know lots of things.
For instance, there is a huge argument over teacher credentials. And it’s not a slam dunk as a bachelor’s degree is the be-all and end-all. ... What you would love to do is aggregate this data, cross-tab it and then, if you’re making policy, be able to say that We know this type of accreditation and this kind of curriculum combined with these teacher credentials, etc., etc., are the kinds of things that make it work.
... If you wanted to know what’s really working - which is what you ought to want if you’re spending several hundred-million dollars on the future of children - you could easily get this information. ...
JS: Your name pops up from time to time speaking in Arkansas or wherever about pre-k and what people there can do and why they should do it. What is your message about Florida when you take it other places?
DL: My message is, first of all, I work on a lot of things and, frankly, in some degree - don’t take this wrongly - pre-k is the least important thing I do. Children can get disastrously behind by the time they are 4 years old. So unless you have high quality child care, and parent skill building, and medical homes for children, and other things, to start this race at age 4 is very foolish. ...
So what’s my message elsewhere in this country? One, the totality of this, not just pre-k. And, that in pre-k, that I have a lot of pride in the fact that 115,000 children are doing this. I have a lot of pride that it’s embedded in the state constitution. But yet, a bunch of things need to be fixed.