A weekend interview with ...
... Shan Goff, executive director of the Florida Department of Education Office of Early Learning, and Dr. Tara Huls, program specialist. They spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about changing education standards for Florida's Voluntary Prekindergarten program. (No, they're not nearly as controversial as the K-12 science standards.)
Why are we looking at the pre-k standards?
Shan Goff: If we go back a few years to when the State Board of Education first adopted the pre-k education standards, which was in March of '05,there was the commitment to the state board that we would review and revise the standards as necessary on a three-year cycle. the state board wanted to be sure that the VPK standards remained in alignment with what the research tells us and, very specifically, what our expectations are in K-12.
You say 'as necessary.' So, what's necessary?
SG: The piece that we knew we would have to tackle this year was the math portion. Remember, we don't necessarily say the word 'math' in preschool. That is what most of us recognize it is. But typically it's underneath our learning domain of cognitive development. And since we passed the '05 VPK standards, Florida adopted the world-class math standards for K-12 that use the best research that was available for that particular standard setting activity. So we took the opportunity to re-look at all of our standards but focusing very specifically on cognitive development. And we've pretty much followed the same process we did when we looked at the emergent literacy piece.
What I saw was, instead of a handful of lines, a bunch of details. Not just understanding numbers, but counting to 31.
SG: ... We identified a panel of experts, like we did before. But we picked math preschool educator experts. We brought them together with other colleagues in the state including the Florida Center for Reading Research and our math people in K-12 ... to take a review of what K-12 has done, what does the national research tell us, and then starting to look at the standards overall and then very specific. ... We will have an online mechanism for anyone in the public to look at the draft standards and walk through a series of questions not only about those standards, but others. we'll have multiple opportunities to get public input. ...
What we've been looking at is, tell us what you (pre-k teachers) like about the emergent literacy standards. What they clearly indicated is they like delineation in the benchmarks.
Tara Huls: For example in the area of phonological awareness, there are four benchmarks. And it goes from easiest skill to more challenging. And that's something they really like. So it's not just, we need to do phonological awareness, be we need to understand which of those are easier and which of those are harder.
So if I have kids that are struggling, I have to make sure they understand the skills that come before this. Like if they're working on syllables and rhyming and some of them aren't getting it, I need to back up and say, here are the breaks between words. ... It kind of gives them a map. And one of the things we are talking about in the trainings we do is scaffoldings for children. So being able to provide a framework for them to get to the next level is, depending on the skill that you're working on. And that's what the benchmarks help them do. ...
SG: And it also, from a VPK teacher perspective, and remembering we have a variety of teachers with differing credentials delivering the service, it leaves little doubt as to the very specific level of skills a child should know and be able to do at the end of VPK. So it takes some of the mystery out. And I would tell you that I know when we did the 2005 VPK standards especially in emergent literacy, we went from a half page to like 2-1/2 pages, we worked through people being worried because they didn't even know what emergent literacy is to now we're at the point where we hear providers and teachers say, 'I want more.'
So what you're doing now is taking that math and putting it into the standards. Will the teacher training come afterward?
SG: Actually, yes. We're kind of doing it simultaneously. ... We are ask we speak redeveloping that training. ... We'll probably do some glimpses and some piloting of the training before this hits the actual final approval by the state board. But remember they go into effect for the 08-09 school year.
So what will parents and kids see that's different if these get adopted?
SG: I think clearly the intent is to have a much stronger foundation in the basics of what becomes math in grades K-5. And also helping our VPK educators understand how much conceptual development kids can actually do that is developmentally appropriate in the play environment in the area of math.
TH: One other thing. It depends on the program. There will be some programs where there will be a learning curve and the training we provide will help them provide things they have not. There will be other programs that may have been doing things that may be adopted as new standards and benchmarks, but they just weren't part of the standards and benchmarks before. ... In some cases it may not be a big change for the children. In others, it's really a case of bringing the adults' knowledge level up as well. ... It could even be things that they're doing but they just don't know the vocabulary for that.
I was just wondering about the time you provide for VPK, 540 hours in the school year and 300 hours in the summer. Is that going to be enough when you're adding all these standards?
SG: I think what we would tell you is we may or may not be necessarily adding more instructional time. I think it's how to help teachers to more efficiently use the time on activities they have. I tend to think math is going to be easier than emergent literacy was. Everybody has got some manipulatives in their room ... that we would all recognize as the beginning of math skills, whether it's geometry or something else.
TH: Like bead stringing or things in the block area.
SG: I think helping them shape some of their instructional activities to get the biggest bang for their buck.
TH: Let me give you a couple of examples. ... When you are bringing your group together for a small group or circle time, you can talk about how many children are there and count them. How many children are missing. ... From an instructional perspective, it's something that fits very naturally into the day. It's also something that fits into social-emotional when you talk about what friends are here and which ones are not. We're making sure that math concept is there. What the teacher was doing was reading The Very Lonely Firefly to them.
So we're adding the literacy component as she normally would and they did an extension activity where they were cutting out pieces and making their own fireflies. Then they were talking about the number of legs they would need, the number of wings. They talked about symmetry. ... That's a pretty typical activity. The difference would be that the teacher emphasized certain math vocabulary. They would have been doing the activity anyway. But the teacher is drawing that out and perhaps making it more evident.
I've looked at some of the things that kindergartens provide to parents and say, This is what we expect your kids to know when they come in, and this is what we expect them to be able to do when they're done. I'm wondering how much this change in the standards will change what happens in the grades to come, if this is accelerating kindergarten or just building upon kindergarten.
SG: I think it's just building a deeper foundation for kids prior to their entry into kindergarten. One of the things that we have done is, there is some overlap in standards across grade levels in almost any content area you look at. We have very carefully looked at the K-3 standards. These basically do take a stair-step approach. And absolutely one of the things I have to remind us of is, this is the first printed draft that is out there. If my experience from three years ago means anything, it will change based upon public input. ... But this is at least a starting spot that we have so that people can take a look at them.
This is coming to the State Board in June?
SG: That is our plan at the moment....
Do you see any other major changes coming to pre-k, either in the standards or through legislation or through rules?
SG: About the standards, there are probably some tweaks in some other areas. ... We are not anticipating wholesale revision, really, to much else. ... We're still very satisfied with the quality and level of rigor in the emergent literacy and the vocabulary and language component.
Any other areas where you might see things happening ...?
SG: I don't think at the moment. ... The next big piece for us is this rule in June.