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Is Louisiana Getting Ready to Test Toddlers?

Grades for publicly funded pre-schools? If the Louisiana DOE gets its way, that's what's on the horizon.
 
 
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Photo Credit: auremar via Shutterstock.com

 

Louisiana, which has become the national laboratory for bringing business-minded accountability to education—an effort that has come to full flower in New Orleans where charter schools educate close to 90 percent of its students—is turning its accountability lens onto publicly funded preschools and the education of its youngest children.

In a move that worries some early childhood experts, Louisiana’s new Early Childhood Education Act is set to make major changes in the way publicly funded preschool programs are managed and evaluated. The aim of the law, also known as Act 3, is to improve the quality of early childhood education, which educators agree is key to ensuring later academic success; currently, close to 50 percent of children entering kindergarten in Louisiana are unprepared.

To do so, the Louisiana Department of Education is developing an outcomes-based rating system, including letter grades–much like the grading system it uses for K-12 schools–which will reward high-performing programs and “intervene” in under-performing ones.

While Louisiana’s preschool grading system includes the accountability components of the federal government’s Race-to-the-Top contest, Louisiana did not apply for the latest round of funding. Part of the reason Act 3 has early childhood experts worried is that it omits what they consider the best elements of RTTT, including requirements related to process improvement and raising the qualifications of early childhood educators. These requirements, the state said, were too onerous.

Indeed, at a time when standards-and-testing regimes are coming to kindergarten classrooms, and even some programs for four year olds, around the country, education experts fear that Louisiana’s Act 3 marks an escalation of the trend. They say the law could lead to developmentally inappropriate efforts to teach children below age four how to read, standardized tests for toddlers, as well as a test-prep approach to preschool curriculum.

In Louisiana, which provides one of the nation’s lowest levels of support for educating poor and low-income children under age four, education experts also are concerned that the law will undermine an established five-year effort to improve preschool education for low-income children. They say the law, which does not provide additional funding for early childhood education, may raise costs for providers, driving some of them out of business.

“When the governor decided he would focus on early childhood, we were excited,” says Melanie Bronfin, Director of The Policy Institute of the Louisiana Partnership for Children and Families, which has made a number of recommendations for implementing Act 3. “But if you look at how the law is written, it’s as though they’re talking about a ten-year-old child; it doesn’t show an understanding of early childhood.” (This is, in fact, the first time the LDOE will have jurisdiction over programs for children under the age of 4, although the state says it is seeking input from early childhood experts and “stakeholders.”)

Some researchers worry that the accountability measures will judge preschools based only on how well they teach literacy and numeracy. Equally important predictors of academic success are social and behavioral skills, such as following directions, working with others and maintaining the focus needed to follow a task through to completion.

“My fear is they will relegate play to the back burner,” says a leading Louisiana education expert. “This would be outrageous in a middle class environment; this is strictly for poor children and families.”

One key concern is that Act 3 will undermine the quality improvement program for preschools that was introduced in 2007. The so-called Quality Start process evaluates schools and childcare centers that nurture the state’s youngest children, from infants to four-year-olds, based on a fine-grained web of environmental and curricular factors: Does the program provide a rich array of activities, including books, building blocks, and areas for art and dramatic play? Are the toys at a height that children can easily reach? What are the qualifications and experience of the staff? How many children per staff member?