Madison: Missed Opportunity for 4K and High School Redesign

Marc Eisen:

The good news is that the feds refused to fund the school district’s proposal to revamp the high schools. The plan was wrongheaded in many respects, including its seeming intent to eliminate advanced classes that are overwhelmingly white and mix kids of distressingly varied achievement levels in the same classrooms.
This is a recipe for encouraging more middle-class flight to the suburbs. And, more to the point, addressing the achievement gap in high school is way too late. Turning around a hormone-surging teenager after eight years of educational frustration and failure is painfully hard.
We need to save these kids when they’re still kids. We need to pull them up to grade level well before they hit the wasteland of middle school. That’s why kindergarten for 4-year-olds is a community imperative.
As it happens, state school Supt. Elizabeth Burmaster issued a report last week announcing that 283 of Wisconsin’s 426 school districts now offer 4K. Enrollment has doubled since 2001, to almost 28,000 4-year-olds statewide.
Burmaster nailed it when she cited research showing that quality early-childhood programs prepare children “to successfully transition into school by bridging the effects of poverty, allowing children from economically disadvantaged families to gain an equal footing with their peers.”


17 thoughts on “Madison: Missed Opportunity for 4K and High School Redesign”

  1. The Equity Task Force also recommended 4 yr old kindergarten as a major strategy to achieve equity amongst our students. Too many poor kids enter kindergarten far enough behind their middle and upper class peers to almost guarantee that they’ll never catch up.

  2. Some kids come into kindergarten way hehind, true, but those same kids come into pre-K far behind. Universal pre-K is an expensive program that doesn’t get to the root of the problem.
    What is needed is early screening and intervention, mandatory parent education, and mandatory programs for children found to not be intellectually and socially on schedule, starting at age 1. One thing we don’t need is to waste money on kids who don’t need to be caught up.

  3. Kindergarten for 4 yr olds is theoretically an important addition to schooling. But its real usefulness depends on the quality of the program.
    And it does no good to begin the dialog, as David does, with the comment that too many kids will “never catch up”. (And with the realization the “catch up” process will need to continue after 4k).
    If catch up is the goal, then the program must be focused on that goal and we also need to make the gains (or lack thereof) continuously measurable so we know when its working for a given child and when its not.
    Marc Eisen’s comments that MMSD should institute 4K and the Board should push a referendum sounds laudable, but a waste of time and money if the 4K program does not work. Stating that other districts have 4K does not show that the kids in need of such intervention are getting our money’s worth.

  4. This seems like an excellent moment to mention again that the nationally acclaimed early literacy program “Reach Out and Read” has recently come to Madison.
    “Reach Out and Read” is a non-profit early and family literacy program aimed at children ages six months through five years and their parents. It is delivered through pediatricians’ offices during routine well-child visits. The three-pronged “Reach Out and Read” intervention involves 1) the integration of age-appropriate books and information about the importance of reading aloud to children into the well-child exam, 2) the staffing of pediatric waiting rooms with volunteers who read aloud to children before their appointments, and 3) the gift of a developmentally appropriate book at each well child visit, making for a personal library of ten books by the time a child enters kindergarten.
    If you would like to make an end-of-year contribution to our local “Reach Out and Read” program or volunteer to help make it grow, please contact me privately at

  5. It’s one of a plethora of strategies, Larry. I stand by my assertion that many kids will never catch up. Why? Because they simply cannot, given the other roadblocks to success. However, a good 4 yr old KG program can improve our percentages, just like the utilization of SAGE and other programs along the way.

  6. I really liked the 2003 proposal which had 4K in certified daycare centers. Also, I’m curious about where Head Start is now. I know there were serious federal cuts not too long ago.

  7. Universal pre-K is being sold as a catch-up strategy. The goal should be not to have to play catch up. Scrap universal pre-K and focus the program on screening, training and intervention strategies for those kids (from ages 1 to 5) and their parents who really need it.

  8. I disagree with much of the thread of this conversation that 4K should be focused on “catch-up” and individually targeted rather than universal.
    Experience demonstrates that universal programs benefit the neediest in society while maintaining public support. Public assistance for elderly Americans is an obvious example. Social security and Medicare have essentially eliminated extreme poverty for the elderly in this country. My parents, who receive a comfortable pension, also receive these public benefits. The money is welcome, but not necessary for them to have the fundamentals of housing and food on the table like it is for others.
    Does it help any of them “catch up” to the elite of society? No. The goal isn’t to buy them a chalet in Switzerland, but to ensure that everyone can participate in American society and level the playing field somewhat. And the fact that nearly everyone pays in and benefits has built powerful public support for Social Security.
    Likewise, public education in general, and enhanced services like public kindergarten and reduced class sizes, benefit all of the children who participate in them. But they have a disproportionate benefit for children whose parents would not buy high quality services in the private market without them.
    I have my share of concerns about 4K, in particular that the curriculum not be narrowly focused on academic outcomes rather than broader support for social, emotional and identity development. Kindergarten has come to resemble a traditional first-grade and pushing formal schooling to an earlier age will not benefit many children. But, if implemented well, it can, as David Cohen wrote, “improve the percentages” for many of Madison’s least advantaged students.

  9. I think this would be an excellent topic of discussion for upcoming school board candidate forums and League of Woman Voter “Candidates Answers.”
    Any ideas on to how to phrase a question?

  10. I really disagree with Matt Calvert’s position on the role of 4K. His desire to focus on “social, emotional, and identity development”, I would argue, is a significant reason for continuing disparity between the “haves” and “have nots” within our schools.
    Kids from an impoverished background, for example, would enter even 4K with significant vocabulary and sentence structure deficiencies. Research shows that this deficit amounts to 6 months behind by age 3, a year behind by age 4, 3 years behind by age 5, and it grows exponentially, year after year.
    No amount of building of a kid’s ego can make up for the trauma of this 1st grader comparing his/her meager 2000 word vocabulary with the 12,000 word vocabulary of his/her classmate at the next desk, the accompanying complexity of sentence structure that that implies, and the ease of acquiring new knowledge that that implies.
    Such impoverished kids are merely “unschooled” — they’re not dumb! You don’t solve the problem of a child feeling dumb by pop psychology interventions of emotional and identity development — you solve his/her problem by giving him/her the tools overcome his/her ignorance which immediately leads to the increasing self-esteem that inevitably accompanies success.
    “Even a dog knows the difference between being kicked and being tripped over”. Children walking into a class where they know they do not measure up to their classmates is emotionally kicked every time they walk into that classroom; and they continue to be kicked day-in and day-out when the resources, the teachers, and curriculum fail to deliver.
    I don’t want a child in 4K to be educated in a class resembling a traditional first-grade — there is no evidence whatsoever to show that the traditional first-grade classroom, the pull-outs, the interventions that MMSD or other districts make makes lasting improvements for such children.
    It’s not the children’s fault, but they suffer the awful consequences of adults who think that good intentions and kind words is all that is required.

  11. I don’t want to get into a sparring match over what makes a high quality pre-school experience or to presume that there’s a clear either/or approach. There’s good evidence out there about the value of experiential, relationship-based pre-schools, including Head Start. And here’s a place to start research about what it takes–I think it’s a lot more than “kind words”:
    I don’t think my statement that I didn’t want a “narrow focus on academics” implies that I think it’s only about “kind words.” You agree that we don’t want to give traditional first grade to 4-year-olds. Given the (national, not just Madison) trend toward pushing 5-year-old kindergarten, after-school programs, and summer programs to help schools meet standardized testing requirements to the exclusion of other important developmental outcomes, I think examining the approach and purpose of 4-K is more than justified.
    A more useful conversation would focus on the kind of learning environments we want for all of our children, with equity as a primary goal, since there is clearly a wide range of educational experiences available to children largely based on family income. Providing resources to families for early education is part of the mix, but most children spend time in day care and pre-school settings that provide many opportunities to learn. Focusing on quality there is good public policy.

  12. Interesting debate — I tend to agree with Matt. Like nearly everything in education, it’s not so much what you teach, but how well you teach it, that matters. For all the advocates of, say, Singapore math that you might find among SIS’s regular readership, I’m absolutely positive there is some district out there that is teaching it poorly. You can find lots of crappy AP teaching as well.
    There are lots of good 4K programs in our community, found in both the public schools, as well as privately-run centers and programs affiliated with private/parochial schools. The state is encouraging this, as well, and wants school districts to partner with local 4K providers to provide universal access to 4K programming. Seed money for start-up costs associated with such efforts was written into the state budget just approved.

  13. “Like nearly everything in education, it’s not so much what you teach, but how well you teach it, that matters.”
    I couldn’t disagree more. It is absolutely key that one teach what the child needs. Yes, if what is taught is not taught well, then it doesn’t matter what is taught. “How well you teach it” is a wholly vacuous statement unless one measures “teaching well” against the criterion of addressing the student’s needs.
    Imagine going to the doctor with chest pains and he/she treats you very well for a urinary infection.
    So, let’s create a new Hippocratic oath that is consistent with your philosophy of education: “Like nearly everything in medicine, it’s not so much what disease you treat, but how well you treat it, that matters.”

  14. Larry:
    Your point is just plain silly. In an effort to be more specific, I’ll give an example. No one would rightly teach calculus to a 1st grader. Can we agree on that? Good. Are their age-appropriate “subjects” that educators can “teach” to four-year-olds? A growing body of research suggests, yes, there is. Can we “measure” certain skills taught to young students — let’s just choose one (phonemic awareness) — and check those against certain benchmarks to make sure they are learning and/or we are teaching it well/correctly? Indeed there are.
    There are really poor ways to educate four-year-olds, just as there are really poor ways to educate high school juniors. But there are also good ways to teach four-year-olds, and a growing number of school districts in Wisconsin — backed by respected research — are doing it. MMSD is missing out on reaching its youngest students for reasons that have little to do with their academic needs, or how well or poorly such a program for Madison four-year-olds would be delivered.

  15. I fully agree with your statement that the known age-related cognitive skills limit what a child can learn.
    There also limits on what a child is capable of learning based on what knowledge they currently have — the prior skills and knowledge need to be taught and learned before newer skills and knowledge can be addressed. “Scope and sequence”.
    So we’ve probably agreed all along, but disagree on the language used to express it — not unimportant.
    The “how well you teach it” and “good ways to teach”, to me, is the language of educational philosophy, not the substance of teaching. These terms encourage discussion of teaching methodology that fan the political battles between Direct Instruction and Discovery Instruction, Phonics and Whole Language, and a host of other philosophies dedicated solely power struggles between one set of educrats and another.
    The result is always to take the arguments to the extreme resulting an educational system that fails all kids all of the time, regardless of which philosophy wins the local battle.

  16. Perhaps one way to think about social, emotional and identity development as it relates to school performance, is to think about social and emotional competence, and identity as a learner. Children who lack social/emotional competence are not very available for academic learning because they are frequently in conflict with the rest of the group (e.g. their classmates)and are therefore either unhappy or in trouble. Children who do not identify themselves as learners often don’t care about BEING unavailable for learning. In either case, academic progress is going to be negatively impacted.
    Personally, I would put my money on pre-K programs that focus on providing children with a wide variety of play activities and hands on experiences. In these contexts, skilled adults can both help children learn to manage themselves emotionally and help children learn to function effectively as part of a group of individuals. High quality guided play (a planful rotation of toys and materials available, and adult guidance during the inevitable social conflicts over toys and materials)is an experience too few children have before they enter school.
    I believe all children should also have daily, positive experiences looking at a wide variety of books, and being to read to by expressive readers, before they ever walk into their kindergarten classrooms.
    Although I have never taught pre-school, it seems to me that vocabulary, phonemic awareness and number sense can all be attended to within these contexts and without resorting to yet earlier “academic instruction”.

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