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by Tom Kertes
Tuesday, Nov. 02, 2004 at 2:39 AM
Under federal mandates states are developing new standards for the education of young children.
In Washington State Governor Locke's administration is proposing new benchmarks for young children. The Early Learning and Development Benchmarks represent new risks for Washington's children. Since the benchmarks were required under federal mandates, all the nation's children face these risks.
The first risk is that the tools themselves may be overly simplistic or too complex to be useful. This risk can only be evaluated in the context of the actual benchmarks, which will be made public on November 8.
Another risk is that the tools will be presented as value-neutral, when they cannot be anything but based on values. All educational practice reflects what is culturally valued for children to learn and to experience. That fact that the tools will reflect values is not a problem - but deciding whose values to reflect can present lots of problems.
Given the dynamics of the balance of power between the early childhood field and the common schools, early educators risk being pushed aside when it comes to articulating what we value in early childhood care and education. When materials are presented as universal, objective or value-neutral it is more likely that our values will be ignored.
If the aim of the benchmarks is to standardize practices and centralize administration of early education and care, then they represent a threat to young children, and early educators and care providers.
This is because the standardization efforts in common schools have disempowered teachers in the common schools. We risk being handed scripts and expected to teach lock step in ways that are not developmentally appropriate or culturally relevant to our children.
More important than the quality and usefulness of the benchmarks themselves is how the benchmarks are framed. If they are viewed as something that are necessary in order for teachers and providers to do their jobs, as basic resources, then they present little risk to the profession. In this context, they will be quite useful because having an organized framework of benchmarks is very useful indeed. But if they are presented as the solution to the achievement gap and as the way (or a primary way) for improving early care and education, then they become problematic.
That's because the benchmarks cannot be more than just one type of the sorts of necessary tools used for teaching. It's clear that well developed benchmarks are essential for qualified and experienced early care providers to do their jobs. But having this tool does not matter if the funding for early care and education does not attract and retain qualified and experienced care providers. Any distraction from getting the funding required to provide quality early care and education is harmful to children's care and to the profession.
Fixing the system with funding is harder to do than setting benchmarks. Any team of educational experts can write out benchmarks based on quality research and theory. You can even get such materials off the shelf and from other agencies that have developed such frameworks. But funding and operating a system of quality care and education is hard work. You can't just buy one at a bookstore or from a team of academics. We need to be honest about this, and to make it clear that benchmarks are nothing more or less than benchmarks.
It's really important that we keep this in mind - or risk having the system built incrementally around whatever benchmarks are developed. Politicians may build up the importance of the benchmarks to make it seem like they are doing things, and then we may wind up with cookie cutter programs based on simplistic notions of learning and development.
It's also important that we not lose sight of the fact that it is impossible to have an effective program without well-developed frameworks of development and learning. While such frameworks are not "the" solution, there can be no solution without them.
Related, just because with benchmarks often comes standardization and centralization (based on child-unfriendly models) doesn't mean that the benchmarks are bad in themselves. It will be interesting to see what the 2nd draft looks like, and then to see how the benchmarks are used.
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